A FOODIE UNMASKS

Alan Richman's choice of a career was greatly influenced by his experience serving in Vietnam, where he claims to have been the only soldier who gained weight during his tour of duty. That was because he could eat free of charge. "I am proud," he says, "that while I was serving my country, my country was also serving me." Years later, when he discovered that restaurant critics also get their meals paid for, he knew he'd found his calling. For a decade and a half he has been one of America's most discerning, original and voracious food writers. As he looks back in his new book, "Fork It Over," at meals variously enjoyed or regretted but generally paid for by someone else, one accomplishment stands out: whether he's taking Sharon Stone to lunch at Manhattan's ultrachic March or scouring the delicatessens of Brooklyn in search of the oldest living Jewish waiter, Richman goes out of his way to be recognized by restaurant owners.

This, of course, is a gross violation of the code of honor of professional restaurant reviewers. Ruth Reichl, who as food critic of The New York Times set the standard for anonymity, once devastatingly compared a meal she ate under cover at Le Cirque with an incomparably better one she was served when she was recognized. Richman's philosophy has always been, Who wants to read about the time you were treated as a nobody? He describes a five-day stay in Monte Carlo, where he ate lunch and dinner every day at Alain Ducasse's three-star restaurant Le Louis XV, in effect pitting his liver against his expense account. "After one such meal," he writes, "the process of digestion is inadequate. What is required is decompression."

His advice to civilians forced to dine under their own unrecognizable names is to bring a spiral notebook and pretend to take surreptitious notes. "Once you're spotted, the food will improve and you might get a free dessert," he advises. "Most critics think being recognized ruins everything because the restaurant tries too hard and brings out too much food. What's wrong with too much food?"

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