Food for Thought

Food for Thought: A few words on tasting menus

Three-part pea course, Alinea
Three-part English pea course, Alinea, August 2011

This week, Chicago magazine’s Jeff Ruby has created some interesting dialogue around the downfalls of foodie culture. I was inspired by his response to a recent Vanity Fair feature in which Corby Kummer, as Ruby put it, “spends nearly 5,000 words bashing tasting menus.” I agree with Ruby’s take on it all, and wanted to add my own reflection.

I was lucky enough to enjoy lengthy meals as a teenager at such legends as Charlie Trotter’s and Trio, both of which were long enough ago that I sadly can’t recall many details. More recently, I’ve been wowed by tasting menus at the likes of One Market, Mexique, and Alinea.

Simply put, these have been my most exhilarating dining experiences. At Alinea, the three hours flew by as each of the 18 courses brought a different kind of surprise and delight. The three English pea variations in the photos above – warm on top of the bowl, room-temperature in the bowl’s first layer, and frozen in the bowl’s second layer – were explosively flavorful and artfully presented. Chef Grant Achatz succeeded in showing me an unforgettable new way (or three) to look at the humble pea. I count this among many insights during that meal and others that I’m convinced wouldn’t have occurred, or at least had the same impact, if part of a traditional menu. It just doesn’t work for a diner to produce the same kind of rhythm, variety, and intermittent revelation by placing a personal order.

In the article, Kummer laments that in their heyday, icons Ferran Adrià (El Bulli) and Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) “shift[ed] the balance of power from diner to chef.” But really, isn’t that what you want from a great restaurant anyway? I don’t visit a much-lauded restaurant expecting to be in control and dictate my every whim from start to finish, as if I were preparing my own meal in someone else’s kitchen. Instead, I visit the restaurant – and pay good money – so that someone extremely skilled in their trade can demonstrate that skill through the meal they prepare and the experience they orchestrate. It goes back to the “is food art?” debate, which Kummer touches on; for me, chefs demand the same respect as any other kind of artisan.

However, I trust Kummer that some tasting menus can just be too long (thankfully I can’t speak from personal experience). Of course a menu that lacks the proper attention to detail or fails on some other level would drag on and on, just like a bad movie or poorly produced album. Kummer also gets it right with the following sentiment, in describing what he called a “tedious” meal at Eleven Madison Park: “Certainly, surprise and delight and originality shouldn’t be banished. But in meals this long and ambitious you hope to see the soul of the chef—as you do with Keller and Achatz.” That is truly what made our meal at Alinea: amid all the fancy culinary tricks, we caught a glimpse of the unmistakable heart that Achatz puts into that restaurant, and saw why he demands excellence in every aspect of his business.

I think there will always be a place for both kinds of menus. There is much to be said for selecting a dish that sounds best to you or suits your taste at that moment, and then finding it to be brilliantly executed, delicious, and satisfying. For that reason, there will always be chefs who aim to give you the best “___” (fill in the blank) you’ve ever eaten, after you’ve first indicated that it’s what you’d like to eat. But why not trust a chef to dazzle you with his or her own decisions? When it comes to dining at the best of the best, I’m gleefully willing to be passive and go along for what promises to be a tasty, inspiring ride.