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!