rumination 27: tyranny of the masses…

In the February, 2013 issue of Vanity Fair, Corby Kummer issued a long-winded, cynical, and, in my opinion, rather narrow-minded, criticism of tasting menus (“Tyranny – It’s What’s for Dinner“).

Here is my response to Mr. Kummer’s article.

We exist in a capitalist society, where avenues of commerce – the food and beverage industry included – conduct what the market will bear. Evidently, the current market sustains the type of tasting menu-only dining experiences about which Kummer complains.  But, for those who disagree with a chef’s “autocracy,” they need not subject themselves.  We, the dining public, always have the power of the purse.  We can (and should) vote with our dollar.  I, for example, refuse to eat at momofuku ko and Brooklyn Fare because I object to the chefs’ policies on in-restaurant photography.  You may think I’m silly for doing so.  But I think it’s silly of them to forbid in-restaurant photography (more of my thoughts on this issue in a previous post).

So, where’s the tyranny?

Mr. Kummer only examined one side of the coin.  Let me take a look at the other face.

It is true that, at the extreme, high-end of dining, there is an increasingly runaway feel to the dining experience.  Once in the seat and committed to the ride, the customer of today is less able to steer than the customer of yesterday.

But, if a chef can be trusted, then this kind of hands-off experience can be extremely rewarding.

The problem, in my experience, is that, increasingly, the chef cannot be trusted.

However, instead of pointing all of the fingers at the chef, as Kummer did in his article, let me consider those on the other side of the pass.

Food writers are a big part of the problem.  In the restaurant world, journalists still hold the majority of the power.  And, it has been abused and, often, wasted.

One big problem is that journalists are often uninformed.  Very few of them travel and eat extensively.  Worse, they don’t do their research.  And so, many make universal-scale pronouncements based on a very narrow point of view.  (As hard as I’ve tried to avoid this, I am sure I’ve been guilty of all of the above.)

The other problem is that journalists want to be considered industry kingmakers.  Clambering to make the next, big discovery, they crave the attention that superlatives bring.  The result of this is a lot of false kings. (I cite the San Pellegrino’s “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list as Exhibit A. I have said it on Twitter, and I’ll say it here to chefs: if you support this list, you are only putting an expiration date on yourself, for surely, one day, you will fall off the list and be deemed irrelevant.  The more powerful this list becomes, the more irrelevant you will one day be.)  We have all witnessed food writers shamelessly dote on their darlings and make idols of chefs.  They ignite them on fire, and, as suggested by the frustration I find in Kummer’s article, soon find the flames inextinguishable.

But uninformed and misguided food writers aren’t just farming chef egos.  They’re growing an even bigger monster among the dining public.

At its best, the dining public is a knowledgable voting body, discerning and discriminating.  It raises the humble and talented, and strikes down the bloated and mediocre.

But at its worst, the dining public is a brainless herd, grazing with the flow of traffic without thought, shepherded by food writers and chefs: there will be foam, there will calcified root vegetables, there will be twigs and shit, sea urchin makes everything better, more bacon, more fat – more, more, more!!  And this is a problem. For, the dining public, remember, has the power of the purse.  It is the pocket that feeds the byways and highways of commerce.

So, if the dining public is uninformed, misinformed, or misguided – not educated enough to know when to walk away from the table (more of my thoughts on this matter in a previous post) – then everyone loses.  The tyranny resides not in the kitchens of high-end restaurants.  It is among the masses.

But I do agree with Kummer (and, especially with Pete Wells) that there is a lot of silliness on tasting menus these days.  I’m exhausted seeing trends spread, literally like epidemics, across tables around the world.  I would rather have a mediocre meal, where it is apparent that the chef is striving to do something new and original, than to sit through a parade of flawless variations (or, in some case, shameless reproductions) of upwardly trending dishes from other kitchens.  In this regard, I find a lot of chefs missing a great opportunity to write history.  Instead, they choose to be but echoes of greatness for the sake of popularity.  And this is troubling.

~ by ulterior epicure on January 4, 2013.

