Thanks to my husband, I travel a lot. I dine at Michelin-starred restaurants and try foods and food combinations that I have never heard of before. I’m exposed to different cooking methods and gourmet delicacies. I watch hours of Chef’s Table on Netflix, learning the philosophies and driving forces behind the world’s greatest culinary specialists. I’m understanding how artistry and science and passion can take dining to transcendent levels. I’ve even met a rock star chef (Christopher Kostow) and watched his team from behind the scenes while dining in his kitchen (Restaurant at Meadowood). And yet, try as I might to become a full-on foodie, I’m missing the key ingredient.
I am not naturally an adventurous eater. I’m not driven by the hunt for different tastes, smells and textures. Those facts, coupled with a “delicate” digestive system and a Bolt-fast gag reflex, have kept me inside a narrow food comfort zone for most of my life.
I come by it honestly. I grew up in a white-bread Ontario town in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Our most exotic food establishment was Moon Gardens, a Chinese restaurant which was known less for its menu and more for being the only place in town that never checked IDs.
In my household, I don’t remember ever eating fish or seafood (except for frozen fish sticks. Does that count?) Just chicken, beef, pork and pasta on a steady rotation. Nor did any ethnic food pass my lips. It’s not that my parents had anything against food from the sea or from different cultures, it’s that these options weren’t available in our town. It’s not like today when I can find any ingredient for any dish I pull up on the Internet at my local grocery store. Back then, outside of a big city, there were few culinary options.
As a young family, we rarely went out to restaurants, whether at home or on our travels. Dinner out in Europe usually consisted of a baguette, some ham and a slab of cheese while sitting in a park. Mostly, we had whatever Mom could whip up on a Coleman stove. (God love her, she could make a mean ketchup gravy).
My entrenched eating habits remained throughout my twenties. I noted in my 1992 European Adventure journal that BFF Laura and I had eaten at least one meal at McDonald’s 14 times in 18 days. Then there is this quote:
“At one point we saw a discarded cup in a puddle and knew that yes, Virginia, there is a McDonald’s in Lisbon. This was one of the happiest moments of the trip.”
I’m shamed by that confession, but it perfectly underscores the fact that epicurean curiosity is not part of my DNA.
So here I am, years later, married to a guy who is my complete food opposite. Wherever he goes, Gilles wants to dine where the locals do. He’ll seek out the cab driver or the doorman to find out what they like to eat and where to find it. This means has willingly eaten snake penis in China, pig stomach in France and God knows what meat (he suspects dog) in Vietnam.
He also loves fine dining. If there is a 3-star Michelin restaurant on our travels he wants to try it. He is fascinated by top chefs and their relentless drive for food perfection. It’s not that he’s a snob – he loves food carts and homestyle fare, too. He simply admires anyone who pursues their passions to mastery, whether that be in food, wine making, art, science or sport. If you have earned 3 Michelin stars, then you certainly fall into that category.
After only a few weeks of dating, Gilles whisked me away for a romantic weekend in New York City, taking me to such renowned restaurants as Milos and Jean-Georges. I was loving it until the night we dined at the famed Japanese eatery, Nobu. Wanting so badly to impress him, I made no mention of my aversion to raw fish. He ordered the multi-course tasting menu for us both. First up, oysters. They were small and covered in tasty sauces so I choked them back. Next few courses: variations of tuna, salmon and trout sashimi. A soup course in between made things more bearable and I managed to play along for a bit, quietly gagging and willing the food down. The raw mackerel served next was my undoing. I simply couldn’t stomach it. That’s when I broke down in tears and told him the truth. (An incident, henceforth known as “The New York Cry”.)
Almost four years and many restaurants later, I’ve learned a few things about fine dining, trying new things and respecting your own tastes.
- Don’t be intimidated by fancy restaurants. Gilles took me to Epicure at the Bristol Place Hotel in Paris. I was terrified I’d do or say the wrong thing. Gilles assured me that if I showed a genuine interest in the food, admired the passion that went into creating it and appreciated the professionalism of those serving it, I would be fine. So, I approached the night with a sense of wonder. When each exquisite course was presented I swooned. When the dessert cart was brought out revealing a rainbow of macarons and homemade marshmallow that the server pulled out in one long piece like a snake charmer, I clapped. I stopped thinking about how I looked or if I belonged and simply enjoyed the sensory pleasures and artistic flourishes. The servers, perhaps tired of blasé rich folk, were touched by our appreciation. As we left, the hostess told me to open my handbag. I did as asked. She smiled and dumped a handful of housemade candies in my purse and thanked us for coming.
- Be clear about your preferences. As we learned during the New York Cry, any kind of dining, fine or not, is miserable when you are served things you hate. It’s okay to not like everything. A tasting menu is meant to showcase a variety of different styles and ingredients, not make you a food hostage. Some courses are a hit, some a miss. If there is something you can’t eat let your server know. First thing I mention at any restaurant is no raw fish, no cilantro. This disclosure has made the tasting menu experience so much more enjoyable.
- Fine dining is obviously extremely expensive. It’s not something to enjoy every night of the week. But it’s an experience worth having at least once if you can. Don’t think of it as dinner out. The best restaurants offer sensual, almost theatrical experiences produced by passionate people working at the highest levels of their craft. A good way to get your feet wet is by trying the lunch service. It’s not as involved as dinner but you still enjoy amazing food served in multi-courses and impeccable service for a smaller price.
- Sometimes it’s better to not know what you are eating until after you have tried it. Let’s face it, some things on the menu may taste great but turn you off because they sound gross (venison heart, fish eggs, etc). Occasionally, my husband will have me taste something and then share the secret ingredient after. (Apparently, this is a trick that has worked on me for years. My mom tells me that as I child I refused to eat eggs. So instead, she made me crepes, which I loved. Spoiler alert: They were not crepes).
- Be curious, ask anything. Servers at this level are extremely knowledgeable. How do they make a certain dish? Where do the ingredients come from? What was the inspiration for it? Fine dining is meant to be an interactive learning experience. And while you are at it, if you are impressed by what you are eating ask to meet the chef. Many are more than happy to talk to their patrons.
- And finally, sweetbreads are a fucking lie. I know I said it can be better to not know what you are eating, but this food’s name is egregiously misleading. Sweet breads sound amazing: pain au chocolat, cinnamon roll, babka. But I feel it is my duty to let you know: sweetbreads are neither sweet, nor bread. They are, in fact, offal — the thymus or pancreas organs of lamb, veal, beef or pork. Some people love them. You may, too. Consider yourself warned.
One of the coolest things about my Second Act is that I get to try new things. What will be my next great passion? What can I explore in more depth? What interests me at this point in my life? Turns out, not everything is for me. Including being a foodie. But that’s OK. I’m happy to follow my husband along in this particular pursuit. It’s not an ultimate dream of mine, but it sure is a fun ride.