Thursday, January 10, 2013

Fine Dines, Great Feasts, and Bad Taste

“If the main reason we listen to music in the first place is to hear passion expressed- as I've believed all my life-then what good is this music going to prove to be? what does that say about us? What are we confirming in ourselves by doting on art that is emotionally neutral? And, simultaneously, what in ourselves might we be destroying or at least keeping down?”

- Lester Bangs

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The last 3-4 years has been a prodigious period for the tasting menu– glorified and envied through the catalyst of food porn, industry blogs and the cult of “foodie”.  Simply put, it has become the bat signal for critics and chefs alike.  Critics seem to understand this as a symbol of a challenge, or a standard, or even an expectation of the type of meal and service to follow.  Chefs seem to see it as a symbolic arrival, a culmination of craft, or maybe even as the only possible path to the trajectory for multiple Michelin stars.  True or not, this looks like the game being played.  The big question now is: why does it seem, for some reason, that there is an impending shift and effort to retract this movement? 

Two prominent articles in the last 3 months have given way to this uneasy feeling that the tasting menu is due for a hit.  “Nibbled To Death”, written by NYTimes Critic Pete Wells,  is a quirky, thoughtful but somewhat balanced piece recounting the intricacies of different tasting menus –Mr. Wells highlights his objections regarding the length and format of tasting menu dinners, but also includes vivid recollections and praiseworthy word selection to remark about the qualities that make the menus so special.  The second article, Tyranny – It’s What’s For Dinner, is derivative of the first in intent and sentiment, but Corby Kummer, the author, offers up more of a subjective historical perspective in relation to the evolution and present onslaught of the tasting menus throughout the country.  Mr. Kummer is a good deal less forgiving with his recollections during these dinners and despite his assertions that we are in a better place now than in previous decades, he still seems to lay out his desire for a world without “tyranny”.  Wells’ piece puts the dining world on notice (because after all, it is the NY Times Food Section), but he appropriately does not try to tear down walls.  Kummer’s piece alone might have been argumentative and noted, but without the background echoes from the previous piece, I’m not sure it would have carried the weight it seems to be doing so right now.  The appropriate piggyback piece for the appropriate time it seems.

Shortly after Pete Wells wrote his piece, there was a commentary (or rebuttal) written by Ryan Sutton, a NY food writer for Bloomberg.  Here, Mr. Sutton points out there much of the food that has been developing in NY has really not necessarily been tasting menu oriented – that the trend is actually found in the recent development of elevated casual ethnic cuisine.  This is important to note simply because in 2012, there have been more casual new restaurants making waves and headlines than tasting menu restaurants.  And, based on eating through New York this summer, he’s spot on.  The tasting menu trend is a thing, but also somewhat of a mirage, seemingly enhanced by the jealousy dripping from social network, heavy media focus and Instagram. 

The most important argument made by Sutton is simply this: “not every individual restaurant has to be accessible to every individual.”  I feel this is the primary reason why the arguments against tasting menus are misleading.  I still do not understand who these articles were intended to influence (more specifically Kummer’s piece).  For the casual diner who has the chance to experience a tasting menu, it is a rare occurrence and probably an experience that has no historic reference.  For the experienced diner or amateur gourmet, the occurrence for a tasting menu might only be slightly less rare, but the expectations for the type of dinner or service must already be understood and accepted – like an understood contract between restaurant and customer.  For example, I know the expectations contract I have for service (or lack there of) when I go to my favorite hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant.  With that said, it’s not a casual contract with fine dining because I’m not sure you can waltz into a tasting menu on any given night to experience the “tyranny”.  Are these commentaries a subversive way to serve as tastemakers in influencing the outcomes of menu trends moving forward?  Is this just another witch hunt against something that the trend setters of the industry have gotten tired of?

The most obvious resolution to this is market correction.  If anything, the restaurant industry always seems to autocorrect to trend faster than Apple adds an “S” to another iPhone.  There have been plenty of responses and written pieces arguing the same thing: no need for movement, let’s just let it ride.  (Some well written samples on the blogospheres by Gray Report here and Eater here).  Funny thing about my own commentary is that most of this was written before either piece had made its appearance on the web – so I’m glad that there seems to be a general feeling that the Kummer piece reads more like a “privileged whine”.  (As I recall reading somewhere.)  

