From the cover of the “Life” section of the Detroit Free Press, Friday, May 5, 2006
well fed: Ulterior Epicure, the Ann Arbor extreme gourmet, talks about his passion for fine food and shares some of his favorite restaurants
By Sylvia Rector
The slender young man in the dark jacket turned the plate of smoked duck salad a bit to the left and shot another photograph with his high-end Nikon.
The Ulterior Epicure was having dinner that night at his favorite Ann Arbor restaurant, the interesting and sylish eve, where he had dined numerous times.
eve was the first restaurant he wrote about, in January 2005, when he began his Internet food blog, the ulterior epicure (www.ulteriorepicure.blogspot.com), a journal of his dining and food experiences. It now has about 100 entries and reviews, including critiques of nine European destinations with Michelin Guide star ratings.
Some people are jazz buffs or opera afficionados. Others are collectors of antique cars or fine wines. The ulterior epicure is an extreme gourmet, one of a small but distinct subculture of food-lovers whose hobby – no, passion – is fine dining.
Meal of the caliber he seeks can cost $200 or more for food alone. His destinations can require passports and plane tickets, not just street maps. Reservations can take weeks to secure.
“It’s an obsession, absolutely,” says the University of Michigan graduate student, who agreed to talk about his fascination only if he was not identified.
He writes as the ulterior epicure, or “u.e.,” on his blog and online at places such as www.eGullet.org, a well known site where thousands of food enthusiasts and professionals discuss everything from home cooking to destination dining.
“It doesn’t matter who I am,” he says. He wants to be judged only on his opinions, experiences and writing, he says, and people might weigh those differently if they knew who he is.
“They might say, ‘How can he possibly know anything about food when he’s only 28? Who is this person?'”
So, while most blogs show the author’s picture and give personal details, his has only a photo of lips and the words “I live to travel and eat.”
It’s a mission he pursues with studied intensity.
He calls top-tier restaurants and asks chefs to prepare special multi-course menus for him, usually takes notes and photos of important meals, and shares his dining experiences and photos with friends and like-minded enthusiasts.
In his world, it matters – a lot – where one has dined.
“That is how they establish their street creds,” says author and eGullet cofounder Steven A. Shaw of Manhattan. “They want to know who you know and where you have eaten.”
For a 20-something student, the u.e.’s record is none to shabby: He has dined at 21 restaurants with Michelin Guide stars in Europe (representing a total of 50 stars), he says and five Michelin-starred venues in New York City – Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, Per Se, Daniel and WD~50.
Many aren’t reviewed on his blog, he says, because last fall he began devoting most of his spare time to his www.flickr.com online photo albums. All but two of his European venues, and many others are shown there.
He mostly saves his dining dollars for out-of-town places and he doesn’t record every meal.
However, he has taken photos at Ann ARbor restaurants eve, Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Zingerman’s Deli, Godaiko, and Pacific Rim, Emily’s in Northville, Jeremy Restaurant & Bar in Keego Harbor and Five Lakes Grill in Milford.
Surprisingly, no one stops him from photographing the food, though he sometimes gets curious questions. He thinks most people shrug him off as a tourist.
Travel and interesting food were always part of his life.
He didn’t grow up in a wealthy family, he says. His mother worked for an airline and the family could fly stand-by for free to destinations as diverse as Hong Kong, Vienna, Copenhagen and Taiwan.
They traveled on a shoe-string budget, stayed in neighborhoods most tourists wouldn’t consider, he says, and ate the food that locals ate.
“We always ate the best – not the most expensive or most fancy, but the freshest and most locally prepared” foods, he says. “It made a difference.”
He can talk for hours about top restaurants. His favorite restaurant is Jean Georges in New York City.
His favorite in Chicago where he dined extensively while working last summer, is chef Graham Elliot Bowles’ Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel.
His most arduous dining journey was to the three-star L’Arnsbourg in northeastern France. That trip required an hour’s train ride and a 15-kilometer bike ride up a mountain- with snow on the ground.
His most expensive meal was last fall at the former Bon Lloc in Stockholm, which cost around $220. The portion of foie gras was the largest he had ever been served, he recalls, smiling.
Runners-up for priciest meal include Per Se in New York at $210 and Alinea in Chicago, where he has twice had the 22-course, $175 tasting menu. (Tasting menus are designed to showcase some of the chef’s best dishes in smaller portions, so guests can try more of the cuisine.)
