The Man Who Ate the World

In Search of the Perfect Dinner

Jay Rayner

Holt Paperbacks

Chapter One

Las Vegas

 

The first time I visited Las Vegas it was to interview a man who was famous because his wife had cut off his penis. It says much for the shape of my career back in the mid nineties that I regarded the assignment as light relief. For the previous week I had been in Toronto investigating a particularly grisly set of murders. A young, middle- class couple—all white teeth and glossy hair—had dragged young women to their pastel- colored house down by Lake Ontario, videoed each other sexually assaulting them, then chopped up their bodies and set them in concrete.

 

The court cases were still ongoing when I visited Canada in February of 1995 to report the story and, because the accused were being tried separately, there was a lockdown on the reporting of the details until both trials were concluded. Nobody in Canada was meant to know anything about what had been dubbed the Ken and Barbie murders and, if they did know anything, they certainly weren’t meant to talk to reporters like me about it. This forced silence only added to my gloom. Everywhere I went the ground was crusted with ice. Snow blew against my cheeks like so much grit on the wind, and in a restaurant in the city’s theater district I acquired food poisoning courtesy of some spareribs, which hadn’t been particularly good on the way down and were much worse on the way up. I couldn’t wait to escape Canada for the sudden sunshine and warmth of Vegas, even if it was to interview a wife beater called John Wayne Bobbitt, who had achieved notoriety only because, one muggy summer’s night, he and his penis had managed to arrive at the hospital in different vehicles.

 

Bobbitt had gone to Vegas in search of an honest man to manage his career, because he felt he had been deceived by his previous manager. While it might seem odd that anybody should go to Vegas—a place long famous for its store of shysters, con men, and career hoods—in search of honesty, it was no more peculiar than that Bobbitt should have been in need of a manager at all. By then he had parlayed the knife attack on him by his then-wife Lorena into a thriving career. On my first full day in the city, enthroned at the huge black glass pyramid that is the Luxor Hotel at the north end of The Strip, I got to witness that career for myself. Bobbitt had starred in a video called John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut, which was, depending on your taste for euphemism, either an adult movie or a desperate skin flick.

 

The tag line on the cover said it all: "Ever since this whole thing happened all everybody wants to see is my penis . . . now you can." Indeed I could. It was a living monument to the powers of cutting- edge microsurgery, and looked not unlike a tree that had been doctored by a tree surgeon or as if it were wearing a tiny life belt. It also functioned pretty well, as the video let me see in more detail than could ever be necessary.

 

This was the image that was burned into my mind when I went off to meet Bobbitt and his new manager for dinner, which may explain why I cannot for the life of me recall a single thing I ate that night. I know we discussed Bobbitt’s plans for a range of branded merchandise including a "penis protector"—an autographed hollow tube—because you don’t forget that sort of thing in a hurry.

 

I do remember that he came across as spectacularly stupid, and grunted his words rather than spoke them. I also recall that outside, in Caesars Forum, the covered shopping arcade where the restaurant was located, dusk fell every half hour courtesy of some clever lighting effects. Of the meal itself I can tell you nothing at all. This is something I regret, for the dinner took place at a seminal restaurant in the history of modern Las Vegas dining: the branch of Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, which opened at Caesars Palace in 1992.

 

Before Spago opened (and for a good few years afterward), food in the big casino hotels of Vegas was regarded only as an amenity, something the gamblers needed to keep them going while they emptied their pockets at the blackjack tables. It was the city of the all- you- can- eat $4.99 buffet and very little else. It’s true that, in the mid nineties, enterprising hoteliers were beginning to experiment with the notion that there might be sources of income in Vegas other than gaming. Hotels like the Luxor and the Arthurian- themed Excalibur, complete with amuse ment park rides for the kids, had been put up with the self- declared aim of rebranding the city as a family resort.

 

It was, however, a halfhearted project, which would eventually be abandoned in favor of a strategy aimed solely at adults (complete with advertising slogan "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas"). Certainly in 1995 it was still the sort of place where an emerging porn star like John Wayne Bobbitt, with no discernable talent for anything, could get a table at Spago without a reservation, despite a queue out the door.

