Monday, January 7, 2013

The Tyranny of Choice

Poor Corby Kummer. As the food writer for a national magazine, he is stuck with the dreadful fate of being forced to endure meals (presumably on the publisher's dime) that most people will never have the chance to experience, meals which even many who can afford them can not obtain access to. Sometimes they go on for so long! And they serve so many courses! And the waiters - sometimes they don't perfectly cater to his every whim, or they're distant, or kind of awkward! But the worst thing of all is that these chefs - the ones who most people recognize to be at the very pinnacle of their craft - they just don't listen! They don't care if he wants his steak medium-well, or if he wants his sauce on the side, or if he'd rather have the tuna instead of the halibut in that next course. Those ... those tyrants!

That is the underlying theme of his latest piece in Vanity Fair: "Tyranny - It's What's for Dinner."

Is it the #firstworldproblems nature of the gripe that rankles me so? Possibly. After all, I understand that not everybody loves tasting menus. Indeed, it's a point of contention even within my own household.[1] But it somehow sounds so much more entitled and precious coming from someone whose job is to write about food. Even more so than that, it's the willful blindness that stuck in my throat after reading it. Kummer fails to consider any reason for these "totalitarian" tasting menus other than chef ego, and is equally dismissive of any possible pleasure for the diner, only seeing "subjugation to the will of the creative genius ... followed, eventually, by stultified stupefaction."

But is Mr. Kummer on to something? Is there really a nefarious and growing trend of tyrannical chefs forcing terrified diners to submit to unwanted, 40-course dinners, like some sort of human gavage? Let's examine the evidence.

(continued ...)

The piece begins by setting up Charlie Trotter as the arch-villain, the arrogant, ego-driven chef who demoted the diner "from honored guest whose wish was the waiter's command to quivering hostage in thrall to the chef's iron whim." More particularly, it starts with a vignette suggesting that the reluctance of Trotter's restaurant to serve Kummer, after he arrived two hours late for a reservation, is evidence of such villainy. What Mr. Kummer seems not to realize is that most customers who show up two hours late at any restaurant where reservations have to be procured weeks in advance are not likely to be seated at all. That's not tyranny - that's reality.

It is easy to cast the increasingly demonized Trotter in the villain role: regardless of what you thought of his food, there seem to be very few people who have anything nice to say about him these days.[2] And indeed, he is the prototype of what Kummer is talking about. In a New York Times piece a year ago, Trotter was quoted as saying:
“You know the old adage that the customer’s always right?” he said. “Well, I kind of think that the opposite is true. The customer is rarely right. And that is why you must seize the control of the circumstance and dominate every last detail: to guarantee that they’re going to have a far better time than they ever would have had if they tried to control it themselves.”
But Kummer seems to dramatically overstate Trotter's influence, particularly when it comes to customer relations ("[H]e did leave a lasting legacy: his totalitarian style has become, in many restaurants, the norm."). In a version of culinary history that I've certainly never heard before, he suggests that Ferran Adrià's sprawling tasting menus at El Bulli were of a lineage that starts with Trotter.[3] The tasting menu format actually has European origins roughly a century older than Trotter, going back to the mid-nineteenth century with the French adoption of "service a la russe."[4] One of the "ten commandments" of  1970's "nouvelle cuisine," as published by Henri Gault and Christian Milau in 1973, was a demand for simpler, lighter menus.[5] This see-saw has been going back and forth for some time.

The characterization of Thomas Keller seems even more off target. To start, the suggestion that a typical meal at Keller's The French Laundry runs "40 or more" courses rings false. The menu at TFL is currently twelve courses - even with the multiple amuse-bouches and mignardises bookending a meal, that still won't get to half of what Kummer describes. That 40-course blow-out from 1997 of which he speaks, after which Ruth Reichl anointed TFL "the most exciting place to eat in the United States," was not a typical meal; it was a dog-and-pony show put on for a group of influential writers. Here's a typical TFL menu from 1997; it's ten courses.[6] Kummer not only doesn't appreciate the royal treatment - he apparently doesn't even realize when he's getting it.

In describing Keller's adoption of the tasting menu format, Kummer writes, "Keller said he was merely overcoming his own palate fatigue" - characterizing it as some sort of jaded, self-absorbed solipsism rather than a desire to please the diner. In so doing, he undermines a key component of Keller's culinary philosophy, what Keller describes as the "law of diminishing returns:"
"Most chefs try to satisfy a customer's hunger in a short time with one or two dishes. They begin with something great. The initial bite is fabulous. The second bite is great. But by the third bite - with many more to come - the flavors begin to deaden, and the diner loses interest. It's like getting into a hot bath or jumping into a cold pool. At first, the temperature is shocking, but after a few minutes, you get so used to it that you don't even notice it. Your mouth reacts the same way to flavors and sensations.
Many chefs try to counter the deadening effect by putting a lot of different flavors on the plate to keep interest alive. But then the diner can't focus on anything because it's confusing.
What I want is that initial shock, that jolt, that surprise to be the only thing you experience. So I serve five to ten small courses, each meant to satisfy your appetite and pique your curiosity. I want you to say, "God, I wish I had just one more bit of that." And then the next plate comes and the same thing happens, but it's a different experience, a whole new flavor and feel."
(from the French Laundry Cookbook). Whose pleasure is being served here? For Adrià as well, the degustation menu and focus on small servings was part of a culinary philosophy that gets paid short thrift so as not to detract from the "tyrant chef" theme: "But Adrià and Keller's lasting contribution to the world of restaurants was to shift the balance of power from diner to chef. They demanded unconditional surrender." Really? That's the lasting contribution of Adrià and Keller?

For Keller especially, it seems a fundamentally unfair caricature. Far from demanding "unconditional surrender," Keller has said he'd serve a guest cornflakes if that's what they asked for, describing an approach to customer service that is the polar opposite of Trotter's:[7]
Is the customer always right?
I don’t think the question is, “Is the customer always right?” but rather, “Do you want to make your customer happy?” The paramount goal is to make the customer happy. So if a customer comes into my restaurant and wants cornflakes, is it right for him to eat cornflakes at The French Laundry? Should I really worry about that? Does it matter? My job is to give him a bowl of cornflakes.
Kummer seems to miss the mark also when he characterizes the tasting-menu-only format as an economically driven decision: "Young chefs everywhere are adopting the tasting menu as a way to show off and control costs at the same time - and to signify their ambitions." By focusing solely on food cost, he ignores that the typical tasting menu demands much more labor than a customary menu.[8] The ratio of cooks to guests at El Bulli was 1:1 or greater. At José Andrés' minibar in DC and é in Las Vegas, three cooks prepare 25-35 dishes for 6-8 guests, plus multiple servers and countless other cooks behind the curtain. By comparison, I'd hazard a guess that a restaurant brigade of 4-6 cooks can comfortably turn out 150-300 covers a night in a typical a la carte style restaurant. And while there may be less waste, many tasting menus feature more luxurious, higher-quality ingredients for which the restaurant's profit margin will typically be lower, with preparation methods that are usually much more time- and labor-intensive.

In other words, this is hardly a model for profitability or efficiency. Nobody has ever said: "I know how to make this restaurant business a whole lot easier: why don't I do a 20-course tasting menu?"

The idea that this is some kind of widespread phenomenon seems equally lacking in empirical evidence. While a few newer tasting-menu-only restaurants have garnered notice recently (Atera, Blanca, Chefs Table at Brooklyn Fare), we're still talking about an infinitesimally small fraction of the dining universe. How many such restaurants do you think there are in the U.S.? 100? 200? 500? Out of more than 500,000 total restaurants in the country, this isn't a 1% issue - it's more like a 1/10 of 1% issue.[9] And if there really is such an epidemic, it's one that's easily avoidable: I don't think anyone has ever accidentally stumbled into a restaurant only to discover, to their dismay, that it only offered a 12- or 25- course tasting menu. For the places that do it well, these reservations are highly sought after.

