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The Point About Lengthy Chef's Menus

Maybe we value the wrong things about restaurants
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 9, 2013 4:03pm ET

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.

Chris Haag
Vancouver, BC —  January 9, 2013 7:34pm ET
I think the tasting menu needs to be kept in context. The restaurants that offer them tend to be special occasion places that one should not go to all of the time - as noted by Harvey. Most of us can't afford to go frequently and our waistlines do not permit it.

I have been to the French Laundry once, it was a memorable experience. I actually do not want to go again as I doubt my next experience there will be the same as the 1st time. This happened to one of the people who dined with our group. He went with friends a couple of years later and was let down.

I agree there is lots of great places to grab well made food, where dinner takes 3 hours or less and costs are far more reasonable. I love places that offer you the option of the tasting menu or a standard menu. When Cyrus was open, we loved eating in the bar as we could order as many or is little food as we wanted and essentially created our own "mini" tasting menu.....
Caroline Bergstrom
Portland, Oregon —  January 10, 2013 8:36am ET
Chris, I had the opposite experience of your friend. At Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York, we dined three times over a period of 5 years and, although we were worried that the second and third meals would never live up to the first mind blowing and belt-stretching experience, they somehow were even better (the third dinner being the best I have ever had anywhere!)

I personally relish the opportunity to experience a tasting menu from an accomplished chef and kitchen staff. The chance to see, smell and taste a chef "showing off" always inspires me. And although most nights all my wife and I are looking for is a simple but well made meal that is balanced; a great and grandiose tasting menu from time to time can showcase balance in abundance, not to mention re-inspire us to get back into the kitchen and try our hand at some of the recipes and techniques that are constantly changing in the world of cuisine.

Josh Bergstrom.
Chris Haag
Vancouver, BC —  January 10, 2013 10:29pm ET
Josh, we have had that experience with the Herb Farm. I have been twice and the 2nd visit was better than the 1st.....both were spectacular meals and experiences.

I have put the FR on such a high pedastal in my mind, that it is a one a done spot for me.......

We will be in the Willamette Valley in May and will ensure to drop by your winery, we do love what you are doing with Pinot...

Lawrence Newcombe
bay City , MI —  January 12, 2013 11:46am ET
The "Inn at Little Washington" never lets you down and I have enjoyed 5 visits. All of them a great experience.
The Odom Corporation
Portland, OR —  January 16, 2013 10:32pm ET
I don't get the big controversy If you are aware the restaurant has a tasting menu and you are not inclined/interested/desiring to partake dine at a different restaurant. If the tasting menu trend proves to be unpopular it will take care of it itself with the advocating establishments becoming dinosaurs.

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