Tasters Versus Eaters: Fine Dining Menu War Heats Up

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Proposed ISO Gastronomical menu signs. Credit: John Harris

We are told there are four, five, six, even seven basic nutritional food groups, but there are really only two basic food-consuming groups, at least at the top of today’s fine dining food pyramid: the tasters and the eaters.

The tasters are driven by consumerism and connoisseurship — they collect culinary experience; and the eaters by hunger and old-world gourmandise — they crave culinary experience. Both lay claim to the gastronomic high ground. And they have gone to war, at least in the media.

Pete Wells of the New York Times, a partisan in the battle, cleverly placed these two feuding foodie factions into a class perspective last fall in his Times article, “Nibbled to Death”:

… the elite who now fill these [tasting menu-only] dining rooms are a particular kind of diner, the big-game hunters out to bag as many trophy restaurants as they can. Another kind of eater, the lusty, hungry ones who keep a mental map of the most delicious things to eat around town, may be left outside.

Are tasting menus taking us to the cleaners?

Wells appears to have at least made peace with the best of the tasting menu-only restaurants, the ones that have captured most of the Michelin stars across America — like Alinea in Chicago, Atera in New York, Saison in San Francisco and, of course, the mother of all tasting-menu meccas, The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif.

But Corby Kummer in Vanity Fair (“Tyranny — It’s What’s For Dinner”) is taking no prisoners:

The entire experience they will consent to offer is meant to display the virtuosity not of cooks but of culinary artists. A diner’s pleasure is secondary; subjugation to the will of the creative genius comes first, followed, eventually, by stultified stupefaction.

Thomas Keller’s French Laundry takes much of the brunt of Kummer’s explosive salvos. Kummer’s snarky gibes about the Stalinist tyranny and torture of contemporary tasting menu meals must have gotten Keller’s free-range goat.

In a recent interview in HuffPost San Francisco, Keller responded with careful disdain:

It’s fine. I can’t control what people write and Corby has to make a living …  His argument was that diners don’t have a choice when they come to French Laundry, but as Michael Bauer pointed out [Inside Scoop SF], you make the choice when you make the reservation.

I’m not sure that Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s veteran restaurant critic cum blogger, has the requisite firepower to go up with Keller mano a mano against Kummer and Wells, but I think on this point the Keller/Bauer team wins the skirmish if not the war.

A French Laundry I could love

Keller also scores big when he comments in the interview that Kummer had not been to The French Laundry since 1997. A more recent visit would have revealed that the 40-course menu Kummer remembers so clearly has shrunk at the Laundry to just 12 courses. Not particularly overwhelming as tasting menus go.

Which is precisely why I made a pilgrimage to Yountville in March for a birthday lunch at The French Laundry. I had had a disappointing meal there in 2010 — you know, the usual complaints: too many dishes, food too fussy, nothing served hot, etc. — but didn’t want to rely on impressions from the past.

Simulated French Laundry eating menu. Credit: L. John Harris and PNR GraphicsFrench Laundry eating menu. Credit: L. John Harris

Simulated French Laundry eating menu. Credit: L. John Harris and PNR Graphics

Of the dishes served this time, half were still either not to my liking (the raw-ish room temperature morsel of Hawaiian big-eye tuna was rather flavorless even with its quirky  “everything bagel” crust) or unnecessary (a pretty standard potato salad), and the other half surprisingly good, like exotic culinary jewels glittering with serious flavor.

If those delicious little dishes were repurposed on a prix fixe eating menu (see illustration), and portioned accordingly, it would have been one of the best meals of my life. Imagine an optional menu at The French Laundry that flips the traditional French dégustation menu on its head — more food per plate, fewer plates, same price ($270).

Looking back in hunger

When I decided to enlist in this battle of the tasters and the eaters, I assumed I’d take a few pot shots of my own at tasting-menu tyranny. But truth is I’ve found the media brouhaha overwrought and critically myopic. Would I have held with the Fauves when Cubism ascended to the throne of 20th-century painting? I might have found Cubism too drab and analytical compared to the wild color symphonies of the passing Fauvism; but the glory of art, real art in any medium (even food), is that it’s ultimately, and endlessly, expansive, never reductive.

Foreshadowing our current foodie feuding in his 1976 essay, “The Eaters and the Eaten,” John Berger, the English art critic and novelist, got it spot on, I think, when he identified the two basic kinds of eating in our post-modern, post-consumerist world — peasant vs. bourgeois:

… the peasant way of eating is centred on the act of eating itself and on the food eaten … Whereas the bourgeois way of eating is centred on fantasy, ritual and spectacle. The first can complete itself in satisfaction; the second is never complete and gives rise to an appetite which, in essence, is insatiable.

Fifty years from now, I don’t want to sound like one of those 19th-century critics who wrote about Impressionist painting as amateurish and unfinished, if not outright evil. Contemporary tasting menus, for all the technical nonsense and extravagant excess, are far from evil, Stalinist or merely culinary. At their best, these meals are like going to the opera or those large multimedia art installations museums love to exhibit these days — a once-a-year adventure.

On the other hand, eater’s menus that present a simple food aesthetic paying homage to a traditional cooking and eating style (local, seasonal foods prepared well and served without fuss in standard courses to hungry eaters) can in fact bring greater satisfaction, as Berger suggests, than the most brilliantly avant-garde tasting menu spectacles. Cassoulet anyone?

Top graphic credit:  L. John Harris with PNR Graphics

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Comments

Deborah Fabricant
on: 5/3/13
Great article, John! I will always be an "Eater".... The experience is satisfying and authentic. Keep up the good work! Deb
bob waks
on: 5/7/13
So John..back to Casa Orinda for fried chicken?
l. John Harris
on: 5/7/13
Well Bob, you have the fried chicken and I'll have the prime rib. We can do our own little tasting menu.
bob waks
on: 5/7/13
done!

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