Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Inconvenience of Fine Dining

The title for this blog is misleading.  There is no intention to say that fine dining is an inconvenience, because it isn’t.  It is, when properly executed, a marvel and a privilege.  Also, this is not a blog to complain about the required jackets and etiquette required for such affairs because I, for one, truly believe that we are approaching at a time where etiquette, dress and formality (and chivalry for that matter) are sorely lacking.  Rather, with my recent introduction of Dux (www.duxsf.com), I’ve started to wrestle with questions on what should and should not be considered as a fine dining experience. 

The primary catalyst for this discussion was the Thursday night conversation that I had with a good chef friend of mine while enjoying the 17 course tasting menu at Benu.  We had started a blow by blow analysis of each course – analyzing technique, chemical and composition for everything we ate.  At some point at the end of the night, he asked me whether or not I ultimately dreamt of something close to the grandeur that we had just experienced.

With only sophomoric experience (and an independent attitude) in crafting tasting menus and, more importantly, serving them, I felt uneasy about the question.  Frankly, I’m not sure.  The answer was not a reflection or digression on my confidence or ability, but rather, a direct result of what I think are philosophical contradictions to what it means to offer the finest of fine dining menus.  What exactly does it mean to be a L20, Daniel, French Laundry, Benu, Jean Georges, Eleven Madison, Michael Mina, etc.?

The first issue discussed was the lack of focus on head-to-tail philosophy, something that I have always embraced because it has always been a matter of importance stemming from cultural inheritance and schooling from chef mentors.  Fine dining tasting menus always focus on emerging trends and the necessity to showcase top-tier ingredients.  Most of the time this means that you will likely be served the best cut of the best breed of animal available.  Tenderloins, frenched ribs, rare breeds, distant seafood are not just the norm – they are the expectation.  None of this is an issue –especially to me when I dine, but I also don’t expect to find braised tripe and offal as the third course on many of these menus. 

The second part of the discussion was the waste that commonly occurs in fine dining establishments.  To get to the perfect circles, squares and shapes of your fine meal, it normally must mean that certain quantities of the prepped item were cut away and discarded.  Sometimes the yield required to make food pretty is disgustingly low.  Again, this somewhat ties me into my first point presented.  When the focus of the meal is to serve best of the best, the rest of what may be attached is likely unused or discarded.  Don’t get me wrong – fine dining is a necessity like high concept or avante garde art is a necessity.  There is way too much brainless trash available to us on a daily basis that we NEED equalizers in the form of high standard and art to maintain our balances.  For the purposes of this blog, the discussion is strictly a matter of what it means when you choose to cook this way.

Finally, we got to the question of the heart and the soul.  Inevitably, there is always heart to these beautiful menus.  At some point, a chef poured his intelligence and creativity over dish by dish, normally no bigger than 6 square inches, and worried endlessly about whether his critical diners would understand, appreciate and enjoy it.  And in most cases, his heart, intelligence and creativity is leaps and bounds above most.  But, has the chase for the stars (figurative and literal) masked the soul of the food?  The service: always far more professional than warm; the food: always more technical than rustic.  I’m not sure, but at some point does it seem that the fragility and preciousness of certain food take away from what we perceive as soul in cooking?  Is there more or less soul in a dish with 4 tweezers and 3 different cooks working on it?  I honestly don’t really know.

Over the last decade, it seems increasingly more common that some restaurants featuring head-to-tail and rustic menus are becoming ranked in the stratosphere of fine dining.  While that is nice, redefining fine dining and what it necessarily entails is a far cry from a progressive movement.  Just look at the list for Best Restaurants in the World – or even Michelin star rankings in different cities.  Will these lists, stars and rules always determine how we choose to value a fine dining experience or how special does something have to be to provoke a change?  There are clearly examples of both, ranging from Daniel Boulud’s documented chase for a final star to a Michelin starred Hong Kong dim sum joint.  Are we looking at the rule and an exception to that rule – or are we looking at a rule and an exception that proves the rule?