The tasting-menu backlash

January 7, 2013

The world’s best art is not the world’s most expensive art. But artists like being rich just as much as the rest of us, and so there are a lot of ambitious artists out there, working the art world hard, making precisely the kind of art which appeals to the tiny group of global plutocrats willing and able to drop millions of dollars on a single contemporary artwork.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. But the problems start arising when art-for-global-plutocrats starts becoming broadly accepted as the best and highest form of art being produced today. It’s not: it’s just the most expensive, and the most celebrated. But drawing that distinction is very difficult, and probably pointless — at least in the art world.

In the food world, however, the good news is that things are different. The foodie equivalent of the trendy million-dollar artist is the chef with a $200 prix-fixe tasting menu featuring dozens of tiny courses. There’s even a globally-recognized league table: the higher you appear on the San Pellegrino list, the better (and more bankable) you are. Haute cuisine generally works on the same basis as haute couture: the latter is a loss-leader for perfume sales, while the former is a loss-leader for lucrative books, consulting contracts, and the like. Eventually, you can kick away the ladder entirely — the restaurant which always used to sit at the top of the list, El Bulli, has now closed, freeing up time for its global-superstar chef, Ferran Adrià, to make much more money elsewhere. While it’s always nice for a restaurant to make a profit by selling food, the big money comes from brand extensions, after you’ve become globally famous.

The economics of restaurants on the San Pellegrino list are very different from classical restaurant economics in other ways, too. Not only is narrow profit-maximization kicked down the list of priorities, but so is the cultivation of regulars. New York has more than its fair share of these places — Atera, Per Se, Brooklyn Fare, Blanca, Momofuku Ko, etc. But very few of them have regulars. Instead, they fill up with gastrotourists ticking the place off their list. This is most obvious at Eleven Madison Park, which has reinvented itself quite explicitly as a high-end New York tourist destination, complete with New York tour guides. And if you read John Colapinto’s profile of its chef, Daniel Humm, it’s clear that Humm is deeply invested in the San Pellegrino game, and is playing to win.

Corby Kummer, in his delicious Vanity Fair takedown of the whole tasting-menu phenomenon, describes his meal at Eleven Madison Park as “worse than bad”, and says that Humm “seems to be re-inventing himself to chase trends”. Kummer is far from being alone: the NYT’s Pete Wells came down hard on tasting menus back in October, and found that his piece struck a real chord with his readers. And then there’s Dana Goodyear’s examination of the lowest levels on the tasting-menu ladder. These are the small underground restaurants whose reach might exceed their grasp, but who can still persuade a certain class of diner to shell out large amounts of money to eat lots and lots of clever morsels:

Frizzell went out to the patio, where the guests were assembled at a long table. “This is nose-to-tail eating, in a vegetable fashion,” he said, presenting the peas. Several courses followed, meagre and mainly protein-free. At a certain point, even the hostess’s enthusiasm seemed to be growing forced. “It is totally amazing what you can do with my tiny kitchen!” she chirped, over a plate of red-cabbage juice that had been turned into what Frizzell described as a “fluid gel” thickened with ultratex, a tapioca starch. When a tray of bacon-infused whiskey cotton-candy pops, made by the bartender, came around, the diners snatched at them desperately. Then it was time for “nitrogen play.” Frizzell decanted the liquid nitrogen into a small bottle with red-bell-pepper coulis and whippets inside, and shook it wildly before shooting the contents into a bowl. Cold smoke tumbled out and rolled down the long table. “Red-bell-pepper Dippin’ Dots!” Frizzell announced triumphantly, spooning a pile onto every plate. They melted on my tongue—the ghost of nourishment. I thought of something the founder of the Web site Gusta had said about underground dining: “We liken it to going to a doctor. You don’t say, ‘This is the medicine I need.’ They tell you what you need. The chef tells you what you should be eating.” In this case, I was able to self-diagnose: what I needed was some food. I saw a gourmet truck on the way home, and stopped for a hot dog.

The point here is that the critics, wonderfully, are increasingly not buying what the chefs are selling. I personally swore off tasting menus after six hours and 20 courses at Moto in Chicago, which culminated in one of my dinner companions going so loopy that when she was presented with a syringe of something chocolatey at the end of the meal, the contents ended up in my ear rather than in her mouth. Naturally, that brief journey off-script was by far the most memorable part of the evening.

I’m not saying that there’s no place for these restaurants. There are enough international gastro-tourists in the world that the most successful of them will always be booked solid, long in advance. And there are enough ambitious chefs that there will always be a lot of competition to get into the top tier, to be mentioned in the same breath as superstars like Rene Redzepi, Grant Achatz, and Thomas Keller.

But as the number of courses escalates along with the prices at these places, the world of tasting-menu restaurants is increasingly becoming as inaccessible and irrelevant as the world of first-growth Bordeaux. It’s fine for the self-selecting few within its hermetically-sealed borders, but the rest of us are perfectly happy making do with the occasional cheaper morsel trickling down from Mount Olympus. We don’t have FOMO — fear of missing out — because we know the air up there is too thin in any case for the likes of us. We are the people who don’t think that every dish should tell a story, the people who don’t get bored with dishes after three bites, the people who do get bored with any meal after the first dozen courses or three hours, whichever comes first. And increasingly the food press is taking our side, rather than that of the self-selecting elite.

Would that the art press did likewise.


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