Paul dishes out reviews which go down a treat

TAKE a look around a typical British high street 30 years ago and the choice of restaurant would have been limiting. And that's at best.

But now there are countless takeaways, restaurants, pop-up cafes and eateries featuring food from all over the world.

One man who has been a part of the dramatic change is Paul Levy.

The 74-year-old has been critiquing and writing about the subject for more than four decades.

And he has even been credited with inventing the word 'foodie'.

"The immigrant population is one of the chief reasons at the explosion of different kinds of foods," he told me.

"Joining Europe, which meant trade barriers were lifted and, therefore, making it much simpler to bring produce in from all over the world, is another reason.

"The second generation immigrants have introduced regional differences in Vietnamese, Indian and Thai food. The Brits, too, have become better eaters."

The author of Finger-Lickin' Good: A Kentucky Childhood, among other books, Paul began writing a food column for The Observer newspaper in 1980.

He had previously written about it for Harpers & Queen magazine.

By the third year of the column, it had won every British prize for food journalism at least twice and, in 1985 and again in 1987, Paul was commended in the British Press Awards.

During his time at The Observer, Paul also introduced the nouvelle cuisine chefs of France to the British public - which became de rigueur.

But he is rather more scathing about nouvelle cuisine today.

He explained: "Nouvelle cuisine was about eight or nine tasting menus - now it is about getting a large variety of food at one meal.

"The portions were small because you'd have to be gluttonous to eat larger ones. I think it is on its way out.

"It is really a device for the chef to show off, so there is a bit of vanity involved, although, understandably, the chefs want to show what they can do."

Food did not play an integral part in his childhood.

Paul was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky. His paternal grandparents came from Konigsberg, which is now Kaliningrad in Russia, while his maternal grandfather was born in Poland.

The latter met his future wife in Whitechapel, east London - but Paul said she was not sure whether she was born in the East End or abroad.

"None of the women in my family could cook," Paul recalled. "In the South, we had black cooks and the food was wonderful.

"They knew a lot of Jewish dishes, such as latkes.

"One dish I remember them cooking was green beans overcooked with kosher salami, which they used instead of bacon.

"My mother's second husband served with the American army in India, so I guess we were the only kids in Kentucky who ate curry, too."

He was raised in a non-religious home, although the family "pretended" to be kosher when his grandmother visited.

"I was barmitzvah, reluctantly however, as my paternal grandmother died just beforehand," he recalled. "I was a bit rebellious, but I was shamed in going through with it.

"That was the last time I stepped foot in a synagogue. My social circle, though, was more tied in with the local shul."

He rarely encountered antisemitism, acknowledging that, during the 1950s and 1960s, black youngsters had a "much rougher time".

Paul read philosophy at the University of Chicago and continued with his studies at University College London, Harvard, and Nuffield College, Oxford.

He had already spent the summer of 1962 in Oxford as part of a grand tour of Europe with his father Hyman and had made friends there.

Paul's PhD was released as a book in 1979 and, a year later, he co-authored The Shorter Strachey, about the writer and critic Lytton Strachey.

Paul and Michael Holroyd later became co-literary executors of Strachey's estate.

He became food and wine editor at The Observer, where he stayed until 1991, having originally joined as a book reviewer.

Travelling the world, writing about food and speaking at conferences on the topic, Paul said among the worst meals he had eaten were dog in Macau and nam phrik in northern Thailand.

"I didn't find dog morally disgusting - it was aesthetically disgusting," he recalled.

"The fried locusts were not the problem in Thailand, it was the nam phrik, which was so hot it removed a layer of skin from your lip.

"In the Soviet Union, dinner in the hotels was strange. You would be offered beef, but they would serve undifferentiated cuts of beef, so you would have fillet with inedible rib."

His 1984 book, the best-selling Official Foodie Handbook, was co-written with Harpers & Queen features editor Ann Barr.

The word 'foodie' gained currency with the release of the book - but is a misconception that he invented the term.

Paul, who lives in Oxfordshire, explained: "In the early 1980s, we saw people becoming fanatical about food - it was a rather new trend.

"Ann had asked readers to comment on this subject and several of them pointed to me.

"They received many anecdotes about food and we turned it into a whole piece with photographs.

"If you look up 'foodie' in the Oxford English Dictionary, it is actually accredited to the chief sub-editors at Harpers & Queen."

It was at the Official Foodie Handbook launch that Paul said he enjoyed his most glorious meal.

"Anton Mosimann, the Swiss chef, cooked a meal to celebrate the book," he recalled.

"There were 11 Michelin-starred chefs in attendance and on my table was Sir Terence Conran, Iris Murdoch and one of the Troisgrois brothers, who are famous French chefs."

Paul, who describes himself as 'well-blended' when it comes to his American and British personalities, is not a fan of the American diner fad, which is currently engulfing the British food scene.

"There are more and more sprouting up," he said. "I do remember Ed's Easy Diner in London and I mean to stop at Starvin' Marvins every time we pass it on the way to London.

"I just find it remarkable as British beef is better than American beef. It is obviously fashionable, but I do not know why. I do not understand its proliferation."

Jewish food, particularly in the Ashkenazi tradition, has not enjoyed the best of reputations over the years, especially as it seen as not too healthy.

And Paul, who has been married to art historian Penelope (nee Marcus) for 38 years and is the father of Georgina and Tatyana, believes the healthier Sephardi dishes have become more popular.

"It is taking over as it is more in-tune with the times and the way people want to eat," he explained.

"Since the Nosherie restaurant on New Hatton Street, London, closed, I have not really been to a genuine, bona fide Jewish restaurant.

"I think (Israeli chef Yotam) Ottolenghi's work is the Jewish food of the present and future.

"The Sephardi dishes use more vegetables, although they are not afraid of frying once in a while."

Paul has visited Israel twice. He recalled: "The first time was in 1962 and I do not remember the food, apart from the kibbutz I visited where breakfast involved a lot of vegetables.

"The second time I went was for some sort of food festival.

"I had cow's udder at a Yemeni restaurant, which was the chewiest thing I have ever encountered.

"I remember a great fois grois place in Tel Aviv, but there was wonderful food everywhere in Israel."

Not a fan of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Paul says he often defends the Jewish state.

He said: "Often people say 'those damned Israelis' and you have to make the case for Israel.

"One wants to ensure the survival of the State of Israel, but the current situation is worrying and upsetting."

From 1991 to 2001, he wrote a weekly column on the arts for The Wall Street Journal Europe, covering drama, books, the visual arts and architecture, music and, from 1999 to 2001 a weekly piece on food or wine.

A former co-chairman with the Sephardi cook Claudia Roden of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Paul also writes opinion pieces for the Daily Telegraph, as well as writing many of the obituaries featured on its pages.

"I discovered I had a knack for it," he added. "Through my work on Strachey, I seemed somehow to have learned how to summarise a life briefly."

© 2015 Jewish Telegraph