What doesn’t filter in my head is that I feel that both articles seem to be written from a very unique point of view and seem to only serve a small sample of others with the ability to process those emotions.  To put it plainly, they scream of what people endearingly would call “1st world problems” for fine dining.  Personally, I have had my fair share of tasting menus in different forms and I don’t tire of experiencing them, because for the cook, it is oftentimes part analytic study and part pleasure.  Though for some, tasting menus do not resonate, but again, they are not meant to be “accessible to every individual.”   

I won’t lie, I have had some long tasting menu experiences over the last few years.  The most recent was at Curtis Duffy’s new restaurant Grace in Chicago.  By course 8, the waitress noticed that my eyes opened ever so slowly as my body went into a tiny sigh. It was a very subtle, but still an obvious motion indicating that I was coming close (if not there already) to a physical limit for how much I could eat. 5 more courses would come to the table that night and when the experience ended, I found myself somewhat physically and mentally overwhelmed. Yes, a tasting menu can be exhausting – even to someone who knows what to expect.

But, I’m not sure critics, chefs and those that live and breath this industry react the same way as the majority of the diners at these establishments.  The mental exercise for someone who has to analyze or critique the pure amount of data is a lot harder and more strenuous than a regular diner.  I concede that there are challenges with eating like this often, and I sympathize with Kummer and Wells on some level – especially when you always have to be mentally alert course after course.  An example of the mental process for each dish that I try to go through: visual presentation, component complexity, ingredient, flavor profiles, intent, execution, aroma, texture, techniques applied, cohesion, combination, and inspiration. 

As much as it can be physically or mentally exhausting to try to wrap your head around everything that you are eating, I’m not sure I would trade some of the inspirations, conversations and ideas that I had about the last 5 courses at Grace.  It’s a lot to absorb, but other than weight, we probably spend 98% of all our other meals simply absorbing nothing particularly too intelligible. 

In that light, I’d argue, much like Lester Bangs once did, that a world without the tasting menu – without this condensation and exploration of thought, intent and ideas into many bites – would there be as much to write, discuss and be inspired from?  I’ve had too many meals that are “emotionally neutral” to have issues with meals that are challenging.  If you trim things down, it might not mean dishes would end up being worse, but you lose that chance to write, experience or discover something great.  I’m sure there have been revelations at course 12 as much as there have been at course 2 since the inception of the tasting menu.  Yes, there is the argument that if you throw enough on the wall, something will stick, but sometimes everything sticks and different things stain and leave lasting impressions.  Would the complaints or compliments change if menus were capped at 7 courses?  Has anyone ever complained that the Met Museum was tyrannical because it was offering too much thought provoking priceless pieces of art for one day?  I simply hate the idea of rejecting intelligent creation; the thought crawls through my skin for some reason.  Wait, I think I know what that is.

It feels like another form of censorship.  It’s another argument for a restraint on something that is the intellectual choice that chefs have and appropriately earned.  We might not like the taste of everything and, in some cases, things are done in bad taste, but its freedom of choice in all directions to provide, enjoy, or reject the experience.  I’m not sure a PSA to scare readers would make much sense with a disjointed argument about tyranny.  Last I checked from general conversations with people not associated with food, fine dining and tasting menus already suffer from the same issues (since forever) regarding class, approachability, value, identity and accessibility.  All legitimate opinions, but most are still inaccurate, unfounded or misled bias.  I find it exceedingly hard to rally the troops about the value and experience of a tasting menu when some guy is out there saying how ridiculously oppressive it is to enjoy, sit, think and be served too much for too long.

One last point, I’d like to make.  In every single tasting menu restaurant I have been served at, never have I had issues with a restaurant not taking my preferences, choices or allergies in mind.  If anything, I have always been asked either when making the reservation, when confirming the reservation or before dinner service begins.  If I ask for it, it is always accommodated.  I have always been presented with the ability to ask for options or compromise from the kitchen.  Something that casual restaurants rarely would offer to ask you before ordering.