A Meal Observed, by Andrew Todhunter. Alfred A. Knopf, 228 pages, $23.
There are as many ways to write about food as there are recipes for apple pie. When Toni Morrison describes someone at work in a kitchen, you start to salivate-a neat trick, but that’s actually only the beginning of her remarkable talent. She sees all the way around the business of making and eating food, from peeling and chopping to washing up; she registers the generosity of the cook, the desire of the eater and those pinches of bitter spice-dependence, resentment, contempt-that can flavor even the simplest meal. A.J. Liebling, vigorous and astonishingly voracious, turns eating into a competitive sport; his writing about food is delightful and endlessly informative, though the heroic scale of his appetite can be daunting. Jim Crace insists on allegory: The food he serves up in The Devil’s Larder (2001), though it seems real enough to taste, always leads the reader in a particular thematic direction, like Hansel and Gretel’s trail of crumbs.
And here comes journalist Andrew Todhunter, who had a delectable idea: work for a while as an apprentice in the kitchen of a truly great restaurant, then return with his wife as a paying customer and order a splendid dinner. His book, A Meal Observed , looks at the gourmet experience with split-screen awareness: the sumptuous luxury enjoyed at the table by the pampered guest, and-in the kitchens, out of sight-the sweat and skill lavished on a great chef’s creations.
The meal in question was consumed between roughly 8:30 p.m. and midnight on July 13, 1999, at Taillevent in Paris, a legendary three-star restaurant. Gougères (“a three-star cheese puff of flour, egg, and Gruyère”) are served as an amuse-bouche with the apéritifs, then come the formidable fireworks of the dinner itself: Crème de Cresson au Caviar Sevruga ; Escargots braisés, Sauce Poulette ; and Mousseline d’Oeufs aux Morilles et aux Asperges . That’s for starters. The main course is Daurade à la Tomate et au Basilic and Homard poêlé aux Châtaignes . Then the cheese, of course (Mr. Todhunter reminds us of Brillat-Savarin’s dictum: “A dinner that ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with one eye”): a Saint-Nectaire, a Livarot, a Pont-l’Evêque, a Crottin de Chavignol, among others. By the time the cheese plates have been cleared away, Mr. Todhunter and his wife are “in a state of caloric shock,” but they still find room for dessert: Fantaisie aux Pêches et à la Verveine ; Mille-Feuille aux Fruits rouges et aux deux Vinaigres ; and Moelleux au Chocolat et au Thym . (As Mr. Todhunter points out, “a good menu is like an onslaught … each word or phrase … particularly something like ‘sautéed in truffle juice,’ or ‘roasted in smoked butter,’ thumps and shudders like a depth charge in the animal mind.”)
There are no disappointments, and two standouts: the lobster with chestnuts (“If there is anything I have ever eaten that could be called a work of genius, this is it”) and the verbena ice cream that comes with the peach fantaisie (“the palate knows that it has met perfection”). When, at last, he stands up to leave, Mr. Todhunter realizes that he’s “overdone it”: “[T]he sensation of mass and density in my midsection is startling.” And yet he and his wife agree: This was “the best single meal of our lives.”
The scene backstage is less consistently engaging. Too often, Mr. Todhunter veers into interview mode. He corners a cook and starts to lob questions (“I ask if he is frustrated by the transitory nature of his work”). At times, it seems that our author got tired of writing and just decided to leave the tape recorder running.
Though Mr. Todhunter begins with a sweet idea and seems equipped with the skills to carry it off, and though he has a distinct message that he wants to share (here’s the moral of the story: The “precision” of fine cooking “represents a kind of faith that sloppiness denies, the faith that, despite the endless tearing down and vanishing of things, we must build our sand castles with care”), his book is disappointingly shapeless. It lurches forward course by course, following the chronology of the meal, but it’s also aimlessly digressive. Why do salt and thyme warrant mini-disquisitions and not basil or morels? Is this whim or laziness? We suddenly learn, about two-thirds of the way through the book, that in the fall of 1999, chef Philippe Legendre (“a major figure in the culinary pantheon of France”) quit Taillevent, partly because he loathed the owner, Jean-Claude Vrinat. Why not use this information to give a narrative structure to the behind-the-scenes episodes?
Another mystery: Though Mr. Todhunter concludes that the magic at Taillevent has more to do with the service than with the food-despite the glories of Mr. Legendre’s kitchen-he tells us next to nothing about the waiters. Why name the salary of a commis in the kitchen and not the salary of the man who brings the check?
A Meal Observed should have been as perfect as one of pastry chef Gilles Bajolle’s impeccable confections. The writing, which should be consistently exquisite-as mouth-watering as Ms. Morrison’s, as provocative as Mr. Crace’s-is stiff in patches, and often curiously formal and self-conscious. (“Repressed may it be, an aptitude for cooking lurks within her.” Or this: “Entire volumes can and have been written about salt, but I will make do with a cursory glance.”) Someone should have pushed Mr. Todhunter to polish his work. The book is carelessly edited. On one page we get, “Call me a culinary lightweight, but … ” and two pages later, the same vulgar construction: “Call it an unfair prejudice, but …. ” A shame in a book where sloppiness is sternly deprecated.
But Andrew Todhunter is in fact a talented writer. A phrase or two from his ode to post-dinner bliss convinced me that he has the spark. What do you do after the waiter has brushed the crumbs from the tablecloth? You “sweep the white expanse with an open palm.” The gesture is part caress, part unconscious mimicry. “The candlelight soaks into the cloth and glimmers on the surviving silverware.”
Just because A Meal Observed isn’t a three-star performance doesn’t mean it’s not nourishing, at times even scrumptious-a cozy neighborhood bistro of a book.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer .