The title of this post does not imply that I had some great dining experience at an unbelievable restaurant in New York, and now I’m writing about it. On the contrary, the prix fixe menu experiences I have had thus far are certainly not worth mentioning here. Suffice it to say that I knew what I was hoping for, and what I got was nothing even close to what I believe an amazing tasting menu experience can be.
There is discussion in the media recently regarding the growing preference in fine dining restaurants for extended multi-course menus and tastings. Are they trends? Are they pretentious? Do they unjustly eliminate the diners’ choice of what to eat? An article recently published in Vanity Fair by Corby Kummell takes a very critical look at the prix fixe experience in some of the best restaurants in the world. In essence, he’s not feeling it. And importantly to the story I will lay out for you, he’s not feeling the French Laundry. More on that soon. Check out Kummell’s piece at http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2013/02/top-chefs-totalitarian-restaurants. This article received some backlash from writer and food enthusiast Michael Ruhlman. Check out his two latest blog posts. http://ruhlman.com.
Many chefs from around the country weigh-in on the issue in an article on eater.com.
Before I continue putting my two cents on this issue, let’s get something straight.
At this moment, I am that guy who reads articles, books, and reviews about the best restaurants in the world, yet has never eaten at any one of them. I have caught a glimpse of how amazing a restaurant experience can be by trailing at some of the nicer restaurants in New York. But I never sat down to experience a meal at any one of those restaurants I briefly worked in. I sampled on the fly while working. Not the same.
Truth is I just don’t have the budget, man. In the meantime I can dream. I can read. And I can write.
Fundamentally, I am Michael Ruhlman just before his first book, “The Making of a Chef” was published, and just before he had the dining event of his lifetime at The French Laundry. He was broke, fresh out of the Culinary Institute, looking for line cook work, when a contact pulled through and got him into The Laundry for a meal. He writes about his first meal at the French Laundry in “The Making of a Chef.” It was as if everything Ruhlman had learned at culinary school, everything he had written about food, the pursuit of perfection, and the ability to create flavors that simply twisted people’s minds was truly put into practice at the French Laundry, and Ruhlman had the amazing opportunity to actually experience the best restaurant in the country. Imagine that. I am at culinary school now, having been inspired enough by Ruhlman’s book to finally take the plunge and enroll at the CIA, I am in love with food and I like writing quite a bit (love is too strong a word at this point), and I am looking for the big sequence of events that will take me on my path. Do you see the similarities? Trippy, man. Far out.
So you can begin to imagine Ruhlman’s response to Kummell already. Further, shortly after that night, Ruhlman linked up with Keller and helped write the first French Laundry cookbook, and Ruhlman put in an entire section about his experiences working at the French Laundry into his next book, The Soul of a Chef.
The prix fixe menu at the French Laundry basically altered the course of Ruhlman’s life in a kind of rags to riches story of serendipitously and very successfully falling into food writing. So basically, Ruhlman is down with the tasting menu, and Ruhlman is down with Thomas Keller and The French Laundry. Don’t mess with him.
Kummell’s experience at The French Laundry was quite different (or according to Ruhlman, it was quite similar at first. He was psyched about The Laundry, but his views changed to black for some reason.). Kummell is overwhelmed by the obnoxiously long tasting menu, half-asleep by the end, and felt imposed upon. He goes on to speak of other experiences at some amazing restaurants in this country, including Kellers Per Se in New York. He dines at Elevem Madison Park, Alinia in Chicago, and offers his opinion on restaurants around the world that he’s not yet been, or will never go to, such as the forever mourned El Bulli. He describes the bulk of his lackluster experiences as pretentious, soulless, and in some cases just trying to keep with the trends (the latter statement was made about Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park. I think that is an incredibly bold statement. To me, the food at Eleven Madison Park, or rather the recipes and pictures of the food that I have seen in the Eleven Madison Park cookbook, are absolutely unbelievable. With this statement about Humm, Kummell either reveals a bigger picture rooted in many incredible food experiences, or he’s just being a jerk. You decide). But most of all, he resents having to sit through course after course, hour after hour through a tornado of food and wine coming and going from his plate, just so the chef can strut hip-chic temporal b.s.
The main consensus of other chefs, including Ruhlam, and including me, is that a diner can choose to go to a tasting menu, or can choose an à la carte menu at a different establishment. And it’s as simple as that. There is no one forcing anyone to do a tasting menu. Many great restaurants have tasting menus, and a la carte menus, and leave the option to the diner.
The way I see this issue is like this: I love the art and craft of creating food. I also love the experience of eating food. For some ridiculous reason, I live for these things. I want to cook and eat the most perfect and unbelievably beautiful food. So I am willing to see past chef ego, high prices, having to travel to places I’d rather not be for more than a few days, like New York City, to have these experiences that fulfill me. And I’ll take that meal in whatever format you want to give it to me in, chef.
Kummell disses Eleven Madison Park, while I would be crying tears of joy through each course of a tasting there. I would be more than happy to spend four hours eating at French laundry, and would regret each moment I lost focus on the food to think about something other than the fact I was eating food at The French fricken Laundry. I know I would be hard-pressed to find anything wrong with any of the food I ate at a restaurant like The Laundry, Eleven Madison Park, Alinea, Le Bernardin, or Daniel(I could keep going…but I wouldn’t stop for a while. So I’ll just write…) etc.(heehee), and if I did find anything wrong, like a clash of flavors, a redundancy in ingredient usage, or a poor plate presentation, I would be very impressed with myself. But I doubt that would happen.
So bring it on, chef. Dictate to me your vision of a perfect meal. Give me the experience of a lifetime, like Ruhlman at The French Laundry.