Speaking of which, the use of a "ticketing" system rather than a standard reservation system, which Kummer describes as "the ultimate power grab by a chef," is even more of an outlier. Though he says "It's a dream come true for young chefs on tight budgets, to control food costs and be able to collect revenue" it is generally just that - a dream. Other than Grant Achatz's Next, and now Alinea, there are hardly any other restaurants in the country doing this, and it doesn't work at all unless there is demand sufficient to sell those tickets.[10] It's something that makes sense for the Achatzs of the restaurant world, but is not a viable option for most others.

The parade of horribles envisioned by Kummer - "As more and more restaurants adopt this model, tasting-only menus will empower formerly well-meaning, eager-to-please cooks and servers to become petty despots, and more and more diners will discover that absolute power irritates absolutely" - is unrealistic. People vote with their feet. If the food, or the service, or the experience, aren't good, the restaurant will not survive.

At times, Kummer seems to be right on the cusp of acknowledging that it's really the execution, not the format, that makes or breaks a dining experience - in describing a meal at Rene Redzepi's Noma he says "I felt everything that diners at El Bulli reported in its glory days (and was certain I wouldn't have felt had I gone): the thrill of the new, one spectacularly good dish after another presented in thrillingly fast succession." He also describes Dan Barber's Blue Hill at Stone Barns as the "one laudable exception" to the supposed trend of ego-driven tasting menus, biting hook, line and sinker on Barber's explanation that he changed to a tasting menu format because "our menu is dictated by what comes in from the farm in the morning." Kummer's passive acceptance here is surprising given his cynicism as to so many other chefs' motivations: Barber could just as easily serve an a la carte menu with what "comes in from the farm in the morning." The simple fact is, Blue Hill is the realization of a talented chef's vision - one that is probably much more successful by being presented in a tasting menu format.

Again, Kummer himself seems to recognize this as the goal of the tasting menu, both for chef and diner: "But in a meal this long and ambitious you hope to see the soul of the chef - as you do with Keller and Achatz." Of course, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't: some chefs are more successful, more creative, more thoughtful, maybe just more talented; and purely as a matter of personal taste, some meals will resonate more with certain diners than others.[11] Despite having the tone and rhetoric of a screed, the actual evidence would seem to indicate a much less dogmatic conclusion than the "tyrant chef" theme suggests: but "I Like Some Restaurants Better Than Others" would be a much less interesting headline than "Tyranny - It's What's for Dinner."

What the piece really seems to miss is that some diners actually like to relinquish control. That same trust that is implicit in any tasting menu is at the heart of every Japanese "omakase" meal, to say nothing of basically every private dinner party. Philosophers and social scientists speak of the "tyranny of choice" - a society that offers more choice paradoxically often engenders less satisfaction and more anxiety and regret, than one that does not.[12] Here's Keller again:
What are your favourite dishes?
The idea of a beautifully roasted chicken is compelling—the aroma, the flavours. Who doesn’t love roast chicken when it’s done really well? Sometimes I have great anxiety when I see a steak, an omelette, roast chicken and tripe on a menu. There are so many good things that I don’t know what to choose. So it’s almost better not to have any choices when I order.
Is that the premise behind the chef’s tasting menu?
Sure. Luxury to me is about not having to make the choice. Going to a restaurant, just sitting down and having the chef cook for you is great. When I go to dinner at my colleagues’ restaurants, I never see the menu or the wine list, and it’s just a wonderful experience.
Maybe everyone doesn't feel that way. And certainly nobody wants to eat every meal that way. And not every chef has the skills, or the vision, to deliver the kind of experience that justifies a diner's trust. But to reject the entire genre and dismiss it as ego driven "tyranny" is to lose even the possibility.

In order to "see the soul of the chef," you have to give it a chance to come through, and that's awfully hard to do if the diner rather than the chef controls the agenda. It is surely no coincidence that arguably the most ambitious and most influential restaurants of the past two decades, in the U.S. and in the world - El Bulli, TFL, Noma, Alinea - are all tasting menu only format. Creativity and inspiration come from the creator, not the customer. A chef shackled to serving caesar salads (with grilled chicken on top!) and 18 ounce steaks will never have the opportunity to introduce the diner to something they've never tried before. A chef whose mission is to do what the customer asks him to do will never create anything new.[13]

There are great dishes I might have never tried but for experiencing them in a tasting menu. A recent example is Sean Brock's "Charleston Ice Cream," one of nine courses in the tasting menu at McCrady's.[14] Would I ever order a dish of basically plain rice as part of an a la carte dinner? Never. Would it have received the attention it deserved if served as a side dish to a slab of steak or a filet of fish? Most likely not. And yet it was very possibly the best thing I ate all year, a revelatory dish that captures everything that the restaurant and the chef are about.

