Mouthing Off: Form Swallows Function-The Tyranny of Tasting Menus.

Below is an essay I wrote a year and a half ago and posted on Mouthfuls that I am reposting for new readers. I sent it on a lark to the New York Times Op-Ed page and to Edward Behr at the Art of Eating. It went unpublished, but I believe I make an interesting and even controversial argument, which is that tasting menus have played a major part in the debasement of dining in better restaurants. I derive it from being a veteran eater, cutting my gastronomic teeth most notably in highly-rated and otherwise interesting restaurants in provincial France in the last 30% of the 20th century, and stuying change in mass or popular culture. As a result, I have witnessed, noted and participated in the changes between upper-level restaurants then and upper-level restaurants now. I think that the primary phenomenon that has driven the change between then and now is is that when fine dining lost its elitism and became imbedded in the popular culture, the inevitable dilution and quest for monetary maximizing created what we have today, which is mainly that chefs are more concerned with being empire builders than devotion to the kitchen; that there are increasingly sinister ways to diminish, if not destroy, the value-for-money aspect of dining in the upper-echelons; and the public’s preoccupation with chefs and restaurants that are non-gustatory in nature.

Whenever I’m in a restaurant with ambitions and a waiter asks me if I have any food allergies, I mention a handful such as tasting menus, truffle oil and overly-decorated food on my plate. Nonetheless, it’s the first one- tasting menus- with their contrivances and artifices- that are in a class by themselves, as they are about the most influential development in fine dining over the past two decades: bigger even than Asian fusion cooking, molecular gastronomy, the Spanish revolution or the farm-to-table movement. Unlike any other recent culinary manifestation, the tasting menu is a profoundly-influential innovation that plays the biggest role in the infrastructure and conduct of restaurants of a certain standing and the repertoires and recipes of what the chefs create and serve. There is no doubt that the tasting menu formula is a fancy chef’s best friend. By tailoring his operation around it (essentially turning it into a glorified catering hall since most, if not all customers eat the same meal), a chef is able to run his restaurant with a smaller kitchen staff, determine with precision his food purchases, and enhance his revenue by manipulating, if not exploiting, his clients by exercising near-complete control over them.

Conceptually, the tasting menu is a losing proposition for the client even in the happenstance of an enjoyable dish. If and when you get such a dish, it is usually never enough, thus making you desirous of something you can’t have; i.e. more of the dish. When you have a dish that is less than stellar or just plain bad, the chef has foisted on you a dish you didn’t bargain for, thus debasing your meal in the process. The perfect or near-perfect meal is all but unattainable when your waiter brings you six or eight or twelve, sometimes even many more, tastes. Given the intrinsic hit-and-miss nature of tasting menus, I have never come close to having such a meal. As with great dramas, musicals, concertos, or operas, culinary perfection is almost always found in divisions of two, three or four.

The “epater la bourgeoisie” nature of tasting menus largely comes from the over-all experience of eating one after another the numerous courses the constantly in-your-face waiters bring you in impossible-to-recall, rapid-fire succession. However, an observant gourmand doesn’t need Kitchen Confidentialia to be able to identify the ploys and the formulas of tasting menus by analyzing the dishes one-by-one: Insipid or uninspired courses used as a filler: morsels of meat; fowl or seafood bulked up with vegetables and grains and otherwise slipping in what I’ve noticed to be an increasing amount of modest ingredients; and prettified little dishes made more for reproduction on websites, food television and magazines. (I call their plating “slicey-dicey, drippy-drabby”, which consists of propped-up slices of fish, fowl or meat on top and surrounded with greens and flower petals and Abstract Expressionistic splatters and puddles, is sweeping the restaurant world world-wide and limiting the way chefs make their dishes.)

What I find the most significant about tasting menus is that for the first time in the nearly 300 years of the history of restauration, economic and financial concerns, as opposed to culinary developments and innovation, are playing the primary role in its evolution. We can see this by the way tasting menu practitioners have all but done away with a large percentage of fundamental time-tested approaches to fine cuisine. The tiny scale that these chefs work in eliminates many delicacies served on the bone and offered in their whole state such as fowl or game and various sea creatures, all of which provide on their own a variety of tastes. The large number of small dishes made by fewer cooks requires preparation in advance, quick cooking and the need for shortcuts, as witnessed by the increasing use of sous-vide food preparation. So while preparing restaurants meals is still labor-intensive, the work goes into preparing a very large quantity of dishes without form or structure that seldom conjure up a sense of place or culinary history. And now that the popular culture has elevated these celebrity chefs (many of whom never acquired killer technique) to “artiste” stature, none would be caught dead making anything other than their own little “hardly-any–knife-needed” dishes. Last, but hardly least, having your meal pre-determined discourages the back-and-forth, question-and-answer gathering of knowledge prior to the start of a meal that helps one develop the awareness and quickness of mind that result in better culinary outcomes

Robert Brown

Advocate for the restaurant patron.

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