rumination 16: proscenium…

What sounds like a fluff class, “Indian National Cinema,” was, in fact, one of the most challenging and rewarding courses I took as a film student in college. The attrition rate was high, the grading curve was steep, but I stuck it out and was rewarded with one, important kernel that I’ve carried with me almost every day of my life since.

Frontality is not a concept specific to Indian culture or Indian cinema. It is fundamental to iconicity the world over. In no culture does one approach an important being or subject from any angle other than from its façade. Facing something or someone shows respect. It is a recognition of your counterpart’s authority and importance. And, it forces the two subjects – even inanimate objects – to interact, to acknowledge one another. I’m reminded of this every time I look through the lens of my camera.

Working in a culture steeped in iconography, Indian cinematographers have used frontality as a convention to assign importance, and sometimes, divinity, to a character or subject. In Satyajit Ray’s landmark film, “Devi,” for example, we, the viewer, are positioned facing the young Doyamoyee, a woman who is claimed to be a goddess by her father-in-law, and later by her fellow villagers, who become convinced of her miraculous, healing power. With her seated, facing the camera straight on, in a moment of cinematic deification, the filmmaker’s visual cue is unquestionable, our conclusion is inevitable: Doyamoyee becomes Devi, the Hindu Mother Goddess.

Mary, Elizabeth, Venus; David, Mona Lisa, Gaga; Tut, Monsieur Paul Bocuse, Mickey: we know these images because we face them, and they face us, a repeated meeting that makes their contours familiar, so familiar that their shapes and forms eventually take on meaning greater than themselves. We frame them, and on the other side of our mind’s proscenium, they become icons – on stage, unmistakable, universal.

What does this have to do with food?

Recently, Grant Achatz announced at Gastronomika 2011 that he plans to “overhaul the experience” at alinea. There will probably be music, he said. Or there might be piles of leaves, under which the diner may find pumpkins. What if the dining experience were like the set of a play, Achatz wondered aloud. What if there were no rules? Eater reported that these changes are a part of Achatz’s goal to “think off the plate.”

And this got me churning.

What and where is the proscenium – that imaginary dividing line between the audience and the story – in a restaurant dining experience?

Presumably, the diner is the audience.

But what is the subject? Who are the actors? And what and where is the story?

Traditionally, the table is the stage, and the food is the subject and object. What happens at the table is the story, which is conveyed through the food, influenced by the environment (which includes company, waitstaff, and the general atmosphere of the restaurant), and ultimately told – either effectively or ineffectively, or not at all in some instances – by the chef, who is, presumably, cooking somewhere offstage.

There’s frontality: plates are set down a certain way, mindful that the diner is at 6 o’clock, always; wine is poured with the label turned just so; and sauces are spooned at purposeful angles.

There are props: a knife for your butter, a separate one for your turbot, and yet another for your steak.

And there’s structure: soup before meat, meat before sweets. At least, that’s the convention.

Yes, dining is theatre.

Of course, there are gradations and variations of this. Cultural norms differ, for example. When you sit down at a sushi counter (or any counter, for that matter), the dynamics change. Here, the audience may have more influence on how the story goes. There’s a change in proximity between the storyteller and audience, which results in a different type of interaction between the two. The “fourth wall” is broken, repeatedly, as the storyteller reaches through the proscenium and addresses his/her audience directly.

The current culinary zeitgeist seems to want to break down that fourth wall even more, removing the proscenium entirely, and undo the conventional structures of the restaurant experience. At Eleven Madison Park, for example, cooks are coming out of the kitchen to present dishes to the diners, and, in some cases, diners are being invited into the kitchen to have a cocktail course among the cooks. The line between table and stove is blurring.

At the extreme end, the dining experience is being pushed into theatre in the round, with chefs, like Achatz, coming out of the kitchen to plate dishes directly on the table, creating an edible, three-dimensional walk-around with no front or back. It’s genius to some, it’s merely performance art to others. Either way, it takes dining beyond traditional conventions.

I dare not presume Achatz’s intentions or predict his plans, for I was not at Gastronomika 2011, and did not hear him speak. Nor do I have his mind. But, if what Eater reported is accurate (I have no reason to question them here), I’ll be curious to hear more about the “threshold” on which he claims to stand.