Despite his expensive tastes, the u.e. says he is not independently wealthy. He is able to pursue his hobby because he plans for it and lives frugally otherwise.
He finishes his degree this month and will soon start a job out of state, but while in school he lived on campus and did not own a car.
Besides cooking when he can , his other main hobby is running, which is not only inexpensive but help him stay a trim 105 pounds.
And he doesn’t drink alcohol, a choice that saves him significant money at restaurants.
He says he knows that most people – even those who have the means – can’t imagine dropping $200 on one meal.
Yet, many of those same people wouldn’t hesitate to spend twice that on a football or concert tickets or for cars, boat or computer accessories, he points out.
“We all have our own indulgences, whatever they are,” he says.
His blog is only a way to record and share his personal experiences, he says.
It isn’t nationally known, and he didn’t set out to make it so, he says.
“It was just done out of my pure love of food. …. It was like my own journal. I could put pictures there to remember meals … and it was for the pleasure of keeping in touch with my friends,” he says. He would like to improve it eventually, he says, but he has no plans to make it a full-time pursuit.
With experience, he has learned how to get the most out of each destination-dining experience.
If he must travel to visit a restaurant and can eat there only once – especially if there’s no tasting menu – he calls well in advance to ask if the chef can prepare a special multi-course menu just for him.
Midweek, when it’s slower, they usually say yes. Most chefs aren’t surprised by such requests, he says.
“There’s such a community now of ‘foodies’ or ‘destination restaurant-goers.’ … There are a number on eGullet I’ve befriended who do this commonly. We call up the chefs, and we do this.”
Making that extra contact signals that he isn’t the average guest.
Shaw, of eGullet.com, says chefs usually welcome such interest.
“Ninety percent of the people in a restaurant are not really there to eat,” Shaw says.
“If you are a chef and have trained all your life to cook, that can be disheartening. When the waiter comes in and says, ‘OK, we have serious customers at Table 12,’ they’ll say, ‘OK, this is somebody.’ They’ll put on their effort and at the end, go out and meet them.”
The ulterior epicure has met many top chefs that way, including Bowles at the much-admired Avenues.
The u.e. has dined there three times – making reservations under his given name, of course.
Recently, however, the chef realized that the enthusiastic guest he had met previously – the one photographing his food – was the ulterior epicure who often posts on eGullet. They have since e-mailed each other about it, and the u.e. acknowledged his identity.
Bowles in interested in what diners like the u.e. have to say because of their extensive high-end dining experiences.
When someone like that is interested enough in a a chef’s cuisine to request something special, Bowles says, “I think it’s great.”
“They’re putting themselves in your hands and saying, ‘Do your thing.’ When that happens, we are much more apt to go overboard and try to blow these people away.”
“At the end of the day, you love cooking for people who totally get it,” he says.
If the ulterior epicure isn’t there already, he is surely getting closer.
“I get compliments from chefs,” he says, obviously pleased. “They say, ‘You’re one lucky person to have eaten so well.”
The extreme gourmet: Extreme gourmets – also called extreme foodies, or gastronomes – may not exist in large numbers in any one place, but “worldwide there is a whole community of them,” says Steven A. Shaw, a Manhattan author and cofounder of the online eGullet Society at www.eGullet.org.
They connect online and often travel together to try restaurants because “their interest in food is so intense, dining with normal people can be difficult.”
Experienced waiters spot them right away, he says.
“They show up with a notebook and a camera, and they read the menu like it’s the original Magna Carta. They ask a hundred questions. They might have made additional arrangements before coming,” such as calling ahead to be sure a certain dish is still on the menu or an ingredient is in season.
And, at the end of every meal, he says, they fervently hope to meet the chef and perhaps tour the kitchen. “It’s definitely a culture,” he adds.
Blogging with the ulterior epicure:
To view his 1,700-plus photos (now more than 3,000), go to www.flickr.com. You must open an account, but it’s free. On th emain page, click on People at the top of the screen. Click on “try a search.” Write ulteriorepicure (one word) in the box. On his page, click on Sets to see a list of catalogued restaurant photos.
It appears tha tonly a few other southeast Michiganders are active food bloggers, but numerous area food-lovers and food-industry professionals post regularly on the food forums of the eGullet Society, at http://www.eGullet.org.