 

It is really no surprise that Wolfgang Puck should have been the first into town. He has long displayed an uncanny nose for the next big thing. I had met him for the first time a few months before my return to Vegas and now that I was here, gawping at the mammoth hotels and the hard-jewel lights, it struck me that he was very much like the city itself: on the surface frivolous, light, apparently obsessed with the ephemeral. But beneath that was a core of steel.

 

Puck was famous because he decided to put smoked salmon and cream cheese on a pizza. He was seriously rich because he had worked out how to sell that pizza again and again. Likewise, Vegas plays the good-time girl, apparently obsessed only with the here and now, but at heart it’s a dollars- and- cents town. Pleasure—like the smoked salmon pizza—is simply its product.

 

Puck—Austrian born, Michelin trained—knows how to market plea sure. In Los Angeles, at the original Spago on Sunset Strip, he created an environment where movie stars could feel at ease while eating Joe-Schmo food. Then he replicated the experience time and again so now Joe- Schmos could eat the same Joe- Schmo food and feel like movie stars. Some of his food was interesting. Though he did not invent it, Puck can reasonably claim to have popularized Californian- Italian cuisine, and his fusion of Asian and Europe an flavors at Chinois ushered in an era when it became a crime to cook a piece of fish all the way through.

 

His real talent lay elsewhere: firstly, in his ability to replicate his good ideas, and secondly, in having absolutely no shame. Long before other big names of American cooking—Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali—had cottoned onto the notion of themselves as brands, Puck was selling himself remorselessly. He published books, starred in his own TV series, and opened a chain of expresses at airports that serves one of the worst Caesar salads it has ever been my misfortune to eat. It is the second of these characteristics, this willingness to plunge so far down-market so fast, it’s a miracle he didn’t get a nosebleed, that is the most important; it was that instinct that enabled him to take on Vegas.

 

In 1992 only the corporations wanted to be there. No self- respecting chef or restaurateur would go near the place, unless they had a sideline as a high roller. Apart from Puck. As America rose out of the recession of the early nineties, he recognized the growing power of the leisure dollar. For many years, though, he had the city to himself. Then, in October 1998, the Vegas hotelier Steve Wynn opened the $1.7 billion, 3,000-room Bellagio Hotel on the former site of the legendary Dunes Hotel and Golf Course, and everything changed. The city had never seen anything like it, which is saying something for a town that has seen most everything.

 

Inspired by the Lake Como resort of the same name, it was at the time the most expensive hotel ever built, only later to be trumped in cost by other hotels built by Steve Wynn. It came complete with a multimillion- dollar fountain display out front that danced to piped music. There was an art gallery bulging with works by the great Impressionists from Gauguin and Monet to van Gogh and Renoir. It also happened to have eleven new restaurants.

 

Although Wynn paid the bills it was the then food and beverage manager of the Bellagio, an Egyptian called Gamal Aziz, who came up with the idea. He had worked in grand hotels all over the world and, when he arrived, was shocked to discover just how lousy the food in Vegas could be. He had stumbled across those buffets and realized that this was where ingredients went to die. "I wanted to signal a change," he told me. "To say there was something new and different about Las Vegas."

 

Restaurants weren’t just places you went to eat. They were to be signifiers, statements about the city’s newfound confidence and sophistication. It helped that the U.S. had seen a restaurant renaissance during the nineties, and that media interest in food had exploded. The U.S. cable channel, the Food Network, founded in 1993, had come of age by 1998, after being brought under new ownership the year before. The names of top chefs were now familiar to people who were not in regular striking distance of their restaurants.

 

At the same time journalists like Ruth Reichl, then restaurant critic for the New York Times, were reinvigorating food writing and championing cooks who might otherwise have been ignored. Into the Bellagio, therefore, came a restaurant by the Alsatian uber- chef Jean- Georges Vongerichten and a new outpost of the legendary Le Cirque from New York. Big- name American chefs like Michael Mina, Todd English, and Julian Serrano were offered deals.

