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). [Edited to add: After momofuku ko moved to a new location in 2014, it lifted its ban on photography, and I did finally have dinner there.]
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.