When Jeff and I lived in Las Vegas, one of our favorite forms of entertainment on a night off was to go to a high end restaurant, ask for the chef’s taster menu and not even look at the menu. We’d spend hours there, enjoying whatever it was they put in front of us, experiencing new flavors and foods we had never tasted before and overall participating in a culinary theatrical experience that titillated our every sense. In some ways I considered this to be my culinary awakening, my education of sorts in the world of food and flavors. We visited a myriad of restaurants from famous chefs like Commander’s Palace, Robuchon’s, Picasso and more. Since then we have continued this form of entertainment and virtually every trip we take revolves around finding a restaurant with this type of menu where we can submit ourselves to the creative whims of a chef and allow them to take us on a culinary journey. We find this kind of dining fun, inspirational and tremendously stimulating, as I suspect a vast many people do or they would not have perpetuated as they have.
In a recent article in Vanity Fair written by Corby Kummer entitled Tyranny-It’s What’s For Dinner, however, this type of taster menu is scrutinized as being over the top, arrogant and completely void of the desires and needs of the customer. Kummer states:
“Mercy is a rare commodity at restaurants like this, where the diner is essentially strapped into a chair and expected to be enraptured for a minimum of three and often four and five hours, and to consume dozens of dishes. Choice, changes, selective omissions—control, really, over any part of an inevitably very expensive experience—are not an option. “
While I appreciate the argument and think it perhaps has some validity on certain occasions, I have to disagree that there isn’t a place for it in this current culinary landscape. Chefs like Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Grant Achatz of Alinea and Next have elevated food to an art form and a scientific experience unlike any other. They represent the best of the movement known as Molecular Gastronomy, a movement which began with the genius of Ferran Adria at the now closed El Bulli in Spain. There is a time and a place for it and as long as the diner knows what they are getting themselves into, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the long, drawn out saga of a 20-40 course dinner.
Do some chefs abuse the system for the sake of fitting into a mold they perceive to be the “in thing” without the purpose of exploring new territory scientifically and new flavors? Yes. There are many “celebrity chefs” that are just that, celebrities. Their food isn’t exactly overwhelming, the service nothing spectacular, yet they are able to capitalize on their celebrity by presenting inferior food at their restaurants. These aren’t the places I look to when we are planning our getaways. They also aren’t the places I have sought to emulate in my own restaurant.
My number one focus is on flavor and on presenting fresh, local food without too much fanfare. I am not interested in making foams and hollow shells of shrimp juice with edible seaweed balls in the center. The number one most important aspect of my cooking is in my use of spices, which I apply carefully to accentuate the natural flavor of foods. I often say that I spend way too much money on organic meat, eggs and produce to then inject them with a bunch of chemicals to turn them into something they are not. I prefer to keep things elegant, but simple.
I do however like the notion and experience of a chef’s taster menu where it is up to the chef to be creative and produce a menu reflective of their personality and individuality. I see food and cooking as an art form, not as a science experiment. I don’t want frankenfoods, I want real meat, real eggs and real fruits/vegetables that are recognizable at least in some form or another. To me cooking is a symbiotic relationship between those who grow the food, those who prepare it, and those who consume it. In essence the chef is the mediator between the earth and the body, transforming raw material into energy and hopefully pleasure of the senses.
Food to me also represents a unique opportunity to educate people about other cultures and new flavors. Everyone on the planet has to eat and in many ways, food is the safest medium within which to explore other cultures without invoking religion, politics or other more volatile topics. And as a cultural anthropologist by training, this aspect of food is perhaps the most interesting part of cooking. I have the unique opportunity at every meal to be a chef anthroplogist, creating foods that are in some way representative of an entire group of people. I’m somewhat of a foodie geek in that regards. If there is a show or a cookbook that can meld these two topics together, I’m all the more interested in it.
There is another value to serving a taster menu with just one option per night and that is economics. The restaurant industry is perhaps the highest risk industry out there. Restaurants fail at epic rates and the two biggest factors in that are overstaffing/understaffing and food waste. By keeping the menu simple and only serving those who have reservations, we have virtually eliminated both of these pitfalls. And many restaurants are following suit. It has less to do with not wanting to cater to the customers desires than simply a matter of survival.
That being said, myself and many other chefs are perfectly willing to make adjustments accordingly for dietary restrictions. Few of us are culinary Nazis in the vein of what Kummer describes in this article. If I have someone coming who is a vegetarian and I had planned a beef entree, I am more than happy to come up with an alternative for that individual. Again, this makes good business sense. The more people you can accommodate, the higher your profit margin and the more likely you’ll get repeat business.
I will say, however, that I am less apt to accommodate someones “dislikes” and I have a sound reason for doing so. Most people who claim to dislike a food have either never had it before and just think they dislike it, or they only had it when they were kids and have been afraid to try it since. I always say, if I didn’t like something, it probably wasn’t prepared properly and I’m willing to give it a second or even third chance. By not offering people a choice or a way out of tasting something they don’t think they’ll like, you force them to be adventurous and break out of their comfort zone. More often than not I end up hearing from guests that they didn’t think they’d like something but that they loved it. Those who dine with us do so knowing that they are going to be in for a slightly unique experience and see it as an opportunity to take a little culinary adventure. There are plenty of places that serve what they know and if that’s what they want, they can go there.
Finally, I would argue that this new kind of celebrity chef driven scientifically engineered menu is a natural evolution that reflects the current society at large. We live in a world that values celebrity. Our 24 hour news cycle is filled with what I call pseudo-news of celebrities doing ordinary things and people feed off of this kind of news. We also live in a world that increasingly values technological advancement and it is no surprise that this trickles down to the most basic of human needs, namely food. And lastly, we live in a world that is increasingly food centric. The fact that food television is as popular as it is and that reality tv shows like Top Chef and Kitchen Nightmares are as prevalent as they are has created an entire generation of food savvy individuals who are already quite sophisticated in their food knowledge at a very young age. Chefs are therefore challenged to create things that are new and exciting for this generation of diners who I would argue have a somewhat short attention spans and need a little bit of in your face food creativity.
In the end it remains to be seen if we will eventually fatigue of this current trend and get back to basics or not. I already see the trend heading that direction with more and more farm to table restaurants popping up and the slow food movement growing in waves. Which style of restaurant will be sustainable? I’m not sure. Part of that will be dictated by economics and the ability of people to have the kind of expendable income needed to partake of these $300 and $400 taster menus. I suspect the two will continue to evolve alongside one another, offering an outlet for all kinds of diners of all demographics and socio-economic situations. I think that in many ways we are at the forefront of that evolution by combining the back to basics approach with the taster menu approach but at a much more affordable price that anyone can participate in.