Leave it to us privileged foodies to complain about getting too much. The complaint-of-the-month club's latest rant, careening about the Interwebs, zeroes in on famous chefs who keep us strapped to our chairs in their dining rooms, force-feeding us dozens of exquisite courses.
Really. I am not making this up. (Except for the part about being strapped to our chairs.)
Although the topic has been floating around for several months, the epicenter of this foofaraw is a piece by Corby Kummer. Known for writing tight, pragmatic pieces about food for the Atlantic, Kummer's essay in Vanity Fair, "The Tyranny of the Tasting Menu," excoriates celebrated chefs who do interminable tasting menus. In a piece as long and detailed as some of those menus, he fingers Charlie Trotter and the Spanish chef Ferran Adrià (both of whom recently closed their restaurants after long and successful runs) for making the chef's tasting menu into a long-distance slog. He lambastes Thomas Keller (at the French Laundry and Per Se), René Redzepi (at Noma in Copenhagen), Daniel Humm (at Eleven Madison Park in New York) and Grant Achatz (at Alinea in Chicago) for pushing the idea further.
I expect that all of us who write about great restaurants have found ourselves in a position similar to one Kummer describes. At the French Laundry in 1997, he and several other well-known gastronomers sat down to dinner at 8:30 p.m. and were still eating at 1 a.m. I know the feeling. I have actually waved off two or three late courses at the French Laundry because I had reached capacity.
Of course, those sitting at a table of critics getting special treatment, the kitchen sending out extra course after extra course, are not exactly getting a typical experience. Imagine, being required to eat great food for hours on end!
Sympathy for such a complaint would probably compare with what I get when I describe my job. Who would commiserate when I say I taste about 140 wines a week? Sure, it's work. But I consider it a privilege to get paid for doing it.
Certified foodies have taken their shots in this debate. For each one who insists that a great restaurant should tailor its offerings to their preferences, others counter that we all know the drill at a place that offers only a chef's menu. We get to say if we have any food allergies or dislikes. Within those parameters, the chef cooks whatever he or she wants. If you want to choose from an à la carte menu, go someplace else.
I agree with the latter argument. If you don't want to sit through six hours of Wagner's Götterdämmerung, you're probably in the wrong place at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.
But even that misses the most valid point—that the chefs and restaurants on the top of every greatest-in-the-world list offer only a marathon tasting menu. To experience the pinnacle of what Noma or the French Laundry can do—if I want to swoon over Thomas Keller's Caviar with Cauliflower Panna Cotta, for example—I must go to the French Laundry or Per Se. It's not served at his other, more casual, places. To stretch my Wagner analogy, I have to sit through the whole opera if I want to experience the soprano perform the famous "Immolation Scene," the glorious finale of Götterdämmerung, not get the highlights disc. (As big an opera lover as I am, I couldn't do that every day, either. But on occasion? You bet.)
There are, of course, great restaurants that offer an à la carte menu or several options for each course in a set menu, but they seldom get the idolatrous recognition that the ones at the very top gather. Maybe, just maybe, the tyranny doesn't come from the chef at all, but from a culinary world that rewards the showmanship of the long menu over the comfort of choosing our own way.