 

And what deals! Generally there would be an annual consultancy fee, plus 5 percent of the gross. All they had to do was fill the tables and, if they wanted to, forget about the bottom line. As long as there was money coming in, they got a cut of it. Plus, if there was a profit, they got 10 percent of that, too, and there was a lot of profit. Suddenly people were no longer coming to town merely to throw their money away in the casinos while surviving on desiccated shrimp or lumps of sweaty pork that had been festering under the heat lamps of the all- you- can- eat buffets for six hours. The tables they were coming to were covered not with green baize, but in heavyweight linen. Every hotel on The Strip had to have a superstar chef in residence or, better still, six of them, or twelve—and it wasn’t just the big U.S. names. The French boys with the Michelin stars were starting to pay attention as well.

 

In 2004 non- gaming revenues in Las Vegas—from high- end hotel rooms, glossy arcades of shops stuffed full of Cartier and Chanel and, of course, those restaurants—overtook gaming revenues for the first time. This wasn’t because gambling had suddenly fallen out of favor. Gaming was still a roaring express train, which was pouring cash into the town. It was just that more money was being spent on all the other stuff. If you were interested in restaurants, you had to be there.

 

I am interested in restaurants. Ergo, I had to be there. Plus I needed to do something to exorcise the memory of John Wayne Bobbitt and his damaged limb.

 

Before I could begin, though, I had an appointment to see Freddie Glusman at his restaurant down on Convention Center Boulevard. Piero’s is old Las Vegas and so is Freddie. He used to feed clams to Moe Dalitz, the original Las Vegas mobster who founded the Desert Inn and the Stardust. Frank Sinatra was a regular at Freddie’s, too. Once, when he was out of town, Sinatra sent down to Piero’s for dinner, so Freddie plated up some of his famed pollo vesuvio—chicken, tomato, fried aubergine, and mozzarella—made sure it looked nice, put it on the Lear-jet, and flew it over to the old man on his estate in Palm Springs.

 

When Martin Scorsese came to town to shoot his movie Casino and needed somewhere to play the part of Joe Pesci’s restaurant, the Leaning Tower, he knew exactly where to go: Freddie’s place down on Convention Center Boulevard.

 

Me? I had absolutely no intention of eating at Piero’s. I was looking for transcendent meals and I really didn’t care whether the food came with Sinatra’s approval. He was a fantastic singer but no restaurant critic. Anyway, I had just four nights in town, and none of them were going to be wasted on pollo vesuvio or saltimbocca alla romana, however good Freddie insisted they were. Still, in the clichéd way of nice middle-class boys who have never punched anyone and who would run a mile from a real Mafia hood if ever they met one, I’ve always had a thing about the old Vegas of the Rat Pack era.

 

One of my favorite recordings of all time is Sinatra at the Sands. Not vintage Sinatra vocally—he was only a few years from the nightmare of "My Way" by then—but the Count Basie Orchestra is tight as ever and from Frank’s opening line—"Who let all these people into my room?"— to the very last crack of the snare drum you know who’s in charge. I was about to submerge myself in the complete artifice that is twenty- first-century Vegas; before I did that I wanted to go back a bit. I wanted to live a little of that recording. It felt like I was coming to pay my respects.

 

Piero’s is a low- slug, dirty pink building, opposite the Convention Center. Glusman’s office is reached through the back car park, past the sort of garbage Dumpsters that would be good for dumping a body in, if you were in the body- dumping business. The office is a windowless box on the first floor at the back. Naturally, it’s carpeted in tiger print. On the desk in the middle there’s a wide dish of black jelly beans. Neither of these things are as interesting, though, as the walls. They are filled with photographs, all the same size and each with the same simple black frame. At first I assumed they would be friends of Freddie’s, and some of them are.

 

Many are not. Here’s a picture of Bugsy Siegel, the old hoodlum credited with turning Las Vegas into a gambling Mecca by opening the Flamingo, before taking a bullet in the eye. There’s one of Jack Kennedy with Sinatra, and not far away a portrait of Nick "The Greek" Dandalos, the professional poker player famed for having taken part in the greatest card game of all time, against Johnny Moss, a five- month marathon of Texas Hold ’Em held at Binion’s Horse shoe in 1949.

