Where does value lie in a restaurant meal?

April 26, 2011
Joshua David Stein, reviewing Chef's Table in October on the strength of one visit where he spent his own money, was very unhappy about the restaurant's rules and how they're enforced. And now NYT restaurant critic Sam Sifton has delivered his magisterial verdict -- not only on the restaurant, but also on Stein:

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Joshua David Stein, reviewing Chef’s Table in October on the strength of one visit where he spent his own money, was very unhappy about the restaurant’s rules and how they’re enforced. And now NYT restaurant critic Sam Sifton has delivered his magisterial verdict — not only on the restaurant, but also on Stein:

Multiple meals at the restaurant, as well as interviews with regular customers I was able to track down in my digital Ferragamos, suggest that this criticism may be unwarranted.

In case you need a translation, what Sifton means here is “I ate at Chef’s Table four different times, and I spoke to a bunch of other people who have eaten there, and none of us left with the same bad taste in their mouth that Stein had.” Why does he have to torture his way to a ridiculous “multiple meals suggest” formulation instead?

This isn’t an attempt to avoid the first person, which appears twice in this sentence alone. It’s just bad writing: the “digital Ferragamos” are particularly egregious, but the pompousness of “may be unwarranted” is pretty stunning in its own right.

Not least because, if you read Stein’s piece, his beef with chef Cesar Ramirez clearly was warranted:

I was taking notes in a small black Moleskine notebook under the counter. It wasn’t because I was reviewing your restaurant. (I, like most reviewers, refrain from taking notes during such meals). It was precisely because I had looked forward so ardently to this meal and felt myself so lucky to be there, I didn’t want to forget what I ate. None of the amuses were on the menu and, as noted, what was on the menu was only nominally described…

As I finished the tofu, you approached me. I turned around in my stool, happy to chat, to congratulate you on the triumphs of what we had eaten, happy for a whole range of chef-to-patron interactions. But it wasn’t to be. You leaned in close so I could see every sweaty pore on your shaved head and said, loudly and furiously, “I don’t know where you fucking cook, but you’ll never replicate this. I’ve been watching you disrespect my kitchen all night. You’ll never be able to do what I do.”

It took me a moment to realize you were talking about my note taking. It didn’t register initially because you hadn’t seemed to object when the first two of your three rules were disregarded. Plus, what the fuck?

In that brief interval, my wife interjected, “He doesn’t cook.” It’s true. I’m no good at it.

“I’m sorry, Chef,” I said, shaken. “I didn’t mean to disrespect your kitchen.”

“Why are you taking notes?” you demanded. “That’s some sneaky shit.”

“Well, I’m loving this food and I don’t want to forget it and Ana and I won’t be able to come back and…” “Why not?” “Um,” said Ana, “because we can’t afford it.”

I apologized a couple of times more. You said don’t worry about it and at some point later in the night, as you were walking behind me, you gave me a double squeeze on the shoulder that non-verbally said, “It’s cool.”

I read it that way but Ana—not used to being yelled at in front of an entire restaurant—couldn’t shake the feeling and spent the rest of the meal cresting into tears. We couldn’t make eye contact with that waitress who narc’d us out, we couldn’t make eye contact with you, we couldn’t make eye contact with the Australians who at this point wouldn’t make eye contact with us. And though all we did was stare at the small plates as they continued their sadistically endless procession, all I remember beside “Wagyu Steak, Cheese, Dessert” is desperately wanting to leave.

Now, I’m quite sure that this particular experience didn’t happen to Sifton. (For one thing, he was almost certainly recognized.) But Ramirez ruined Stein’s meal. You don’t do that, if you’re a chef. Especially not when the sin is as minor as wanting to write down some notes about a special meal which you want to remember for a long time. And when the punishment is applied so capriciously: Stein says that no one objected “to one solo diner spending the entirety of her night texting”.

Sifton doesn’t address Stein’s meal directly; instead he just says that the arbitrary rule against taking notes is “perfectly reasonable”, without explaining why.

Sifton’s commenters, none of whom seem to have clicked through to Stein’s piece, are in two minds about this. Some say that a don’t-take-notes rule is profoundly silly, especially when the menu is so truncated and monosyllabic as to be useless as an aide-memoire. Others defend the rule, on the grounds that taking notes alters the sense of theater and the delicate relationship between chef and diner.

Neither Sifton nor his commenters address the real reason why Ramirez’s menu is so short and why he bans photography and note-taking: he’s paranoid about his ideas and recipes being stolen.

Which is insane.

Sifton read Stein’s piece, so he knows why Ramirez is doing what he’s doing. As a result, when he says that Ramirez is being “perfectly reasonable”, one can only conclude that Sifton thinks the chef’s bizarre paranoia makes perfect sense.

Sifton works very closely with his colleague Pete Wells, who pretty much owns the beat of recipes as intellectual property — see this piece from Food & Wine, or this one in the NYT. Some people take the issue of stealing recipes much more seriously than others — and people in the taking-it-seriously camp, says Wells, are exploring two ways to protect their intellectual property: patents and copyright. Nowhere has he so much as hinted that a no-note-taking rule, or shouting at diners who are writing in notebooks, is a remotely sensible approach to the problem, if indeed it’s a problem in the first place.

