Usually, these national and international lists and accolades are created by asking many chefs, journalists and food lovers to vote, resulting in a huge popularity contest (the World’s 50 Best Restaurants; the James Beard awards) or by deploying an army of unidentified inspectors who measure every place against one strict set of standards (the Michelin Guides).
Both of these methodologies have their benefits and pitfalls. The biggest problem with popularity contests tends to be that they leave no room for as-yet-undiscovered gems. On certain lists, it would seem the restaurants with the best (and most expensive) public relations teams often win the day. And creating an exacting criterion for awarding accolades discourages diversity — in Michelin’s case, that means European and Japanese-style fine dining are generally valued above all else.
Because the magazines I worked with put together an international panel (of chefs, food writers, critics and others) that would nominate the places I’d visit, they tried to have the best of both worlds. Nominations were crowdsourced, but we paid special attention to promising places with little fame. Where the travel schedule allowed, I was given the freedom to follow up leads. The final call for what made the list was entirely my own.
All the ways I could get it wrong weighed heavily on me. But the thing I have always loved about classic restaurant criticism is how it allows readers to measure their own proclivities against the strengths and flaws and tastes of a tangible person. I have often found it more helpful to read a critic with whom I vehemently disagree than one who is moderately persuasive. If you don’t like or trust me, you can disregard my recommendations.
And so, I got on a plane. And then another.
The eating was constant, ridiculous and delightful, but also brutal. The glamorous version of this story is one that could be told with a vintage movie montage: a plane crossing a world map again and again, intercut with shots of me looking at various international landmarks and posing blissfully over plates of delicious food.
The real version is much more complicated. It would be wrong to complain about what is obviously a dream job, but allow me one brief lapse to say: This was a very hard few months.
Most days I woke up at 6 a.m. or earlier in order to catch a flight or drive multiple hours. In the afternoon I’d arrive in a new city, check into a hotel, shower, go to dinner, return to the hotel, spend an hour writing notes, fall asleep at midnight or later and then wake up the next day and do it all again.
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