 

Freddie comes in as I am studying the wall. "This is a tribute to Old Vegas?" I say, indicating the pictures.

 

"Yeah," Freddie says. Now in his seventies he has dark brown leathery skin, big hands, and a voice like he gargles daily with gravel. He’s wearing a black sweatshirt and various bits and pieces of gold jewelry and he has those large dangly earlobes that some people acquire in old age. "There’s Al Dorfman," he says, pointing with one stubby finger at a black- and- white photograph. "He got shot dead in Chicago. Here’s Priscilla and Elvis. Here’s Elizabeth Taylor. Here’s Harry. He was a Nevada Supreme Court Judge. Had to resign because of some bullshit or other."

 

"And here’s Jimmy Hoffa," I say enthusiastically, pointing at a picture of the Teamsters boss who went missing in mysterious circumstances in 1975, presumably because he had displeased his friends in the mob. "I wonder where he is now."

 

Freddie stares at me. "How the fuck do I know?" He trudges off back behind his enormous desk.

 

Glusman has been in Vegas for over forty years. He started out in the "schmatte business" selling women’s wear from concessions within hotels. Back then there was only one big- ticket restaurant in each hotel. "Vegas is an entertainment town," he says. "And people in the entertainment business, they want somewhere good to eat, but there weren’t that many places. The Flamingo had the Candlelight. At the Sahara it was the House of Lords and the Sands had the Regency Room." These were old- style joints, where the boys on the floor always dressed in a tux, and almost nothing was served unless it had first been flamed tableside in imported cognac.

 

For years Freddie had been interested in restaurants so, in 1982, he found a chef called Piero and put him in business.

 

"What happened to him?"

 

"He left," Freddie says. "After six months." And then, as if I had asked why, "Because I wanted him to leave." So now he was running a restaurant called Piero’s without a Piero. It seats 350 people and is only open for dinner.

 

His place, he says, has always been a local place. Nobody gets hassled at Piero’s. As it says on his Web site: "It quickly became a hangout for Las Vegas locals and celebrities like the Rat Pack, politicians, and some of those businessmen in the casino industry with Italian surnames, the ‘local color’ guys." All of this plays up to the myths, of course—by 1982 the Rat Pack was probably talking hip replacements and pensions— but it’s clear the restaurant has had an interesting clientele over the years.

 

Just a few years ago, one of the big casino developers was beaten up at his table over dinner by a bunch of other casino guys, because of an argument over $250,000’ worth of chips, all of which redefines the term "floor show." Later Freddie told the press and the police he didn’t see anything. Or hear anything. At all. He hands me a tightly printed list of the celebrities who have eaten in his dining room downstairs, with its beige leather banquettes and cozy booths and its low ceilings. Some of them mean nothing to me. Who is Too Tall Jones? Just how magical was "Lady of Magic"? But others—Muhammad Ali and George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Sammy Davis, Jr.—are obviously familiar. On the wall behind his desk is a photograph of Sinatra signed, "Hi Freddie, great as usual, Frank."

 

I ask him what he thinks of the new breed of hotel and restaurant.

 

"The hotel owners are different today," he says. "In the old days they took care of the customer, and not just the high rollers. Now it’s just too impersonal. Unless you’re a giant player. Then they’ll kiss your ass. As to the restaurants, most of the big names above the door, they aren’t ever there. The chefs just have to be in town maybe a week a month and that’s it." And yet they do well, I say. I want him to moderate his view. After all, I haven’t even started eating yet. I want the place to be good. I don’t want to hear this old guy’s cynicism.

 

"Sure they do well," he says. "There’s 3,000, 4,000 people staying in the hotels. Where else they gonna go? Wolfgang Puck’s got five or six locations in Vegas now. He’s a good guy. But it’s a little commercial, isn’t it? That’s not about the food. It’s about the name." He goes off on a long rap about the outrageous markups on wine in the city—which I will discover to be the case in some places—and the way some of the fancier restaurants just plate up "three bean sprouts" and call it dinner. "You used to get a hotel room for $10. Now it’s $700. It’s crazy."

