rumination 26: show, don’t tell…

Yesterday, I was reminded of the most important lesson that I learned in my four years as a film and creative writing student in college: show, don’t tell.*

After dining at Eleven Madison Park, which recently replaced its $125 prix-fixe menu with a $195 tasting menu focusing on New York-themed dishes, Pete Wells, the restaurant critic for the New York Times, tossed a roll of caution tape in the restaurant’s direction. While reminding readers that Daniel Humm is a very talented chef – one of the best in New York – he also noted that, in the dining room, there’s too much explaining, and not enough room left for imagination.

“Sense memories are most effective when you’re allowed to discover them yourself. If Proust had been served his madeleine at Eleven Madison Park, food writing would have been deprived of its favorite metaphor.”

I can’t fairly comment on the new Eleven Madison Park menu; I haven’t eaten at the restaurant since the revision. But I have noticed an increasingly narrative style of service there over the past couple of years (starting with the egg cream, then the clam bake, and most recently, the smoked sturgeon course, all of which Wells mentioned in his article, and all of which I’ve had). And I’ve noticed this same kind of storytelling technique spreading throughout restaurants – especially high-end ones – in the past half decade. Wells’s article prompts me to consider this trend out loud.

A good storyteller knows that the imagination of his audience is much more powerful than his ability to recount. He teases rather than tells, evokes rather than explains, so that the story unfolds not on his lips, but rather, in the minds of the listener. What is unseen is more horrifying than what is seen, and what is self-discovered is always more memorable than what is revealed. Hannibal Lecter knew this well.

Restaurants these days are giving away too much. Meals have become splashy productions, easily digestible, and aimed at the lowest common denominator, with predictable plots, rehearsed lines, and catchy conceits. Restaurants say that they offer unique dining experiences, tailored to each table. But you and I can both hear what’s coming from those around us, seated a few courses ahead, or see a preview of our meal in video trailers online. Everyone’s hearing the same spoilers, seeing the same show.

[Edited to add: I don’t exclude the possibility that a meal can be enhanced by some explanation, or that there are certain narrators who can effectively insert dialogue into a meal successfully.  But the majority of narrative-style service I’ve received comes off as plasticky, corny even. See the comment section below.]

I once wrote that the difference between a good chef and a great chef is that good chef tell stories, conveying a sense of time and place, whereas great chefs tell fairytales, creating time and space.

Maybe that’s a bit idealistic. And maybe that’s a little too abstract. But, in the few instances when I’ve had a transformative dining experience, that divide has been apparent and the difference unquestionable.

For me, food that stands on its own, unaided but for the imagination and mind of the diner, is the most creative, compelling, innovative, and memorable kind. If the chef has done her job well, her story will be in the eating.

In his Best New Chef interview with Food & Wine Magazine, Corey Lee said: “These days, every chef at every level feels like they need to tell a story with their food. You know what? Sometimes food doesn’t need a story. Sometimes those stories aren’t that interesting—it becomes very contrived.” I agree. I’ve noticed a lot of chefs over-thinking the storytelling angle, trying to attach meaning where none naturally exists. What results feels forced, fake, and insincere.

Time and place, time and place, time and place. There need not be a damsel in distress, or a hero, or a villain, or even a plot. For, creativity, when carried out too literally, loses its spirit, becoming clumsy and uninteresting.

There can be, simply, the near-nauseating flavor of the sea, repeated again and again, engraving itself into your mind like the surf, a tour of the Levante of Spain, home to Quique Dacosta. I had three, unforgettable meals at his restaurant in Dénia last year. Though it was explained in illegible English, I left knowing, unquestionably, the chef’s love, his passion, and his philosophy.

There might just be a colorful tapestry, woven with the flavors and ingredients of the Costa Brava, our table a loom for Carme Ruscalleda’s delicious, technicolor dream coat at her restaurant Sant Pau. That was a beautiful meal.

Or, there could be the terrifyingly explosive flavors and almost Seussical creatures at elBulli that demonstrated, with hardly more than one-word descriptions, both on the menu and at the table, that Ferran Adriá’s version of modernist cooking was less about chemical reactions, and more about a way of thinking. It really was that obvious. Adriá made it so. And that is his genius.

Neither Tchaikovsky nor Rachmaninoff needed more than emotion to move the masses with their sweeping compositions. Theirs is a story of sadness, grandeur, and love with absolutely no characters at all.

And Mark Rothko’s square subjects – undecorated blocks of colors – at once mesmerized, numbed, chilled, and warmed millions of his contemporaries who might otherwise have dismissed his art as unexpressive.

Pete Wells is absolutely correct: sometimes, words really do fail.

* Wow, CWMP, you’ve got your own website now!