Yes, I’ll agree with Achatz that the nature of fine dining is cyclical. But I question whether there is something beyond the now that hasn’t already been explored in the past. Isn’t everything a remix?* Isn’t that the genius of next – a restaurant that exists solely to celebrate and reinterpret what has been done before? By its very premise, next is derivative. And this is why I think it is one of the most compelling restaurants of our time. Next is evidence of the maturation of genre, it makes a subject out of dining. Like Kevin Williamson’s “Scream,” or the musical “Spamalot,” or the Austin Powers series, it points out and at its own conventions. Look at what dining used to be: Escoffier, Paris 1906. And look at what it has become: elBulli, redux, coming up at the top of 2012.

But evoking emotions through sound, smell, touch – it’s all been done before. Using space and environment to enhance a dining experience – that’s not new either. Before what threshold does Achatz (or, any chef who deigns to push the envelope) claim to stand?

Is there a limit to how much the proscenium can be moved, or removed?

I cannot speak for others, but I can tell you what I’ve figured out for myself.

I go to restaurants primarily to eat. For me, the proscenium will always be framed by the plate, and by extension, the table. Call me close-minded, but I’ve considered just about every form of fine dining there is. I’ve donned earbuds and listened to seagulls and the crash of waves while eating a diorama of a beach. I’ve inhaled powders that taste like this or that. I’ve been sprayed with perfume, blindfolded, and asked to eat without using my hands (not all at the same dinner). I’ve been asked to move outside, indoors, upstairs, downstairs, to experience food in different settings. And I’ve been instructed to first eat this, and then to eat that, but all in one bite, because otherwise I’ll have a mess on my shirt

At the end of the day, before I can even get to thinking beyond the plate, the only question in my mind is: does it taste good? That is my primary concern as a diner. If something more valuable can be conveyed, beyond deliciousness, all the better. But I’ve rarely found anything beyond the plate to change my opinion of what is on the plate. The food usually speaks for itself, and if the storyteller hasn’t told the story successfully on that stage, then little else offstage usually matters: a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Lest you misread me, let me be clear: this is not an attack on Grant Achatz, molecular gastronomy, or anything else, really. I respect Achatz immensely for his talent and innovation.

I simply question his recent claim, anxious to see how he will fulfill it. Clearly, Achatz has done enough thinking “on the plate” to deserve the opportunity to “think off the plate” without being scrutinized.

Mine may not be (and probably is not) the popular opinion. But I’ve never claimed to speak for the masses. I’d love to hear what you think: where is the proscenium in your dining experience? And, if it can be moved, how much so?

* This video was shown to me by Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food, and for that, I am grateful.

~ by ulterior epicure on November 27, 2011.

2 Responses to “rumination 16: proscenium…”

  1. I’m curious to see how this pans out. I haven’t been to Alinea (yet) but from what I’ve seen, Achatz has managed to implement these additional theatrics without detracting from the taste.

    I read a recent account of Next Childhood where the diners at the chef’s table were instructed to make their own “Fish and Chips” course. Fun and whimsical – sure, but the food got cold.

    I feel it’s Achatz right to present his work as he pleases, but I question how much emphasis can be put on the beyond the plate aspects before the food starts to suffer.

  2. This is a really, really interesting topic. Thank you for bringing this up.

    While I do agree that taste is the primary factor when forming your own opinions on a restaurant, I do think that what’s most important is the memories and overall experience you have. Each restaurant experience is subject to an individual opinion based on Time and Place.

    If i were to go and compare dish-by-dish my meal at The French Laundry vs. my meal at alinea, overall the dishes at the French Laundry were tastier. However, I enjoyed my meal at alinea more because of the sensory techniques Achatz uses throughout his Roman-fleuve-like menu, and because of a few timely things that day (the weather outside, the time spent at an amazing art museum hours before, etc.). There are just some restaurants that everything clicks together to form a magical night. Even though I have never been, I feel like El Bulli did that every night for the past decade, but that would not be possible if it was located in say, New York.

    With a restaurant like alinea, Achatz has proved for the past 6 years that with whatever cutting edge changes he applies, his food is still three-michelin star quality. The “overhauls” he will be applying will not physically change the food, which he will stay true to. The proscenium that you talk about is only when the chef crosses the threshold into the actual cooking and seasoning of the food. If the food tastes amazing and there are other “theatrics” (hate the use of that word when talking about cooking) going on around you in the dining room, it still makes for an interesting meal that you will remember because of 1. the quality of the food, and 2. the new experience you just had.

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