 

I look back at the wall of photographs. "You used to feed the mob guys?"

 

He shrugs. "They weren’t them. They represented them."

 

"Do they still eat here?"

 

He shakes his head, like I’m an idiot. "They’re all dead."

 

So the old Vegas really has gone: not just dead, but buried, too. Instead I need to discover the new Vegas, which, naturally enough, means going to Paris, though only that bit of Paris located at the Venetian Hotel. I have a table at Bouchon, an affectionate rendition of the classic French brasserie by Thomas Keller, widely regarded as the best American- born chef in the world.

 

I always knew that Keller would be a part of this journey of mine, and more than once. At The French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York, he partners soft- boiled eggs with black truffle purees and makes a mille-feuille of crisp green apples. He puts thyme ice cream together with extra- virgin olive oil and makes sorbet out of hibiscus. Anybody in search of the perfect meal will want a piece of that. Here at Bouchon, however, he (or his team, for Keller is either in California or New York to night) does straight- up French brasserie food, which is something I have always loved. Asked once what type of food I would choose, if I could eat that and only that for the rest of my life, I chose a menu of French brasserie classics: of fruits de mer and steak frites, of cassoulet and pot- au- feu and rabbit in mustard sauce. Nothing else seems to me to speak so loudly or clearly to the appetite. I was excited about eating at Bouchon.

 

The walls of the restaurant are a studied shade of nicotine in a room where very few people smoke. There is a tiled floor. There is wood paneling and engraved glass and mirrors and, before me, there is a perfect dish of fresh oysters on the half shell with a ramekin of shallot vinegar.

 

Of course, the whole thing is as authentic and cheesy as a movie set, but having wandered the Venetian Hotel for an hour before coming upstairs to Bouchon, I have concluded that notions of authenticity are a distraction in Vegas. Complaining that everything is artificial here is like wandering into a nunnery and chastising the residents for praying too much. You either engage with it or you go home, and I wasn’t about to go home. That said, it is still possible to acknowledge that a lot of modern-day Vegas is Olympic gold medal–standard silliness—though you can still enjoy it.

 

In the foyer of the Venetian Hotel, another 3,000- room megalith, men in red- and- white- striped shirts wearing straw boaters float about playing accordions as if it were a reasonable thing to do. There may be a traveling exhibition of works by Rubens on loan from the Guggenheim here at the hotel, but most people make do with the intricate murals on the walls and ceilings: of fat- clad cherubs and sunlit clouds and melon-breasted ladies in diaphanous gowns looking slightly startled to find themselves here.

 

Naturally, it is all irredeemably camp. Indeed, as I wandered the town over the next few days—past the centurions with their breastplates at Caesars, and the intricate marble floors and stuffed sofas at the Wynn and the display of giant handblown glass flowers by Dale Chihuly at the Bellagio—I was constantly pursued by that C word. Vegas redefines camp. It’s camp on anabolic ste roids. Vegas, I eventually concluded, looks like it has been designed by a battalion of gay interior designers who were never allowed to hear the words "Enough, already!"

 

Try this: At the Bellagio there are stripy gold and copper awnings over every card table, like the place is the set for a Little Bo Peep story. I was dying to meet the hard- knuckled high roller who specifically wanted to drop a few grand at the Bellagio just because "they got them pretty awnings."

 

During my predinner journey around the Venetian I stumbled across the town square, a wide- open, cobbled space meant to replicate the feeling of Venice at dusk. It comes complete with water- filled canals that teem with gondolas for hire so that tourists who can’t make it to the real Venice can slip gently under fake bridges and past crowded pavement cafés and feel pleased with themselves. In the square, rather good opera singers are performing for the crowds, dressed in a sofa’s worth of brocade and velvet each. All of this is far away from the chuntering slots and card tables of the gaming floor.

