For over 40 years, Raymond Sokolov has written extensively about all aspects of the food universe, including feature-length articles, cookbooks, the occasional gossipy takedown and several hundred restaurant reviews. The range in scholarship is impressive — and logical — coming from a Harvard dropout turned well-funded 1960s magazine foreign correspondent (the Mad Men weren’t the only ones with expense accounts), with a zeal for food exploration.
Sokolov's stars aligned in 1971, when he was named food editor of The New York Times, taking over for the job’s creator, Craig Claiborne, who had spent 13 years at the post. As Sokolov recounts in his new memoir, the passing of the slotted spatula took place over a terse lunch in the Times cafeteria, where Claiborne offered a single piece of advice: Steal the menu.
Sokolov's new book, Steal The Menu, recounts the author’s short-lived, though highly productive, career at the Times. He was the first to write seriously about Szechuan cooking, a then-obscure cuisine that manipulated the most fierce and fiery corners of the Chinese larder. You Mission Chinese fans should know something about that. He explained succinctly how the newly signed Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 — one that abolished quotas that favored immigration from the Western Hemisphere — was establishing a new cosmos of Asian cooking in the States (including Vietnam, India and Japan).
Sokolov was also the first non-French writer to explore the emerging (and later highly influential) nouvelle cuisine spearheaded by Michel Guérard and Paul Bocuse. He would go on to write the influential Saucier's Apprentice, a first of its kind book to document the bones of French cuisine classique — dissecting the béchamels, veloutés and béarnaise — the saucery of Escoffier that is still taught in today’s culinary schools.
“I can remember Julia Child puzzling over all the spicy Chinese food we were seeing,” he recalls of his friend while spooning from a bowl of kimchi jjigae. I had asked Sokolov to the lunch destination of his choosing and he picked Kang Suh, a Koreatown legend that, like the writer, has operated without pause for decades. We drank some makgeolli and things got spirited.
Was it difficult to be 100% honest when writing your memoir?
No. I could have been franker and angrier than I was, actually. I asked for it!
How did you land the Food Editor job at The New York Times?
As I think about it, what got me into it was a combination of a real interest in the subject that somehow I fell into — food — and ambition and opportunism. The job sort of appeared out of midair at the time and it was really a big deal at the time.
It’s still a pretty big job, no?
To be the Food Editor of The New York Times, it’s much less now than it was — believe me. I was the critic, the reporter, the recipe gatherer, everything. And the Times critics at that stage were at a position to dictate what was going on. For everyone.
Right. Now The Times has more layers and layers of infrastructure.
There was only [test kitchen lead] Jean Hewitt and me.
And Craig Claiborne set it up pretty well for you, right?
Absolutely. He created this job that I walked into and I was completely unprepared for it — the impact and the amount of feedback. Meanwhile, I was learning all this stuff. It was a very exciting, wearing situation. It wasn’t like another job in journalism. It just never went away.
As you detail in the book, one of your first big stories was when you basically discovered Szechuan cooking in New York City, which is pretty much going bonkers these days.
Well, it was just wonderful. There was just an entire, exciting cuisine that was unfolding before our eyes. It had been there before I got there and Claiborne had been receptive to it, but it really took off during the time that I was there. There was no question that it took over and it was bigger then than it is now. [Note: In 1971, Sokolov also covered what was claimed to be the first Chinese meal eaten by Chinese government officials in the United States, which was naturally “take out.”]
What does it feel like to bring an obscure cuisine to the masses? Every food writer strives to break a story like that.
Right. And, of course, I went with it as hard as I could. We also had the beginning of real Indian food at that time, Vietnamese became available in this country while I was there. Then, the traditional world of French food turned itself upside down and I saw that.
That leads to French nouvelle cuisine, which you basically stumbled upon when traveling to Lyon?
