THE role of host becomes Paul Levy. He stands in the hallway, awaiting a reporter, an amiable officer looking for a traffic jam. He invites you in with sweeping gestures. His not-so-humble abode awaits inspection. This is where the food writer camps out between ingestion and digestion, doing mental gymnastics with a laptop computer. He's the thinking person's food writer, whose entry in Who's Who in Britain lists his recreations as 'being cooked for, and drinking better wine'. The American could pass for a shorter, more compact version of Pavarotti, one with blue eyes and fair hair worn like a cap of corkscrew curls. He doesn't feign boredom with the trappings: orchids, an intricate detail on the canopied bed or having your own sauna. But a villain lurks in the bathroom corner, the scales. When queried if he used it, he reacted in mock anguish, his face contorted by memory. 'I stepped on them. Once. That's it. Never again.' Fat. Liver aches. Diet. Indigestion. Caffeine jitters. Big eyes, small stomachs, endless opportunities to eat and drink. Such are the perils of his profession; and one accounted for his appointment with the tailor for suits of a more generous cut and prices far less than anything in London. The nine extra kilos collected around the mid-section of his 54-year-old frame cannot be laughed off any longer as 'my tumour'. In the late 70s Mr Levy broke new ground when he walked into Britain's sorority of food writers. He carved a niche with thoughts and ideas in a style 'not the recipe kind, but masculine'. 'No one in England was writing that way,' says the lapsed academic of his essays in 'Private Cook', his first column for Harpers & Queen. 'In the 70s and much earlier, food writing was recipes. The writers, women. I can't stand recipes. They're like algebra. And I'm better at algebra than recipes.' What cooking skills he had at 18 - mostly deep fried, cajun and creole, he practised on his flatmates at Oxford. Plowing through a cookbook by the Louis Diat convinced him his liver was French. For 18 years his byline graced the The Observer as food and wine editor. The current three weekly deadlines are for Wall Street Journal as 'their European culture buff', an international travel magazine and You/The Mail on Sunday. Journalism was a refuge from decades of academics and the threat of life as a don. He started by writing book reviews on familiar turf, the Bloomsbury Group and such, while living off a fat book advance for a tome on philosopher G. E. Moore. 'They took those reviews, not because they were good, but they came in on time and they were legible.' Writing Finger Lickin' Good: A Kentucky Childhood and The Official Foodie Handbook is as noble as his textbook on philosophy or the myriad publications on Lytton Strachey. You can hear the crack of a polo ball in his accent. Waiting for an audible hint of his Kentucky roots is fruitless. He lives with his art historian wife 'turned-children's taxi driver' and two daughters in a 17th-century seven-bedroom farmhouse in Oxfordshire. With a black thumb and help from a Kew Gardens' alumnus, Mr Levy tills the soil on occasion and 'plants recipes'. He hasn't lived in his homeland since a teaching stint and graduate work at Harvard in the 60s. His life is a gruelling treadmill of reconfirming flights and dinner reservations tempered with the discipline of a five-hour sit, on the road or home, facing a computer. Researching columns on food, art and architecture brought him to Hong Kong and Singapore. 'I haven't been here for 10 years. It has changed, but it hasn't. I still know my way to and from on the Star Ferry.' A coterie of foodies and international friends, including American food doyenne Julia Child, the late gastronomy writer Jane Grigson and chefs/restaurateurs Ken Hom, Paul Bocuse, Nico Ladenis and Raymond Blanc have kept him informed and never without dining connections, be it Madrid, Hangzhou or Cincinnati. With the exception of two coffee-shop meals, his agenda included catching up with new restaurants and old, and dining in the homes of the well-heeled and well-fed. Finding waiters without neckties at Bistro Gold in Causeway Bay was totally refreshing. So were two of their dishes he described as 'staggering': a lighter version of Shanghainese steamed eggplant, served cold, and a cholesterol-defying omelet. Sleeves were rolled up over seafood and dim sum in Wan Chai and the extreme refinement he anticipated at Lai Ching Heen in the Regent came without a wrinkle. The term 'fine dining' rankles his nerves because it directly relates to money and encourages an attitude among the over-rated dining guide inspectors. 'Dining has always been expensive in London but things are getting worse. Paris by comparison is a bargain. Two can have dinner in a three-star restaurant in Paris for $900 per person whereas at Marco Pierre White's (London's current culinary wunderkind) you pay $1,200 per person. Hong Kong is worse.' CHEFS are becoming savvier businessmen, he says. While maintaining the temples that earned them stars and toques, they're opening smaller, less expensive bistros down the street for their chef friends on their night off. For one restaurateur, the small bistro idea backfired. 'He got stars. That ruined it. All of a sudden all sorts of people, the kind you'd never eat with, came.' The newspaper food critic he respects is Fay Maschler of the Evening Standard, a post she has held for 20 years. 'Her job is one city whereas someone like [restaurant critic] Emily Green of The Independent has a more difficult scope. Her restaurants are scattered all over the country. 'If the reviewer visits a restaurant outside of London three times, and one visit isn't enough, it's a killing schedule. 'It costs less money to take the train to Paris than it does to Leeds. Respectable newspapers and magazines have enormous budgets for dining. They pay their own way. But few papers in Britain have that budget.' He believes maintaining anonymity isn't as critical as it is cracked up to be. 'What can the chef do. Leave and go shopping on the spot? Most of the food is already prepared anyway. All the service can do is smile more and put more on the plate. You look for what the restaurant is capable of producing. Restaurant reviewing isn't an art form. It is information. Tell people where to go. And why. 'I've been in three-star restaurants where the waiter brushed crumbs on the floor, brought the wrong dish and poured water in the wine glass. Does that deserve three stars?' He uses dining guides with caution. When informed that inspectors for the Egon Ronay's Guides were about to descend on Hong Kong, his patience didn't wait for the next logical question. 'Use it only for phone numbers.' For Britain, he recommends The Good Food Guide as reliable. 'Michelin is good in France, especially in the big provincial cities and hotels, but hopeless elsewhere. The inspectors are trained in French food. The trouble with Michelin is it never gives you information, like how many slices of kiwi or veal. They use symbols, not words. His favourite guide for Paris is the one used by Parisians, the Pudlowski Guide by Gilles Pudlowski. Though fashionable, it is well done. One trend he traces back to Chinese dining style is picking up momentum in Europe and North America. 'London and New York are going for the big, mega-sized restaurants. The 300-seat places where you go with a group of friends and just hang-out. Places similar in size and atmosphere to La Coupole (a landmark brasserie in Paris), where the menu is very good and affordable and the people-watching, wonderful. 'Dining is theatre. But the trouble is finding the right audience.'