12 Responses to “rumination 27: tyranny of the masses…”

  1. Not surprisingly, you and I are in agreement again. I shared similar sentiment in the comment section on vanityfair.com

  2. I also would mention the chefs who “research” is eating in their city and repeating what everyone else is doing. Again as you say.
    I wish more chefs would lead and not follow. Fads are short lived, and see to many chefs jumping on board. I have to ask, are dirt, twigs and rocks really tasty? The El Bulli trend morphed into mainstream over what 2 decades? Will the forage “thing” have the legs to also?
    I pass no judgement, just a point of discussion.

  3. I completely agree on what said about the tyranny of the masses. If we continue to foment these uneducated masses, the chefs will be the ones having to adapt to the needs of those masses, since like you said they are the ones with the money. Great post!!

  4. Well said. Few understand the work and discipline that goes into creating extraordinary tasting-menu experiences. It’s not for everyone and no one is forcing anyone’s hand to indulge. It will be a day to reckon for Kummer if restaurants like Applebee’s and Red Lobster start offering tasting-menu only services.

  5. The slavish following Noma rather than leading new ideas was definitely taking hold in UK end of last year leading to dour & pointless ingredients that simply weren’t tasty. Am hopeful that we’re moving beyond that already & seeing more of a return to a la carte where we get to choose to eat as much or as little of what we fancy. A fatigued diner can’t appreciate even the most exquisite tastes. Tellingly, one of my best meals ever was at L’Arpege. Passard sent dishes out to me after discussing what I liked and how much I wanted to eat and spend – a far better approach.

  6. You make excellent points and state them with thoughtfulness and eloquence. Thank you for writing. I enjoy your work.

  7. I follow your writing quite a bit a truly enjoy the pictures. I have to say that this is one of your most thoughtful posts. I don’t cook anywhere near the level of the chefs you follow but do I admire what they do and the following they attract. I think the dining experience is to one sided at times, be it the chef or the patron. Both need to hold up their end of the bargain to have a great dining experience- the chef should do his homework and put his best work forward and the patron should go with a open mind and let the expert guide them. If Mr. Kummer doesn’t like prix fixe menus he should not dine at restaurants that offer them and by that same point he should keep his uneducated thoughts to himself and let those who do enjoy the ride.

  8. A tasting menu allows a trained chef to invest more thought in the way things should progress. It is an opportunity to have an entire meal created for you by somebody who has spent a lot of time thinking about eating. There is still the issue of never being able to be good at one thing if you’re trying to do a million, but I think it’s possible to just call everything, “whatever it is that you are provided with.” I’ll call it a good tasting menu.

    We did a tasting menu with foie gras shortly after it was banned in California, and we did that for two reasons. Firstly, the product was available and it’s a shame to not cook and eat something which is very good when it is available. Secondly, the opportunity to cook far more of an incredibly expensive product than I will ever eat in a lifetime is worth taking.

    The reason we did a tasting menu is pretty obvious I think, but difficult to define. I mean, I suppose we could have sold foie and bacon monte cristos in the park, but that just wouldn’t make any sense.

    Ultimately, what we served was just all of the best things we could get our hands on, and wrap in foie. Sorry, but you can’t get that vegetarian.

    Of course, if I was going to open a restaurant, I would just do one thing as well as I could, and the rest of the menu would be filler, because a bacchanalian feast is alright once in awhile, but a bowl of ramen is good every day.

  9. “The tyranny resides not in the kitchens of high-end restaurants. It is among the masses.” Amen. I’m sure I’ll get some backlash from this, but it’s how I’ve often felt about Nobu. My significant other asks to go every year for his birthday and it pains me to even call for the reservation.

  10. Thank you. This is one of the most well-considered things I have read about food and restaurants for quite a while. I concur wholeheartedly.

  11. Don’t you all see the genius of Mr. Kummer’s article?? He showed us how bad a poorly executed, ill concieved, way-too-long tasting menu can be by writing a poorly executed, ill concieved, way-too-long article…. Satirical Genius!!! … or maybe he’s just a jack ass….

  12. and at the end of the day, it’s that bowl of hot noodles u crave and remember not that something something truffle on that tasting menu.

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