May 15, 2015

25 for 25

In 1990 Alain Ducasse was the youngest chef ever to receive 3 Michelin stars, at Restaurant Louis XV. The world’s biggest McDonald’s opened its doors in Moscow in 1990, and the introduction of a new food pyramid that year once again admonished us to eat a variety of foods, maintain a healthy weight and choose a diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and grains. 

That was also the year we got married.  Neither a lover of McDonald's nor a gourmand with aspirations to go to Monaco, it was enough that I was trying in my own small way to learn to cook for two in a tiny kitchen that was no bigger than a walk in closet.

It wasn’t until 1995 that we had our first Michelin dining experience.  Paris.  A beautiful June day. The Place des Vosges, and a coveted table at L’Ambroisie. Je suis désolé de le dire seulement une table à déjeuner est disponible, madame. Only a table available at lunch? C’est pas grave! We’ll take it. It was our first trip to France, and we were in the gourmet capital of the world, n’est pas? Surely a Michelin meal was in order.

A menu full of phrases even my French speaking husband didn’t quite understand.  Mine without prices, my husband quickly calculating that the cost of the simple seasonal soup was more than our entire dinner the night before.  The sommelier expertly opening our prized half bottle of wine and swirling, tasting, discarding! the first precious sip before delicately pouring us a glassful. Predating the ubiquitous iPhone, and certainly the brashness of food bloggers whipping out a camera to digitally record every mouthful and amuse bouche, the meal remains a blur of sensations, at once elevated, subtle and oh so French.   

While we’ve had our share of memorable Michelin meals in the years between that Paris lunch and today, stars were not the lens through which we judged a meal’s greatness.  And yet the quest for the next delicious taste – whether a burger or a bouillabaisse – has remained insatiable.  Planning a trip starts with not “what shall we do?” but “where shall we eat?”

Fast forward to 2015, and our 25th wedding anniversary.

It seemed inevitable that we would go on a trip of some sort – after all, this is the age of the “experience", the “moment”, or the collection of moments; trips that can fill a memory card and a memory bank full with stories to talk about, perhaps even to brag about a little.  Where, however, was another question.

And that’s when my brilliant husband conceived of the best journey of all.

“Instead of going on a trip,” said Richard, late last November, “why don’t we try to go to the Top 25 Restaurants in the world over the course of 2015?"

My heart stopped and then raced forward. A grand adventure! Full of food and planes, exotic locales and crazy chefs, foraged ingredients and time honored traditions. Of course I knew which 25 restaurants he meant. Ever since Restaurants magazine introduced the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best list in 2002, the imaginations of food adventurers the world over have been captured, each year's list revealing new innovators alongside the elder statesmen of cuisine.  We knew Noma was number one the current list, but as to who rounded out the rest of the World's 50 Best, I could only guess at.  It didn't really matter. I was in.

And so has begun a journey of a thousand bites.  Scaling the Mount Everest of food has its perils and pitfalls.  Would we really be able to go from Stockholm to Singapore, from Lima to London, from Modena to Manhattan, in a mere 12 months? And what would happen when the new list came out on June 1, midway through our trek? Would we change course? Or would we approach this more organically, choosing 25 from that illustrious list of 50, position be damned?

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure of the answers to all of those questions. What I do know is that we have thus far had six amazing meals (yes, we are seriously off pace!); that each experience has been delightful, delicious and slightly surreal; that our mad adventure has begun to capture imaginations and that we've never had so many people want to join us for dinner before.

So, dear readers, consider yourselves invited.  We'll be chronicling our adventures here at duckandcake and sharing every delicious morsel, including our favorite dishes, must have treats, behind the scenes peeks when we can (we've visited four kitchens so far), and travel tips of destinations both dearly familiar and wonderfully new.  Richard and I will take turns with the writing, and perhaps you'll be able to guess rather quickly which of us has a weakness for fois gras and who chooses chocolate first.

But really, in the end, it's not about the list or rankings.  As we celebrate a very special moment in our lives, above all, we want to share that celebration with the amazingly passionate teams of people who spend their waking hours dreaming about food, and creating magic with the simplest of ingredients, every single day.

We hope you enjoy the journey as much as we do.

Elizabeth and Richard

First on the menu: a Parisian classic that elevates the humble vegetable to delicious heights