Raymond Sokolov was, he admits in his new book, Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food (Knopf, $25.95), "a nobody" in the food world when he found himself unaccountably engaged, in 1971, as the new restaurant critic and food editor of The New York Times, succeeding the legendary Craig Claiborne. Claiborne had invented the position of Times restaurant critic. For that matter, he had pretty much invented the whole job of restaurant critic, period, as we understand it today.
Sokolov was hardly a novice when it came to good eating. His mother, he writes, was an excellent and ambitious home cook; he had gained an unlikely introduction to Mexican cooking in Juárez as a youngster; he'd eaten well on a college-age trip around Europe — but he had, he writes, "never taken a cooking class, published a restaurant review or written a recipe." No wonder Claiborne was unimpressed.
The retiring reviewer did give Sokolov one piece of advice, though, when the two met for a passing-of-the-baton lunch in the Times cafeteria, and it turned out to be a good one: A copy of the menu is invaluable to critics when they're crafting their reviews, and Claiborne told Sokolov to "just put it in your lap, fold it up and slip it in your pocket." As he explained, "If you ask for it, they might give it to you or they might not. But if they don't, they'll be watching you and counting them when they take them away after you've ordered." So, steal the menu.
Born in Detroit, Soklolov graduated summa cum laude from Harvard with a degree in classics, spent a year at Oxford on a Fulbright scholarship, then became first the Paris correspondent and then the arts writer for Newsweek — a lively, widely read publication back in those days. It was from that berth that New York's newspaper of record recruited him as the new Craig Claiborne. As it turned out, what Sokolov may have lacked in conventional food writing experience, he more than made up for in erudition and the breadth of his cultural knowledge, and his reviews were both readable and very smart. He didn't last long in the job, however — only about two years.
As hard as this might be to believe today, when seemingly every second Times restaurant review is of an Asian place, Sokolov was considered almost mutinous for covering so enthusiastically the Hunanese and Sichuan establishments that had begun opening in New York. And that was only one of his sins. He may have been the first American journalist to report on France's revolutionary nouvelle cuisine, but he also gave two stars to a Mexican restaurant, of all things (and agitated unsuccessfully for the abolishment of the star system). He favorably reviewed a one-woman Haitian place that had no electricity — and that was closed down by the health department for that reason before his review saw print. He even wrote about dog food, tasting samples himself. This was not at all what the august Times had had in mind, and his boss, executive editor Abe Rosenthal, soon let him go, later remarking that Sokolov was the only person he'd ever fired who had just shrugged and gone home. (One wonders what Rosenthal made of Sokolov's short-lived successor John L. Hess, who gave his only four-star review not to a restaurant but to all of Chinatown.)
This was hardly the end of Sokolov's food-writing career. He had begun an updated New York Times cookbook before his demise at the paper, and completed that. He wrote a delightful and extremely useful volume on classic French sauces called The Saucier's Apprentice (published more than 30 years before Bob Spitz's similarly titled book on European cooking schools), and then went on to turn out countless other well-crafted cookbooks and other food-based works, among them the indispensible Why We Eat What We Eat: How the Encounter Between the New World and the Old Changed the Way Everyone on the Planet Eats. He also wrote thoughtful cultural and ethnographic articles on what some folks call "foodways" for Natural History and reviewed restaurants for the Wall Street Journal from 2006 to 2010.
Sokolov's memoir covers all these accomplishments and much more. He remains what he has always been — a very readable writer — deftly crafting his prose in a voice that somehow lets you know that he's probably smarter than you but would never in a million years tell you that outright (or think less of you because of it). Along the way, he subtly reminds us of why traditional French cuisine is so good, and ultimately so important; discovers Lebanese food in the Dominican Republic; almost offhandedly earns a Ph.D. in classics from Harvard at the age of 64; and pretty well nails down the big problems with food TV, excoriating Paula Deen's cooking in the process.
Even if you don't know who Raymond Sokolov is, unlikely though that would be for a literate American food lover who's more than 20 years old or so, the chances are good that if you care about the state of professional cooking in the Western world today, you'll find much here to enjoy.