~ by ulterior epicure on September 18, 2012.

13 Responses to “rumination 26: show, don’t tell…”

  1. this one is tricky but it sounds like EMP is flubbing it. some random thoughts as i cook away:

    i agree w/ you – the imagination is the best story-teller. but a good story-teller obviously adds a lot.

    a contrived “this is NYC” delivered by a waiter may not work; but Sean Brock explaining Southern history to you works – and it worked very very well. he’s a story-teller, passionated about his subject, delivering something we really never experienced before. [UE & I shared a meal at Husk.] my recent meal at Willows Inn had a story – but it was under-stated with enough commentary from the kitchen w/ each dish.

    Sean & I had a (drunken) conversation about this topic last year. there’s a lot going on w/ food (history, sourcing, technique) that most diners have no clue about (me included.) understanding how to insert that into the meal makes the meal better. a lot better – you understand & can appreciate what you’re about to eat; instead of reading about it later (“oh, that’s what was going on?”)

    without eating it, the new EMP sounds contrived – both the story, and the story-teller. fix one and it may not sound so bad?

  2. @ChuckEats: Of course, a good narrator makes a difference. And yes, of course, what made our meal at Husk so grand, is that we had one of the best historians telling us (we, who happened to be the types who are interested in learning) about the provenance of the food we were being served. But, that is an exception, you will admit. Would it have felt different if every table around was getting the same story? Or, was the weight of history evident enough in Brock’s cooking that the embellishments Brock added, table-side, was just icing on the cake? If Brock had not been there, would we have walked away with a fair impression of Southern cuisine through Brock’s eyes? I think the answer to that is yes.

  3. I agree ulterior, that the food needs to speak for itself. But I think at the level of emp and Noma, who possibly pioneered this or at least brought it to the public eye, the goal is to give every diner the icing on the cake.

  4. Interesting perspective, and I agree with many points. But I think you’re not very clear with regard to those restaurants/chefs who are attempting to give a deep historical connection to their meals.

    The comment about Husk doesn’t seem to mesh with what you wrote above. Why is that an exception? Because of the type of cuisine? Because of your level of familiarity with that cuisine? Because of the person delivering the narrative?

    If the very thing that made your meal at Husk so grand–this direct storytelling, having so many details and leaving so little to the imagination–I’m confused as to why you seem so opposed to that.

    Could you perhaps elaborate on this meal at Husk and why you think it was able to reach excellent by seemingly breaking the “rules” you laid out above?

  5. @Vicki: I don’t completely rule out the possibility that a meal can be narrated effectively. As I said early on in my post, this is simply a commentary on a trend that I see growing. My meal at Husk was exceptional only because the chef came to our table and gave us a unique experience. I think that a large part of my problem with the narrative-style of service is that everyone around you is getting it, and it’s obvious. And that seems to fly directly in the face of high-end restaurants that claim to give you a tailored experience. Of course, we all know that dishes must be presented, so it’s not that I don’t expect there to be a formal, verbal presentation at the table. But, to insert the same joke at my table as I heard at the next table, or to recite the same “homily,” as Wells put it, as I’ve heard elsewhere – it makes the whole presentation seem trite, rehearsed, and commodity. That’s what I expect when I go to Disneyland, or on a tour of Graceland. Maybe others don’t mind, but I think it comes off as silly. While, surely, a “story” at the table can be enhanced by some explanation, I think that the majority of the narrative-style service I’ve received has failed.

  6. @Chuckeats, NCorey28, Vicki: I have inserted a clarification. Thanks for the commentary.

  7. Thanks for the clarification, I completely agree with you. I think EMP’s success with their new format relies entirely on their willingness and–more importantly–ability to be known as a “New York-centric” restaurant. Husk, it seems, succeeds on serving up history because the average diner probably knows, walking in, what that restaurant is about. Because of this, you can make more connections and get more out of the experience with fewer lectures and presentations required.

    I’ve dined at EMP many times, and despite the egg creams and smoked sturgeon, I don’t at all think of it as “takes on New York food and culture,” but rather, “fine dining.” To compensate, it sounds like they’re going overboard with the rehearsed speeches, etc.

    I think their new concept can be successful if, and only if, you walk in the doors knowing what they’re (now) about, and the need for tableside lessons and demonstrations is significantly reduced. But I’m not sure how well they’ll be able to do this, given the fact that they more or less just invented this identity. I’m interested in seeing where this goes.

  8. UE, This was precisely my takeaway from what Wells wrote. Indeed, that was the exact quote that stuck out to me. So a couple of thoughts.

