We all like food. Human beings are programmed to seek and ingest—sometimes more than our fair share of—anything even vaguely edible, the more sugar-laden and oil-smothered the better. And if you're reading this, chances are you're more into food than the average microwave rice consumer.
Well, Steve Plotnicki really likes food. As in, he really, really likes it. In 2003, New York-based Plotnicki started Opinionated About Dining, an online forum aimed at people like him, for whom food and fine dining is an all-consuming, life-spanning obsession. The forum became a blog and Plotnicki soon garnered a reputation as a gunslinging critic unafraid of shooting from both hips. This reputation was cemented when Observer food critic Jay Rayner referred to Plotnicki as the "king of the bloggers" in a section of his 2008 book The Man Who Ate The World, which sees the critic being led by Plotnicki on a "crawl" around five of his favourite New York restaurants.
Opinionated About Dining now has around 5,000 contributors and reviewers, though Plotnicki says there is a "hardcore" group of around 200. Its influence has grown in recent years and since 2012, the site has collated the opinions of its members to publish a number of "Best 100 Restaurants" lists covering America, Europe, and Japan. Befitting an organisation with top-end members who can spend up to $40,000 indulging their Sisyphean food infatuation, it's fair to say that Opinionated About Dining operates on an entirely different wealth plane to most of us. But that's kind of the point. Described by Plotnicki as mostly "upper middle class, not billionaires" and varying in age, the site's members are hobbyists at heart. Food is their passion and they follow it around the globe in the same way that other very rich people might do golf or opera. Plotnicki himself has similarly intriguing backstory. A musician with one mildly successful disco tune to his name, he founded Profile Records in 1981 with partner Cory Robbins. They discovered Run-DMC and were responsible for albums like Raising Hell, playing a role in the birth of hip hop. In 1998, Plotnicki bought cult British TV series Robot Wars and somehow managed to make the show (about remote-controlled robots who fight each other, let's remember) a TV smash in more than 40 countries across the world. "I'm a salesman," Plotnicki says. No shit. But food has always been his passion and today the 62-year-old professes to eating around "100 important meals" a year. We gave him a call to find out how us lesser mortals can learn to eat like a boss. MUNCHIES: Hello Steve. You hobby is basically eating in the world's best restaurants, which sounds nice. Can you sum up your approach to food? Steve Plotnicki: Most people go out eat to a nice restaurant and say something like, "This is a really well cooked veal chop." I'm more like, "They cooked this veal chop a little differently, I need to know how they did this." And I want to keep track of that because what I'm looking for is new techniques that other chefs other going to copy. To me, that's the ultimate sign of greatness. It's more like art than food for me. How do countries differ in their approach to dining? On a technical level, people in England and America don't care about food as much as other countries. Both countries are more resistant to authority and advice because they were later to the game on food. In France and Italy, Michelin and the guides are established so there's the tradition of respecting authority, even if you disagree! By the time food got to England and America, it was media-driven and popularity-driven and all about ranking.
"I went to The Fat Duck when it reopened and it was like a sleepy museum."
It's strange you say that about England and America because London and New York are the cities that generally style themselves as the world's culinary hubs. The biggest problem I find, certainly in New York, is new chefs opening restaurants who aren't ready to run them. They need more time working for someone with a lot of experience. Sometimes I go in and I taste the food and I know they're just not quite there yet. If you go to Paris and one of the new neo-bistros that opened, like Les Déserteurs, you think, "Man, those guys can cook." Then you go to New York and you go to Contra or Estela—one of the places that the hipsters are raving about. They're OK but they're just not at that level.
What do you make of high-end casual dining restaurants? It's great. It's definitely one of the things I like in London—somewhere like Berber & Q. The chef there [Josh Katz] has real cooking skills, it's not fancy but the technique is good. I also like your gastropubs—The Harwood Arms—but I'm kind of lukewarm to London's fine dining. Take somewhere like [Michel Roux Jr.'s West London restaurant] Le Gavroche, there's no sense of where you are. It's just like being in Paris. You wrote in a blog post that a "sense of place is a contender for the most important aspect of a meal." How do you mean? You want to have feel like you are eating your surroundings. Of course you want the ingredients to be of the locality but you also want the atmosphere to be reflective of the area. France does this really well, Italy not so much for fine dining but do trattorias really well. Spain is great for both modern fine dining and traditional restaurants.
Did you ever eat at elBulli? I started to eat at elBulli a little bit later on, and Ferran [Adrià, the restaurant's head chef and spiritual leader] had been through his most inventive stages. Towards the end of the restaurant, he was more classic. I started going in 2004 and it was the foam stage: foam was on everything. Foam on your head. Green foam! Orange foam! Carrot foam! So like Picasso had a blue phase, Adria had a foam phase? Sure. What made elBulli so special? Adrià was a reductionist. So he would take beef cheeks, sous vide them for 40 hours, and turn them into a custard. I knew that everybody would copy that technique and if you go into a restaurant now, you have 24-hour sous vide short ribs or something. It all comes from that dish. What do you make of The Fat Duck? I went to The Fat Duck when it reopened [in 2015] and it was like a sleepy museum! I'm sure if you've never been to The Fat Duck you'd go, "This is great" but I've been six times.
But isn't that just like how a film can get boring after watching it six times? Yeah, but some films hold up after six times and some get dated. This was dated. Is that because people are over the molecular gastronomy thing now? Well, of course there is a large fashion component to cuisine. Who are you current favourite chefs? At the moment, I like Josh Skenes [chef at San Francisco's Saison], Magnus Nilsson, and Alain Passard.
What do you make of fine dining in 2016? It's in a reductive stage, not a productive stage. Cooking is really about technology. If you were to map cooking of the 20th century, how it changed, you would find that it changed every time they upgraded the equipment. They made more precise ovens, they made mixers, the adoption of sous-vide. We're in a phase now where there's no new equipment being made so the food is—excuse me for saying—dull. If they don't have the equipment, they don't have the way to make things. But I'll keep coming back because we try and monitor the evolution of culinary technique. Are there any restaurants that have really disappointed you? Kawamura in Tokyo. It is among the most expensive steak restaurants in Tokyo and the most exclusive. You have to be introduced to the restaurant by a regular, who has to eat at the restaurant with you and introduce you to the chef. If the chef likes you, he will allow you to make a reservation on your own. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe likes to eat there. But while they had a fabulous abalone [sea snail] and caviar course, the steak was meh. And at $800 for dinner, I could have skipped it.
But as Hyman Roth says to Michael Corleone in The Godfather: "This is the life we have chosen." Is there anything you would like to get rid of in fine dining? Too many boxes of things! They put down 15 little things and sometimes I just want to eat. Food is a really complex subject because it has a physiological component. There are not many artistic activities that have a physiological component—where it actually has to go into your body. So you need to get high, you need to get the sensation but you also need to eat.
It's like with molecular cuisine: you might have 25 to 30 courses but sometimes afterwards feel like you need a steak to get that feeling of being full—sated. I remember we once left elBulli and my wife said she wanted to go for a pizza. We didn't though.
A wise decision. Thank you for talking with me Steve!