“Every time I go out to dinner, I feel like I’m eating a fucking brass band,” says legendary restaurant critic AA Gill, speaking on the phone from his home in London. We’re talking about the stories he’s working on for The Sunday Times, and a topic has bubbled to the surface like a forgotten Bialetti. Bland food. Bland food? Well, the need for restaurants to embrace a blander cooking sensibility. “Everything is so overflavored now,” says the 60-year-old Scottish writer, artist, traveler and Most Interesting Man at the Dinner Table. “Everything is huge, and we’ve been dominated by the East and by Latin America and these enormous, big flavors.” He’s not complaining. Hardly. “This style of cooking is fantastic, and I love it. But actually, I was just thinking, when was the last time that I ate a blanquette de veau that was just white, and just soft, and wasn’t shouting at me?”
Gill is the most supreme of supreme wordsmiths, writing restaurant reviews — plus television and a bit of book criticism — with both clarity and wit. And sometimes, when the meal has gone south, with the irritability of a hemorrhoidal Wild West outlaw. He once compared a Sichuan hot pot to “the bucket under a field-hospital operating table.” And in a famous 2011 Vanity Fair takedown of Parisian dinosaur L’Ami Louis, he wrote, charitably, that the restaurant “gives you the feeling of being in a second-class railway carriage in the Balkans” before really getting to the point: that Ruth Reichl’s favorite French bistro was obviously “the worst restaurant in the world.”
So there’s really no surprise that Gill and Anthony Bourdain — a bit of a gunslinger with the MacBook himself — are longtime friends. In this Sunday’s Scotland episode of Parts Unknown, the two travel to Letterewe Estate in the Scottish Highlands to stalk for red stag deer and catch up like old friends do over fingers of Glenmorangie. Here’s the story of how the two met, as well as Gill on his single purpose for reviewing restaurants.
When did you meet Tony?
We met by chance on the pages of The New Yorker. I was starting out as a food writer, actually not doing what I do now, which is reviewing restaurants, but I was writing about ingredients as a recipe writer for a magazine named Tatler. I also used to do illustrations, which is what I was trained as, and what I used to do most of my life – I was an artist. So occasionally The New Yorker would phone me up and ask me to do work for certain articles. And one day, my editor said, “Look, we’ve got this chapter from a book about food; could you do some illustrations for it?” And it was Tony’s first book, Kitchen Confidential, before it was published. And they sent it to me, and I just thought that nobody writes like this about food — before him, nobody had written like that about food.
Not even yourself?
No, because I was writing “15 interesting things to do with an onion.” And I knew a bit about kitchens. My brother was a chef, and the writing was not just true and brutal and honest and funny and observant, but it was just written so beautifully. You could hear the voice in your head.
Did you do a good job with the illustration?
No, not particularly! They were cartoonish illustrations. And so I did that, and then that was that. And then [Kitchen Confidential] was published over here by a small English publisher run by a friend of mine. He phoned me up and he said, “Adrian, do you know Tony Bourdain’s book?” And I said absolutely, I’ve read a chapter in it and it’s brilliant. He asked if I would give him a quote for the jacket, a blurb, and I said something banal and glib, and that really was how we met.
When was your first meal together?
I can’t remember! We have had some pretty funny, mad meals. I remember one lunatic day we had at the Spotted Pig in New York, with April [Bloomfield] cooking, and with Marco Pierre White, and Batali and a couple of girls — I don’t know quite where they were from. It got quite mad…. I was once doing a piece about America with Jeremy Clarkson — he’s another English journalist — and Tony took us on this brilliant trip around New York late at night, in dives and bars. He’s very good at finding the gothic everywhere.
So why take Tony to Letterewe?
Well, over the years, Tony and I have talked about lots and lots of places and lots and lots of food. And it’s usually like most travelers’ tales: “What’s the greatest thing you ever ate?” or “What’s the most disgusting thing you’ve ever put in your mouth?” That tends to be the nature of our conversations. And I knew that he’d been up to Scotland before, and he’d been on an estate and done some shooting. Shot rabbits or hares or something. And I said to him that one day he should come and do the real thing, because the real thing is stalking. And that sort of hung in the air for decades, and then there was this moment, and we said let’s go and do it.
How long have you been going to Letterewe — to shoot, haul, cook and eat delicious animals?
I think I’ve been going there every year for about 15 years, something like that. And I’ve always gone stalking. We call it stalking, and I know for you it doesn’t have the same connotation, but basically it’s hunting deer without trees. I’d been doing that in Scotland for quite a long time, and then I found this place, Letterewe, and it’s just completely magical, so I go back every year.
It dates back generations, and it’s pretty difficult to get to, correct?
It is in the Highlands, in the west of Scotland, which is the rocky, mountainous, most difficult bit. When you’re up high there, you look out and you can look across to the loch, and then across the loch you can see the sea, and over the sea you can see the Isle of Skye, and you can see over the Isle of Skye out to the Hebrides. It’s a remarkable bit of country.
And about this stalking: It’s pretty methodical?
Yes. You don’t just shoot the first thing you come across; it has to be the right sort of beast. When we went up with Bourdain, I’ve never seen so many really good stags. And those are stags that are in good condition, they’re of medium age, and they’ve probably got eight or ten or 12 points to their antlers. And that means that they’re good breeding stock, and you leave them. What you look for are stags that are really old, or they’ve not got really good head. There are lots of technical things to go over.