 

It is a different place, filled with corridors of shops and restaurants, and it is blisteringly expensive. Exploring the hotel I come across the Pinot Brasserie serving a surf and turf of filet mignon and Maine lobster for $65. There’s a big- ticket fish joint called Aquaknox offering a $68 dish of whole lobster stuffed with crab, which strikes me as indulgence squared. There’s a Chinese place specializing in "six hour" spareribs, and Emeril Lagasse’s Delmonico, where a New York strip steak will cost $42, which in this setting is a bargain. Curiously, in this Venetian-themed hotel, it takes me half an hour to find a restaurant serving anything approaching Italian food. Finally, on the square, I come across the Canalleto Ristorante Veneto.

 

The first dish on the menu that catches my eye reads "hormone- free chicken roasted on the rotisserie." I know the reference to hormones is meant to sound like a good thing. I know they want me to think well of this chicken and the blameless life it has led, so far from the medicine cabinet. But the truth is I don’t want to hear about hormones on a menu, even if the reference is in the negative.

 

So I head upstairs to Bouchon. I suck those sweet oysters off their shells and taste the sea. I try their snails in garlic butter and this time, without a burner, I put nobody’s life at risk. Instead of shells they come with tiny, crisp puff pastry hats, which is a shockingly good idea. One of the reasons I have always loved escargot is that, at the end, you get to slurp the remaining garlic butter from the shells. I always find myself trying to get my tongue into every nook and cranny to remove the last crisp, salty bits of parsley. As the dish is carried away, I am haunted by the fear that somewhere, lurking at the bottom of a shell, is the mother lode, a fantastic explosion of garlicky, buttery flavor that I hadn’t made enough of an effort to find. The puff pastry thing gets around that. You use them to soak up all the sauce. Yes, it removes some of the fun, and the commitment, but the rewards are greater. I make a mental note to tell a London chef friend about the idea so he can steal it.

 

I eat long- braised beef short ribs, in a rich bourguignon sauce with lardons and wild mushrooms, and finish with a crème brûlée which is let down by the burnt- sugar topping. It is soft rather than crisp. Still, there is a floor show to make up for it: At the table across the aisle is a large, bearded man accompanied by a Japanese girl with the sort of cleavage small children could get lost in. He has ordered the caviar at a breezy $125 and is showing her how to eat it, not off the ball of the hand, but from small blinis and with a little chopped onion.

 

I am intrigued by her body language. Maybe I’m just traditional, but I don’t expect women to put all that embonpoint on display on a first date, and yet, over the caviar, she behaves as if she has only just met him. She watches him studiously, almost respectfully and pays attention. There is nothing giddy about it, as there should be when $125’ worth of ebony fish eggs are about to be licked up in just a few seconds. For her, it is a serious business, which seems a shame.

 

The gray- haired Australian man sitting on the banquette next to me—collar, tie, brass- buttoned blazer—who is also eating alone, has seen me watching them. He says, "By the hour."

 

"I’m sorry?"

 

"Those two." He nods across the aisle. "She’s his date for the eve ning, if you get what I’m saying."

 

"You mean...?"

 

He nods. After all, in Nevada prostitution is legal. "I always stop in Vegas for a few days to get a little R&R when I come on a business trip," he says. And then, "Isn’t Las Vegas a great city?" He doesn’t wink at me, conspiratorially, but I get the message. He could be that guy over there and tomorrow night he probably will be.

 

My instinct is to dismiss his take on the matter, not least because of his enthusiasm for it. Just because a woman is wearing a low- cut dress doesn’t mean she’s available to anybody by the hour. And yet it makes a kind of sense. I had watched her laugh at his jokes just a little too keenly and then seen her face fall dead as she stared off into a corner of the restaurant, as if distracted by an unrelated thought. I am comforted by the notion that if she is a hooker, the sex, almost inevitably mediocre, will at least have been preceded by good food; that, long after she has showered to remove his smell, she will still be remembering the way those salty little eggs burst against the roof of her mouth to release their rich, oily taste with its ghost of fishiness.