At Andoni Luis Aduriz's Mugaritz in San Sebastian, diners are given two envelopes in lieu of a menu. The cards in the envelopes offer two choices: "Submit" or "Rebel." From everything I've read, the actual dishes that are served are the same regardless of the choice - but the diner's attitude going into the meal can make for a huge difference in the experience.

[1] In a piece in Reuters this morning, Felix Salmon unabashedly and very effectively makes the case for these diners: "We are the people who don’t think that every dish should tell a story, the people who don’t get bored with dishes after three bites, the people who do get bored with any meal after the first dozen courses or three hours, whichever comes first."

[2] Other than the perpetually loyal and supportive Norman Van Aken.

[3] "The most telling echo of the kind of rampant ego Trotter set in motion in this country was a framed Catalonian menu in a guest bathroom dated 1998: it was from El Bulli and signed by its chef, Ferran Adria."

[4]And indeed the style of service which predated "service a la russe" was no less extravagant, often involving dozens upon dozens of dishes served buffet style over several hours.

[5] I've seen this translated as both "lighter" and "shorter" - I'd welcome any insight.

[6] And $80!

[7] Kummer also describes a more recent visit to Keller's Per Se in New York, where "the sommelier was indifferent and condescending to a young French guest who happened to know a good deal about wine and later pronounced himself shocked at the obviousness of the wine choices - for instance, sweet Sauternes paired with foie gras." Just based on that description, it's hard to guess who was more unbearable, the sommelier or the "shocked" Frenchman, but I suspect I'd have little sympathy for the young pedant.

[8] Speaking in rough averages, food costs make up about 1/3 of a full service restaurant's budget, while labor costs make up another 1/3.

[9] Of the ten U.S. restaurants that currently hold three Michelin stars, only six are exclusively tasting-menu format. Even Keller's Per Se offers a "salon" menu where several dishes can be experienced a la carte. And the Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley ostensibly has no menu at all; rather, according to its website, "In an effort to create a deeper connection between our guests, our servers, and the chef's team, we begin a dialogue the moment a reservation is made. Our reservations team speaks to each guest concerning their likes and dislikes, allergies and aversions. A specific menu is then created by Chef Kostow for each table. A relationship begins with that call, one that continues throughout the dining experiences to include the servers, cooks, and entire team at The Restaurant." That would seem to be the exact opposite of the "tyranny" claimed by Kummer.

[10There are maybe a handful that require advance booking and have a no-refund policy for cancellations within a certain window - El Ideas in Chicago, Saison in San Francisco, Rogue 24 in DC come to mind.

[11] There have always been trends - raspberry vinaigrette, mango salsa, molten chocolate cake, beets and goat cheese, vertical plating, pork belly, foams, foraging, pseudo-naturalism - and there have always been those who create them, those who follow them, and those who pay no heed. The only thing that has changed of late is the velocity by which they spread in the digital age. While I agree with Ulterior Epicure that the problem is sometimes the inability of food writers and the dining public to recognize the difference (something I'm surely often guilty of myself), I don't think it's a new phenomenon.

[12] If you're ever failed to order a reuben sandwich when there's one on the menu, and someone else does, you'll understand this sense of regret from having chosen poorly.

[13]I recently read of a theoretical "Googley restaurant" - an open-source, crowd-sourced restaurant where the menu, the recipes, the wine list, are all driven by social media. It sounds to me like an absolute nightmare.

[14] McCrady's - which many say is one of the best restaurants in the country, and I wouldn't argue with them - offers both an a la carte menu and a multiple choice 4-course prix fixe dinner menu in addition to its tasting menu.

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