Flights are booked. Some of the hotels are booked. Still need to book transfers and look into tours. We’re a just over a month away from starting a five week trip around Europe and all I can think about is booking restaurants.
I blame New York.
For the New York trip earlier this year I left the restaurant booking a bit late, which caused me to miss out on a few places I was keen on going to. I’m also haunted, quite irrationally, by memories of walking around the city, trying to find a place to eat that looked “acceptable” (not many did). If I book every meal in advance this time around then I’ll have a worry-free holiday. Surely?
I should backtrack a little. The hotels are booked for most places because we’ve decided what country and city we’ll be in on each day of the five weeks. Allocating days to cities became an intense political process. Lines were drawn and few concessions were given. I started off deciding based on cities and countries that would be interesting to visit. You know, like a normal person would when confronted by Europe for the first time. But, all too quickly, I started preferring cities and countries that would deliver me some killer food.
I blame New York. I got way more enjoyment out of looking at a menu than I did from looking at an old building (or, from a height, a lot of buildings at once). The better memories I have are of the food. Like the passionfruit and foie gras “egg” at WD-50, the langoustine with mache, wild mushrooms and shaved foie gras at Le Bernadin and, fuck it, the entire meal at Momofuku Ko.
So France was a must and it’s no surprise that 11 of our 35 days will be spent there, with nearly half of that time dedicated to Paris. 11 days to sample what represents probably a century of dominance of the culinary landscape. It doesn’t feel like enough, but it’ll have to do.
Italy didn’t interest me too much to begin with, but with such a rich history of food and wine, it got a hell of a lot more interesting when I looked into it. 9 days there.
If it hasn’t already, Spain is on the verge of overtaking France as the gastronomic centre of the Earth. After sampling the past in Italy and France, Spain will drag me into the future. 8 days there, split between Barcelona, Zaragoza and Madrid.
With a few days left, a bit of traditional holidaying sounded like a good idea (you know the ones, where you see shit?). That brought Portugal and the Netherlands into the game, although Portugal is starting to look like a good way to spend a few days drinking port and eating salt cod. Add to that a lunch in Geneva and a day in Frankfurt before leaving and you have 35 days.
So how was I going to fill 35 days worth of meals? It’s a problem that has plagued mankind for centuries/me for a few weeks. I needed a guide, so my first two stops were the San Pellegrino Top 50 restaurants in the world (which is actually 100 restaurants) and the historic (if somewhat less reliable) Michelin Guide. They gave me the starting points, and online food sites plugged the gaps.
I’m not sure how it happened, or why it happened, but I think both did fairly organically. The end result was a goal. A goal to consume 35 Michelin stars in 35 days. Not to eat at 35 Michelin starred restaurants, that seemed rather pointless, but to eat at enough 1, 2 and 3-starred places so as to accumulate 35 (oh, yeah, that’s way more reasonable, Ben).
I didn’t set out to do it, but along the way it was becoming clear that I was going to go pretty close to that mark. So why not aim for it? Societies have been built from simple goals. I’m totes going to create a society with my high tolerance for cholesterol-laden dishes!
Why it happened is easier to explain: it happened because I remembered the regret after New York. I missed eating at Daniel, I missed eating at Nobu. I didn’t even eat at a steakhouse! Am I some kind of freak? Never again.
So I got going and it got damn hard. Restaurants we’re already booked out, Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee was closed for a private function—some sort of celebration dinner for the ISO 9001 organisation (is it an organisation?)—some restaurants only took bookings on certain dates, most restaurants are closed Sunday and Money, Google was conspiring to defeat me by sending emails from top restaurants to my spam folder (have you no taste, Google you fuck?), where was I going to find time for the non-starred gustatory experiences, blah blah blah. I was struggling to lock in 35 stars.
Days out from departing and I still don’t have 35 stars locked in. Even if I do lock 35 stars in, what’s to stop the likes of Paul Bocuse and Joel Robuchon from forgetting my booking? What if I miss an important confirmation call? It’s doomed, it’s all doomed. In the most delicious, excessive way doom can be possible.
So what am I hoping to achieve from this taste-budinal assault? A taste of now, of 2010. I could be tasting the decline of French fine dining and catching one of the first waves of Spain’s dominance at the top. In a few years, everything will have changed and the culinary landscape will look completely different, but I will have tasted a point in time.
I also see it as the end of part of a quest. After years of worshipping food and only be able to dream of saying my prayers in a French haute temple, or repenting sins over a bowl of handmade pasta in Rome, I will finally get the chance. Part of me is worried that my expectations of amazing food will be crushed—that I’ll spend an insane amount of money only to discover that Sydney is nearly as good—but, fuck it, there’s only one way to find out. And if that way is paved with bricks of foie gras and twitchingly-fresh local produce then I’m down.