 

Because, that brûlée aside, the food has been good. Even so, I’m not entirely convinced by the experience. Bouchon looks out over a carefully tended courtyard garden. Adolescent cypress trees spear the sky, and there is a studied elegance and maturity about the view. This room is about as far away from the Vegas of slot machines and blackjack tables as it is possible to be. That—combined with jet lag and four glasses of good Californian wine—has, I think, created in me a sense of dislocation. I don’t entirely know where I am. Or, to put it another way, I could be anywhere, which may be their intention. What I want is a Vegas experience. I want the kind of experience I couldn’t have anywhere else in the world. Happily, I have a reservation for just such a place the following night.

 

In 1996 Joël Robuchon turned fifty and, as he had always said he would, he retired. That year he was named chef of the century by the (then) highly regarded French guide Gault Millau. He is a small, odd-looking man with a squashed face, as if somebody has inadvertently folded away the middle. He favors black, collarless shirts and has a monkish air, as if a part of his personality has also been folded away. Anybody who meets him will not be surprised to discover that, as a boy, he trained for the priesthood until he was forced to leave the seminary by lack of funds, only to take a job in a hotel kitchen.

 

Those British chefs I know who have worked for him—Gordon Ramsay, Richard Neat—attribute to him the qualities of the mystic, and those who work with him now also often resemble members of a priesthood. A couple of years ago Robuchon was hired to cook a one- off dinner at the Connaught Hotel in London. A small advance team of his cooks was to bring a van of ingredients through the Channel tunnel, because they did not trust any of the ingredients available in Britain. The French cooks insisted that they be met at the British end of the Channel tunnel in Kent by cooks from the Connaught who would then drive the van up to London. None of Robuchon’s team was used to driving on the left- hand side of the road and they believed the effort would destroy their zen state of concentration for the cooking of the meal to come. Naturally, the British cooks thought this was the funniest, and the most precious thing they had ever heard, but complied with their wishes.

 

Fans of Robuchon refer to his extraordinary palate and his innate ability to know when a flavor combination is absolutely right. Ask them to name a perfect Robuchon dish and they may well mention his cauliflower panna cotta with caviar en gelée. They might talk about his black truffle tart. But there is one creation they will all mention: his mashed potato.

 

Joël Robuchon revolutionized the making of mashed potatoes. He did this by putting less potato in it. Instead, he made it with half its own weight in butter. The result is a dish so rich, so luxurious, so completely outrageous, it ought to be illegal. I had eaten it just once—at that Connaught dinner—and my arteries are still complaining. The method has been so regularly copied since he introduced it to his menu in the 1980s that it has essentially become the accepted modern method for making pommes purée in top- end restaurants. To change the approach to something so basic and so simple as mashed potato seems to me as good a test of greatness in the chef world as any other.

 

Tragically, after 1996, the chance to eat it as made by Robuchon himself was reduced almost to nothing. Then, in 2003, came the announcement that had high- end foodies beating their poulet de Bresse with feverish anticipation: The chef was returning to the stove. Former colleagues of Robuchon wanted to open a restaurant of their own, but the banks had refused them money. They asked him if he would join the venture and he agreed, as long as the restaurant that resulted was not the classic three- star, high- end, gastronomic temple that he had left behind. He wanted to do something more casual. He wanted to do the kind of place where diners would sit around an open kitchen at a bar.

 

There would be simple plates of the best Spanish hams as well as more complex dishes reminiscent of Robuchon in his prime, a tiny langoustine ravioli with black truffle, for example, or the sweetest chops of Pyrenean milk- fed lamb with thyme. It would be the kind of place you could come to for just one or two plates, as well as a full meal. The emphasis was on informality. The first L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon opened that year on rue de Montalembert in Paris. It was followed by another in Tokyo, the beginning of what would turn out to be a chain.