From an economic perspective, it’s pretty clear that people copying recipes is not a problem. Ramirez’s restaurant is all but impossible to get into; he can and does charge pretty much whatever he likes for a meal. The prix fixe is now up to $165 per person, not including tip and not including wine, either; Ramirez doesn’t have a license yet. Even if a dish or two turned up on a menu elsewhere, there would be no effect on Ramirez’s revenues: he will always seat the same number of diners every night.

And it’s worth dwelling on that $165 price tag for a minute, too. Sifton, who expensed his meals, is unfazed, saying blithely that the price “is either expensive or not, depending on your bank balance, but it is worth the money whatever your answer”. I think he’s wrong about this: if you’re spending north of $200 per person on dinner before having a drop to drink, that’s objectively expensive. If you have a lot of money, you will surely be able to afford it more easily than if you’re in Stein’s situation. But Chef’s Table is undeniably an expensive restaurant.

So what makes Sifton so sure that Chef’s Table is worth the money? The quality of the food is surely part of the answer, but I’m quite sure that the quantity of the food — the fact that you’re eating a 20-course meal — came into Sifton’s consideration as well. Why, divide $200 by 20 courses, and it’s only $10 per course!

The problem with this line of thinking is that for many people, when it comes to restaurant courses, more is less. I’ve had my fair share of multi-course menus; they tend to be found at highly-celebrated restaurants like Alinea, and diners generally have no choice in the matter — it’s all those courses or nothing. Looking back on all those meals, I can remember one or two disasters, as well as some meals where I came away with inchoate memories of lots of delicious and surprising flavors, combinations, and presentations. But the number of actual dishes I can remember is tiny — and pretty much confined to the dishes I wrote something about, or photographed. These long meals tend to be accompanied by a fair amount of wine, and all that alcohol consumption certainly makes remembering individual dishes harder.

The best and most memorable meals I’ve ever had were not gilded multi-course exercises in ego-polishing, but were much simpler fare, cooked to perfection at Gandarias, a pintxo bar in San Sebastian, and at Hook, Line and Sinker, a small fish shack in Pringle Bay, outside Cape Town. Closer to home, I can remember in detail dozens of wonderful meals at Oyster Bar, mostly variations on the general theme of chowder and oysters; while much more elaborate fare at places like Corton, for all that it tastes great at the time, I find myself unable to recall at all.

For me, the determination as to whether a meal is worth the money has to be made on the level of the meal itself, rather than on a sum-of-the-parts basis. I had pretty much a perfect meal at Hook, Line and Sinker, picking grilled fish off a huge platter and pouring myself great local (red!) wine from a bottle in the middle of the rough-hewn table. If there had been more courses and more effort and more beautiful plating, I would not have enjoyed the meal any more, it wouldn’t have been a better meal — and therefore I fail to see how it could possibly have been “worth” more money.

I do appreciate, of course, that producing 20 courses in a row is a difficult and expensive proposition. If you’re going to do that, you have to charge a lot of money — especially when you can’t cross-subsidize yourself with profits on your wine list. I’m all in favor of talented chefs making decent money. And it would be silly for Ramirez to charge less than he does, given what the market will clearly bear. But none of that means that from the diner’s point of view, Ramirez’s meal is worth well over $400 per couple. (Which, if you’re interested, works out at roughly 15% of Brooklyn’s monthly median household income.)

In any case, worth it or not, Ramirez literally can’t lose in the event that someone steals one of his dishes. When an Australian chef named Robin Wickens stole a bunch of recipes from Alinea and started serving them at his restaurant in Melbourne, there were all manner of ethical violations going on — but there was no way in which Alinea’s Grant Achatz was economically harmed. In fact, when the culinary plagiarism was uncovered, he looked like even more of an original genius. Even if a cloned Ramirez dish were to show up in New York, reconstructed, miraculously, from a few scribbled notes, rather than through Wickens’s technique of working for a week in the kitchen and taking detailed photographs, it’s hard to see how that would damage him at all.

In the world of cocktails, things are very different, and copying can cost the inventor real money.

A big part of the problem, according to Freeman and other senior bartenders and mixologists, is the “brand ambassador” model. For those unfamiliar with it, it involves big liquor companies hiring bartenders to act as spokespeople for their brands. The bartender not only acts as an advocate but is also expected to create signature cocktail recipes using the product he or she is pushing. Only, these days, the model is so prevalent that liquor brands will tap just about anybody to be a brand ambassador. Oftentimes, these young bartenders (cheap labor compared to members of the old guard) don’t have the experience required to create their own cocktail recipes. And so they Google a recipe and tweak it, or simply use something they learned from a mentor —a mentor, mind you, who might be too expensive for a liquor company to hire directly.

But unless and until this kind of thing starts happening in the food world, let’s stop worrying about copycats — and, in doing so, let’s loosen up on silly rules designed to make their hypothetical lives that much harder. I can see why you might want to have a quiet word with people going overboard with flash photography or talking on cellphones, if such activity is annoying other diners. But it’s very hard for me to see how Sifton has arrived at the conclusion that Ramirez’s bans — expressions of pure ego on the part of the chef — are “perfectly reasonable” at all, given how silly the motivation behind them is.


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