There’s the red stag hunt, and then you hunt grouse a bit, too. Are these the two main animals that you’re hunting at the property?
We don’t hunt anything else on that bit of land. There are occasional grouse…. They have a very distinctive call and flap. There are also ptarmigan on that bit of land, which are white grouse that come from even further north. There are a lot of those in Scandinavia.
In the episode, you’re very articulate about grouse being a pretty supreme delicacy.
I love grouse, yeah. And it has a specific season for shooting. It’s shot from August — “the glorious 12th,” they call it, August 12th — and it’s very expensive. Grouse shooting is a big, expensive sport and it takes up huge amounts of land, and loads of people work year-round to make sure that the herd is kept safe. Of all the game birds that we shoot, it’s the only one that’s completely wild.
And you cook it pretty damn bloody….
It cooks rare, which is the way I like them. The owner, who was doing the cooking, is one of the best game cooks I know, and it depends a lot on the age of the grouse. If you have young grouse, I think they’re best cooked very rare, or quite relatively rare. When they get older, later in the season you get old cocks, you would probably cook them slightly longer or in a different way. You might pot-roast them or stew them or something. But young grouse have such a fantastic flavor. They eat nothing but heather, the small shoots of heather. And you hang them for a bit, so you don’t eat them immediately, and as you hang them they get a flavor, like when you hang beef and it gets a flavor.
Do you eat grouse in London?
Oh yeah, it’s a big thing when it comes down to London. All the butchers will have signs saying “Grouse here.” And in the beginning, in August, people will pay a lot of money. There’s always a race by the big London hotels to be the first people to get grouse on the table, on the 12th.
Oh, it’s like ramps in the States. They’re a crazy thing, and in the spring the first restaurant to get ramps is, like, the coolest restaurant.
So when you’re reviewing restaurants, what are you looking to do when you write a review?
The first thing I do, and the first thing I have to remember, is that my job is to sell newspapers. My job isn’t to improve the restaurant industry or to improve food or to promote chefs. My job is that I’m employed for these papers. So what I have to do is make an article that is interesting. And it has to be readable, and readable for people who probably won’t be going to the restaurant.
I’m just going to interrupt and say that that’s the first time I’ve heard that. Thank you for saying that, because no critics will admit the business side of the gig.
Well, they’re the people who put the bird on my table. Listen, I’ve got to write a piece that I think is going to be interesting and informative and funny, something that somebody is going to want to read and get through on a Sunday. And Sunday is a particular day for everybody. It’s a day when you don’t have to go to work. You’re reading in your dressing gown, probably over a long breakfast. So it’s that sort of vibe. That’s who I think of when I write.
It’s difficult with criticism. The longer you do it, the better you can judge your audience. The nice thing about being a critic is that people will turn to you and read you regularly. So I can talk about the blonde who has been my partner in eating for as long as I’ve been writing — I don’t have to explain who she is, because people who read me know that the blonde is whoever my partner is. So those things I like. But on the other hand, there are rules of reviewing that I give myself.
You don’t ever criticize people for what they don’t do. You only criticize them for what they do do. So it’s no good going into a Korean restaurant and saying that the chips were shit, because that’s not what they do. You have to look at a restaurant, look at all of it, and ask what they were aiming for when they started all of this, or when they opened the doors this evening, and how close did they get to fulfilling what must have been the idea that this restaurant had. And the closer they are, the better they are.
Do you look at the PR materials when they release those “mission statements”?
Never. I don’t know PRs; I don’t talk to them. There are people in my office who do that. They read all of it, and they do the food blogs and see all of the criticism. But I don’t do any of that.
Right now, what is exciting you in terms of flavors, in terms of people cooking with different ethnic groups in mind. I hate the word “ethnic food,” but you know what I’m talking about.
Well, every year, there’s about to be a new thing, isn’t there? Everybody says, you know, what’s the next thing?
OK, in an attempt to be polite and articulate, Adrian, what is the next big thing in the world?
Turkish is what they tell me now. Somebody said Colombian food. I actually went to Colombia, and I asked people what they were eating and they said, “Fuck, if we have another Peruvian restaurant open here we’ll go mad.” I sometimes just take stock and think, what is it that I’m missing? Because I eat everything, and I eat everywhere. And what is it that I haven’t had for a bit, that I’m missing. And the thing that I miss most now is classic French restaurant food. Bourgeois food, haute cuisine. And nobody’s making it in France, or very few people.
It’s all bistros, and pizza and tacos.
Everything is bistros, exactly, which is usually Alsace food. I really miss the French food that most of those of my generation who grew up loving food and being interested in food — that was where we started. And it’s very difficult to find it now.
So when you’re in Paris, where are you going these days?
Well, one of my favorite restaurants in the world is in Paris, which is Arpege. It’s an absolutely staggering restaurant.
Last question: What was the last interesting place you visited?
I’ve just come back from Istanbul. That was wonderful. Really interesting markets, real interesting mixtures of food. They cook lots of lamb, lots of bread, huge amounts of spices. Istanbul is located at the end of the Silk Route, the end of all of the trade from China. It all ended up coming through Constantinople and Byzantium. It’s where Europe meets Asia. It’s a city full of incredibly beautiful things, and you know, it’s got 15 million people!