    Would your Husk meal have been as great if it wasn’t Brock, but was instead a server giving you the story? I think not. I think it was so wonderful because Brock is the guy obsessed with the history. If it was a play performed by a waiter, I think the reaction would be different.

    I do think there are dishes that simply aren’t as good without the story that goes with them. Charleston Ice Cream is an example. Of course it’s extraordinary without any supplemental material, but we don’t really have the experience in our lives to appreciate it–we weren’t alive in 1840–so the immense amounts of work and research Brock has done is a welcome addition to the experience. When you travel to Pujol, you can eat mexican street food for days before you go, but when you travel to Husk and McCrady’s, you literally can’t reach the same baseline, and it’s welcoming to be helped along. Indeed, I don’t think my meal at McCrady’s would have been so wonderful had I not read you and Chuck, and also gone to Husk first. Even if I didn’t have Brock there telling the story, I had surrogates.

    So when thinking about EMP, the question for me is how does the story and performance inform a diner about food that they couldn’t possibly have experienced before. And the sense I get from Wells’ piece is basically none. At least not if you grew up within 3000 miles of New York City.

  9. AR – on my 3rd McCrady’s meal, while Sean delivered a few courses, our waiter was *superb* – she was completely into the history of the cuisine and the (very special) building.

    But i think you nailed a subtext – it’s authenticity really, something i’ve argued in a past post. Not authentic as in ‘this is authentic NYC food’; but in just being true to yourself and your ideals.

    fine dining is not going downscale as much as it is exploding with new points of view. the market is now larger for new perspectives, instead of suit & tie classical french.

    so if you have a southern restaurant, with southern locals, serving their pride & joy; it will come off much more sincere, and effortless, than a re-tooling of a theme restaurant. same works for a madman behind a sushi counter serving 10 seats/night. etc.

  10. Chuck-

    Completely agree. And I was talking more about Husk than McCrady’s. I thought the server, and particularly the Sommelier, at McCrady’s were phenomenal (she had a lot to say about the food too), but at Husk I think it would have been weird if the waiter had given a lengthy biography of how the food got to the table or something–it’s just not that kind of place. That said, knowing how the food got to the table from reading you and UE and the New Yorker and etc really put me in a place where I could enjoy the food even more, whereas the back-story at EMP seems rather obvious and unnecessary.

    Not really sure what I think about the following, but, taking this further…how do you think this applies to places that obsess over how the food was made when they bring it to the table? At WD~50 and Alinea, I often found myself wondering why they felt they needed to explain every technique before we even tried the dish. In other words, is technique part of the story of a dish, and does having one transglutaminased piece of meat inform how you enjoy other transglutaminased pieces of meat? If not, the explanations of those dishes are theatrical and superfluous also, aren’t they?

  11. Of course, the folks at Eleven Madison Park are not stupid. The writing on the wall was pretty clear, and it looks like they’ve pulled back on their narrative style of service. This, from Kate Krader (editor at Food & Wine), who had dinner there last night: https://twitter.com/kkrader/statuses/248646072300367872

  12. UE- I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, but I’m of the opinion that a lot of this is being done as a reaction to the proliferation of the Globe-trotting chef phenomenon. I was recently in Hong Kong and found myself walking by Carnevino, L’atelier de Joel Robuchon, etc. There seems to be a push to make high end restaurants more unique and ‘of the place’ that the international chefs struggle with. The stories seem to be an extension of that. It also appears to be a very clear business decision for EMP, as Eater hinted at a few weeks ago. This is the type of service model that gets you on the Pellegrino list and makes you more of an international destination. This may be the reason why the experience at Brock’s restaurants seem so much more ‘real,’ as it’s done more out of passion and love than it is out of experimentation and business.

  13. Thanks for the shout out. I’m sure my meals at Husk and McCrady’s this year would have been even more wonderful if Brock had explained the dishes to me. He didn’t. Thing was, the meal didn’t need that to make the dishes understandable. On the most fundamental level, they’re were delicious. Now, the fried green tomatoes would have probably meant more to me if I grew up in the south, but I can never have that sense memory and no one will ever be able to explain it to me, even Brock. However, the shrimp and grits was personally evocative – not because I grew up with the dish, but because it reminded me of the glorious gulf shrimp I have had with my family in Florida every year. Explanation would have taken some of my personal connection out of the dish. Craft should stand on its own without explanation.

    Similarly, I can’t say the explanations in my (just before the shift) meal at EMP this summer. The clam bake is great, probably better without the explanation. If it reminds me of clams on the beach in long island, great. If it reminds me of clams on a Florida beach – because I know that – even better. If it’s just a nearly perfectly executed dish, well that’s wonderful as well. But don’t explain the joke. (which isn’t to criticize EMP too much, it has been my meal of the year so far).

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