Food and Drinks

99 down for American Paul Grinberg out to eat at world’s 100 best restaurants in a year – and he’s only got a month left to snag his final reservation 

Californian executive flew 12 hours just to dine at a Hong Kong restaurant, squeezed in two dinners in one night, and seven Michelin-star meals in a weekend – but will he complete his 12-month quest? Ask chef Saito in Tokyo 

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2018, 8:18pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2018, 3:49pm

When it comes to setting yourself extreme goals in life, the inner adventurer in you might have your sights set on climbing Everest or running an ultra marathon. For those who don’t want to break sweat, how about setting yourself a culinary challenge of epic proportions (or should that be portions)?

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American foodie Paul Grinberg has done just that. Over the past year he has been living the culinary dream, as he wines and dines his way through the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list – and it’s extended 51 to 100 list. But it has been no easy task – nor a cheap one – with the 2017 list spanning 30 countries across six continents.

The Californian financial executive, who leads his company’s overseas operations, spends more than two-thirds of the year abroad, meaning he gets to visit far-flung cities with superb dining options on a regular basis. 

So far he has been able to knock off 99 restaurants from his list – but he’s running out of time to get a reservation at the last one on the list – one of Japan’s most exclusive sushi restaurants. 

The 56-year-old’s love of fine dining has seen him go to some extreme lengths over the past year. He once flew 12 hours from Johannesburg just to dine at Hong Kong’s 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana (No. 60). He also knocked off two restaurants in one night in Adelaide during a brief stopover in the southern Australian city. Over the course of one long weekend in Germany, he ate at seven Michelin-rated restaurants with a combined 20 stars. Tough life! 

While he now knows his shirako (cod sperm) from his ankimo (monkfish liver), Grinberg says he hasn’t always been a foodie. Until recently he didn’t even eat seafood – the idea of raw fish turning his stomach upside down – instead opting for “steak or pasta”. But after a friend convinced him to try salmon sushi, he says, he fell in love. 

Once he had a handle on seafood, he was introduced to the world of Michelin-starred restaurants, dining at the three-Michelin-star Le Bernardin (No. 17) in New York. 

But how did Grinberg go from eating at a Michelin-rated restaurant to embarking on such an expensive global expedition? It was by accident, he says.

“I was on holidays in Spain and I was looking for a place to eat, and after a quick web search it came up with the World’s 50 Best, and consequently two of the places on the list that were mentioned in the top 10 – El Celler de Can Roca (No. 3) and Asador Etxebarri (No. 6) – were where I was travelling to,” he says. “Once I ate there, I had never tasted anything like it. The way they presented the food, the creativity, the molecular gastronomy was eye-opening.”

Grinberg then started using the list as a “guide for where to make reservations” as he travelled for work. Before he knew it, he was closing in on the top 50 when the extended list was released, which spurred him on to eat at all 100. 

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While away on business, he would use his weekends to get away to nearby restaurants he had not yet ticked off, like when he flew six hours from his office in Bogota, Colombia to Santiago just to eat at Rodolfo Guzmán’s contemporary Chilean restaurant, Boragó (No. 42). 

Another time, instead of flying direct from South Africa to Australia for work, he made a detour via Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and Singapore just to knock off a number of restaurants on the list before arriving in Sydney.

Like picking your favourite child, choosing his No. 1 dining experience is near impossible. While all 99 restaurants “are deserving to be on the list”, he says his most memorable experience in Asia was at the reality-bending Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet (No. 41) in Shanghai, where 10 guests a night are treated to a 20-course meal that melds and manipulates light, sounds and smells to create a culinary theatre like no other. 

In Latin America his favourite was Central (No. 5) in Lima, where each of the 17-plus courses are based on a different altitude, from 20 metres below sea level to 4,100 metres above, celebrating Peru’s biodiversity.

In Europe, he can’t pass on a meal at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (No. 36), with his deceiving “meat fruit” course, “where it looks like a mandarin but is actually [chicken liver] parfait”, while in America, his most whimsical meal was at Chicago’s Alinea (No. 21). Known for its avant-garde molecular gastronomy, guests are handed a helium-filled apple balloon as part of dessert. 

“It’s a very interesting experience because you bite into the balloon and as you inhale the helium, your voice changes and everyone in the restaurant starts sounding like a chipmunk,” he says.

So how much has this food journey cost Grinberg? He says he would be “terrified” to quantify just how much money he’s spent during his year-long adventure – especially as he always orders the most expensive set meal to ensure he’s getting the full experience – but he says his priciest experiences were in France. (One time his partner drank a glass of champagne that was offered to them before the meal – that glass alone set Grinberg back a cool 150 (US$179).) 

But Grinberg has a tip for any globetrotting foodies: he says the best value for money can be found in Spain.

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Each restaurant on the list will have a different wildly expensive set menu price – reflective not only of the premium produce used and the wine pairing, but of the hundreds of hours it takes to create a dish worthy of being placed on the menu. 

To put it in perspective, to eat dinner at the No. 1 ranked restaurant on the list, Eleven Madison Park in New York, will cost more than US$1,000 for two, including drinks, tax and tip.

An unexpected highlight of the journey has been the friendships he has made with fellow diners and chefs, who “light up” when they hear of his adventures. Grinberg says chefs often “pull up a chair” after service to pore over his printed spreadsheet of the 350 Michelin-rated and “hatted” restaurants he has visited. 

“There’s many times I have had the list out and the chefs … start going over it with me and comparing notes and asking me if I liked this place or that place, or if I had tried this dish,” he says. “Sometimes the chef does not speak the same language, but even then they would usually have someone come over to translate.”

After finishing each lavish meal he also poses for a photo with the chef, getting them to hold up a colourful printed sign titled “Paul’s Culinary Adventure” (in comic sans font, no less), with details of his journey written below. 

He posts photos of his encounters and exquisite meals on his Instagram account @restaurantstodinefor in the hope it will drum up support to get him a reservation at the last restaurant he needs to eat at to complete his mission – Sushi Saito in Tokyo, where it is next to impossible to reserve one of its eight seats for dinner. 

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Ranked No. 97, Sushi Saito is one of the most highly sought after tickets on the 50 Best Restaurants list, with an introduction from a previous guest the only sure-fire way to secure a reservation at the exclusive venue.

Grinberg has exhausted all his corporate contacts trying to get a look-in, and even tried being creative. “I had a sushi chef that I go to a lot in California contact his fish distributor in Tokyo to try get me a reservation,” he says. When that didn’t work, he enlisted the help of a group of people who tried continuously cold calling to get a reservation. 

One of those people actually did get through, but Grinberg was unable to leave a work meeting in India to dine at the sushi bar. Recently, he was also invited to visit the newly opened Sushi Saito in Hong Kong, but after his grandchild was born days before he was due to fly out, he chose family over food. 

Maybe third time’s a charm. But Grinberg will have to be quick; the 2018 list is being released in just over a month’s time in Bilbao, Spain. The list is determined by more than 1,000 highly regarded foodies across the globe. Chefs, restaurateurs, gourmands and restaurant critics make up the group, with each voting for their 10 top restaurants for the year. 

Whether he is able to complete his mammoth challenge by June 19 or not, he’s already got his sights set on the 2018 list. Grinberg plans to first dine at any new additions to the list, before setting himself a new mission: eating at all the three-Michelin-star restaurants across the globe. 

He has already made a good start, having dined at 85 of them.