Some friends recently described their opinions on restaurant food, and while they had strong views, those views were deeply earned by experience, commitment and by their formidable intelligence. I listened avidly, and agreed with exactly half of what they said. The other half, well, let’s look at it.
The kind of food they liked, they said, arose from their feelings about purity. So, top ingredients (in season and of-the-region) cooked with respect and affection, which in practice means (if I may say so) un-fucked-with. Capital-F Food. Delicious food, connected to conscience and curiosity. And of course I love food like that. Who doesn’t? It’s the way I eat 95% of the time, and it both fills and fulfills me.
But they showed a corollary disdain for the thing we agree (for now) to call “haute cuisine.” This echelon of restaurant food and the mentalities that lay below it were dismissed as somehow contrived and invalid. An anecdote was shared that during a lengthy tasting menu at one multi-starred temple, the lady fell asleep at the table between the 7th and 8th courses. That seemed to lay things on a bit thick, so I tried to puncture the vibe by saying “Yes, that place is well known for putting a sedative in the 2nd course,” but the joke fell flat.
There can be many things wrong with the haute experience. There can be pretensions and affects standing in for creativity; there can be an over-reliance on luxury ingredients to massage the egos of big spenders, there can be (most often in formal establishments in France) service protocols that border on the farcical. But there can also be issues with simpler places; mundane food attached to a bunch of feel-goody “values,” as well as a kind of moral preening, signaling that we at least are grounded and ethical persons who eat real food.
I would rather discuss successful renditions of each idiom, so that we don’t fight each other’s straw men. I also think a bias toward the ordinary is a reasonable and appealing way for a person to be, but that a bias against the “elite” is an unhelpful populism of taste that can give rise to anti-snobbism that joins in turn with anti intellectualism.
In Chamonix-Mont-Blanc there’s a property called Albert 1er with two restaurants under its roof. One is a Michelin 2-star that is generally very good and sometimes excellent. The other is a simple Savoyard tavern called Maison Carrier, and that place rocks. The seats are uncomfortable, the tables are too small and too close together, but all is forgotten as soon as the food arrives. One year we were there in September and the markets were groaning with cêpes (which you may know better as porcini), and our tavern had a special, a simple fricassee of cêpes – a bliss of boletus; a big steaming heap of them on a plate, sautéed as simply as possible with some shallots – a feast.
The next night we were in the 2-star, and since they knew us I made so bold as to ask if the kitchen had cêpes, and if so could they vamp a course for us? They did, and they could. The ‘shrooms arrived thinly sliced and arranged in concentric circles on the plate in a single layer with the caps in the center, a sort of solar system of cêpes, very simply cooked in goose fat. Now you could look at that and sniff with derision, remembering that hearty dish from the previous evening, and think “This is exactly what’s wrong with these kinds of places,” but you’d run into a small niggling problem.
These cêpes tasted better, and I mean much better than the night before’s. Each thin little bite exploded with earthy complex flavor. It was another world. In place of generosity, concentration – which is perhaps generosity in another form.
And the next night we were back in the simple place. My motto is Refuse to choose. Wanting all restaurants to be unpretentious is like wanting all wines to be Beaujolais. I love Beaujolais, but come on.
I think the haute-cuisine experience can offer valuable things that actually make our lives lovelier and better. Recently the Washington Post published Tom Sietsema’s review of José Andres’ Minibar, which is his interpretation of the “molecular” experience created by many of his Spanish compatriots. The piece reminded me how much I’ve missed those experiences, the often shattering deliciousness of the food, the beautiful intimacy of the settings (the little U-shaped bar around the expediting station, rarely seating more than 12-16 people), the procession of implosive little flavor bombs, the ecstatic failure to actually fathom the absurd deliciousness you’re experiencing. And there’s another thing also. People speak of the “foams and the
chem-lab stuff” but actually this is more than a mere exercise in weirdness. Let’s come back to my cêpes; let’s say they were somehow rendered in the form of a gelatin, and let’s say I wasn’t told what it was. I don’t eat a gelatin expecting a rich earthy and savory flavor, but when I have it in my mouth I seem to recognize the flavor but I can’t imagine what it is. C’mon now, I know this flavor….it’s….it’s….shit, is it cêpes??
If you think this is a game, I think your opinion is incomplete. Of course it’s playful, but the net effect is to fire neural pathways in your brain that bring you alive, not to mention that if you taste wine attentively, this is exactly what you’re doing! Is it somehow twee to apply that sensibility to food?
I’d commend to your attention two food books that surmount the whole dubious genre of “Big-Deal-Chef-Cookbooks.” One is Daniel Patterson’s “Coi, Recipes And Stories,” and the other is Pierre Gagnaire and Hervé This’ remarkable exploration of culinary thinking in “Cooking: The Quintessential Art.” These books (among others) are an antidote to the rich-asshole-jerkoff-food we do (admittedly) see, sometimes, in establishments of a certain “milieu.”
I’ve heard it said that those “creative” places are indulging in a sort of performance art, and we shouldn’t think of them the way we think of “food” qua food. I agree and disagree. Here’s a memory that may help explain my dual feeling.
Many years ago, the great restaurant Alinea in Chicago had a practice of placing a kind of pillow on the table, and then laying a plate atop it that contained your actual “food.” The pillow had a tiny pinhole, it turned out, through which a scented air would waft toward your face as you ate. Well HA! Isn’t that the apex of preening silliness? Well, um, actually no. I’m remembering an October menu and a lamb dish on my plate, and in the pillow was air scented with the smell of burning leaves. The chef grew up in rural Michigan, and remembered that smell. It’s an evocative smell in many ways. It often comes from afar – we’re not sitting right next to a burning leaf pile as we chow down – and it often heralds the arrival of Winter, and the keenly melancholy beauty of Autumn, and the greater point is this wasn’t a “gimmick,” it was an evocation based on feeling. Its intent was to transmit that feeling to the diner.
I’m baffled why anyone would want to diminish that aim, that wish, by saying “You just wanted to prove you could fart around with chemicals to show what a hot-shot you are,” or even worse, “This isn’t true food…” What nonsense. It is an immersive, holistic and emotional moment entailing the eating of food, along with the penumbra of memory and feeling that can come along but rarely does.
I myself seem to have a bias toward duality. I’ve said that the sacred without the profane is merely precious, and the profane without the sacred is merely dirty. I appreciate each thing better when I love them equally, and if I needed to somehow earn my appreciation of the joys of “simple” food by disdaining the joys of “haut” food, then I fear I’d be discarding half of my pathways to pleasure.
But don’t they squander season-and-regionality, these temples of cuisine? They used to, and a few still do, but the seasonal-regional ideal has so penetrated the culinary zeitgeist that most of the finest places are as connected as can be. Standing atop the shoulders of the pioneers Michel Bras (who had 3 Michelin stars for many years) and Charlie Trotter, and Marc Veyrat (among others too numerous to recall) came a new generation: Blue Hill (at Stone Barns) and Patterson’s Coi, and the miraculous Single Thread in Healdsburg and a host of others too numerous to recall! The “basic-honest” food people no longer have a monopoly on wholesome ingredients and seasonal menus; what they have is an assertion of a sensibilityabout restaurant food that itself is wholesome and candid and lovely in every way. There is a glow about such places and the people who steward them, a glow that only diminishes if they wish to claim that theirs is the only “true” way to dine. It suffices to be true and to recognize truths other than ones own.
So I think my friends overdid it. And yet, in the immortal words of Zippy The Pinhead, “Going too far is half the pleasure of not getting anywhere!”