I wasn’t expecting to come upon it at all because no one outside of France was paying attention to it. I went on this trip in the spring of 1972 and my only plan was to visit Bocuse, because he was famous. But I had no idea why. My boss at Newsweek — when Bocuse was a two-star chef around 1966 — had had a glimmer of what was going on, but didn’t do anything with it. So I decided I would go there. On the train, some traveler had abandoned a copy of the regional edition of the newspaper, L’Express, which had Bocuse on the cover and kind of explained the revolution that was going on in French food.
So, from that point, as the journalist, you were on the case?
Oh yeah. I had this photographer, the great Jack Nisberg, an American ex-pat who knew everything. We went to Lyon together but he told me before I left, “You should really eat at this place that you couldn’t get into otherwise.”
What are some key tenets of nouvelle cuisine, and how was it so different from what you were seeing in New York?
They had taken the next step. There had been a really long period of stagnation in French cooking, and there were good reasons for it. They had had two World Wars and a depression between them, with a fairly significant period of recovery after World War II. As for nouvelle cuisine, it was all about fresh and high quality. And a matter of focus. People got confused thinking it was diet food, or low fat or special sauces that were very light. There was something to that, but the real impulse was reanalyzing tradition, working your way back through it and making new dishes that referred to things that everybody knew, but doing them slightly differently. You were served this dish [by Michel Guérard] in a clumsy little suburban restaurant in an industrial suburb. He used very high cuisine technique, but gave you something that you would have never seen in that kind of restaurant, which in this case was a whole sweetbread in a very elegant, understated sauce with no garnish whatsoever. You would never have seen that in a restaurant run by something with his skill and information before that.
Another tenant of nouvelle was acidity replacing cream and butter…
One of Guérard’s famous dishes — in fact, the first one ever published in this country by me — was what he called a fricassee of chicken au vinaigre. The sauce was basically a deglazing of the pan with vinegar. It was so simple, but the thinking behind it was profound. That kind of thing was happening and nobody understood it and they couldn’t be bothered to explain it. Basically, it happened and people in kitchens figured out more or less what the attitude was.
Moving forward, what style of cuisine excites you this much in 2013?
Well, I’m not traveling nearly as much as I used to. We managed to get into Noma, really for this book, because I wasn’t working anymore as a critic. We got in through another journalist who had written about Rene Redzepi before he was famous. I think that place has been completely misrepresented.
Misrepresented? I feel it’s been represented in every which way…
They make it seem like it’s some kind of gnarly cuisine. The fact that he uses all of those Nordic materials is just the beginning of it. There were two kinds of comments made about that place before I went there — one was all the cuisine of foraging and pickling and saving things and being close to the Nordic environment and ecology. The other was that “it was the most delicious meal that I’ve ever had in my life.” But it’s all never even explained properly. The most interesting thing was how he took all these local and carefully treated ingredients and made them into completely original dishes — little micro-environments — that bore no resemblance to the source.
The scholarship behind it fascinates you, I would think.
Well, yes, the concept of thinking. He was doing things with those ingredients that were so sophisticated, and of course, delicious. Then there were those jokey dishes that made no sense to anyone who wasn’t there.
Did you have a similar feeling at Noma than you had when you were dining at Bocuse for the first time?
Yes, there was this remarkable intelligence at work, giving you things. It’s not the only place like that, though. A couple years before, we had been on the east coast of Spain in a kind of resort village, where someone called Quique Dacosta had a restaurant where everything is a painting, but also an environment. There are things from the place that he is depicting and there is a Matisse painting that he copied in food. It was very dazzling.
What about in the States? Have you been to any restaurants here in the last few years that have given you a feeling of a new discovery?
The discoveries for me — in those four years that I was at The Journal [the Wall Street Journal, where he wrote the column "Eating Out"] — had primarily to do with finding very interesting places in towns where I thought I would never have found anything like that. There were a lot of self-conscious locavores at Sanford in Milwaukee, where everything is a reflection of Midwestern food or ingredients. During that whole time, I always thought that the most interesting restaurant I ate at was Robuchon in Las Vegas. He was so smart and he knew everything and had this palate, so he could get it right.