 

Then came the big surprise. For years Gamal Aziz, now president of the MGM Grand, the biggest hotel in the world, had been trying to lure Robuchon to Las Vegas. Thing is, he didn’t want a branch of L’Atelier. At least not at first. The MGM Grand had launched a new, upscale wing to the hotel, the Mansion, and for that he wanted the full- on Robuchon. The big- ticket Robuchon. He wanted every bell and whistle in the marching band. "I said no," Robuchon told me, when I met him in London in the spring of 2006. "The problem is Gamal Aziz is a very charming man. He was just too persuasive. Plus he said I could have anything I wanted. He never talked about profitability. He just wanted the best." In October 2005, Joël Robuchon at the Mansion duly opened inside the MGM Grand. And now I was going to eat there.

 

Unlike with Bouchon, there is no attempt to hide Joël Robuchon’s restaurant. Or restaurants, for it was eventually decided that there should also be a branch of L’Atelier and the two sit side- by- side, next to the entrance to the Mansion, but still on the gaming floor of the hotel. The entrance to the high- end restaurant—two huge, floor- to- ceiling curving doors—is just twelve paces from the last slot machine. Inside, though, every part of the restaurant has been so heavily engineered that you cannot hear any of the noise from outside.

 

Inside the dining room, which seats just forty people, there is a $28,000 chandelier by Swarovski. There are vases by Lalique and an outside "garden" that isn’t outside at all, but that takes $8,000’ worth of plants a month to maintain. There is a trolley with twelve different types of bread at the beginning, and another with twenty- five different types of petit fours at the end, plus a wine list as thick as a paperback book. Everything is dressed in "regal" shades of purple and a specially commissioned interlocking pattern is repeated from the handles on the cutlery to the carpet to the curtains.

 

Although there is a standard menu, Joël Robuchon at the Mansion specializes in multicourse tasting menus. I sat down at the table. I was handed a folder made of a thick glossy card, which I opened. I began reading. The sixteen- course tasting menu, the one I wanted, the one I was determined to try, was listed at $350 a head. Before drinks. Before tax. Before ser vice.

 

I blinked.

 

THE MONEY THING

 

A few years ago I spent £49 ($98) on wine in a restaurant. Not impressed? You should be. It wasn’t for a bottle (let alone for two). Nor was it for some fancy- pants champagne. It was for a single glass, and not a very big glass at that. I know what you’re thinking. If you’re polite you’re thinking "more money than sense"; if you’re not polite you’re swearing at the page. It’s okay. I can deal with it. Because the honeyed amber fluid in that glass, served to me at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London’s Chelsea, came from a bottle of Château d’Yquem, the greatest white wine on the face of the planet, and it was worth every penny. Or, at least, it was to me, which is the same thing.

 

The fact is I have no problem with the notion of spending large amounts of money on hugely expensive restaurant experiences. I make no apologies for this, even though our puritanical culture so often demands it. £200 ($400)* a head for lunch? Yes, please. £50 ($100) for a starter? Seems fair enough to me. £75 ($150) for a main course? Bring it on. In France I would not need to explain myself. There, spending serious volumes of cash on dinner is a national spectator sport.

 

Elsewhere, behavior like this puts you in the same grim league as politicians and muggers. It’s regarded as an obscenity; an experiment in excess as filthy and reprehensible as snorting cocaine off the flattened bellies of supermodels or slaughtering white Bengal tigers to provide the fur trim for your panda- skin gloves.

 

There is one reason for this and one reason only: We need food to survive. Therefore it is a necessity, and to crash the plastic until it smolders on a necessity—one that some people don’t have enough of— is regarded as wrong. That is to completely misunderstand the point of restaurants and high- end gastronomy. For a start, modern famines are not generally caused by a capricious Mother Nature, denying food to some people here while others over there have plenty. As aid organizations have long said—and continue to say—they have man- made, political causes, such as the ill- considered land reclamation policies in Robert Mugabe’s corrupt Zimbabwe, that have pushed its population to the brink of starvation. You foregoing dinner in a restaurant will not resolve that problem.

 

By the same token, nobody goes to restaurants for nutritional reasons. Nobody eats hot smoked foie gras with caramelized onion purée to stave off rickets. They go for experiences, and what price a really top experience?

 

Excerpted from The Man Who Ate the World by Jay Rayner.
Copyright © 2008 by Jay Rayner.
Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company

 

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