Taste Menu Torture?

A debate has been raging for some time now in culinary circles regarding the tasting menu concept. For instance, Komi, according to its website, “serves a set multicourse dinner for $135 per person, beginning with a series of mezzethakia—small, light dishes—and progressing to heartier flavors, including pasta and a family-style entrée, followed by desserts. There are no printed menus.” They also ask that no photos of the food be taken. Is it getting to be a bit much?

Food writer Michael Ruhlman notes that Anthony Bourdain and Marco Pierre White have come out strongly against tasting menus, and Ruhlman takes particular issue with Vanity Fair‘s Corby Kummer who went after Thomas Keller (describing one meal of his that “felt like a form of torture”).

Writes Ruhlman,

I get hysterical over a lot of things, but the tasting menu isn’t one of them. If I don’t want to eat that way, I don’t go to the restaurant. [Pete] Wells’s and Kummer’s articles do make clear how difficult a tasting menu is to do, judging from the displeasure these professional writers about food experienced. It’s not simply about serving a lot of courses, it’s about balance. Yes, chefs are competitive, they want to impress, they want to stay fresh, avoid becoming bored, and in their zeal can certainly go overboard. But ultimately, a restaurant is a business, not an art museum, and the marketplace will decide whether a chef’s tasting menu succeeds or not.

Ruhlman mentions the last tasting menus he’d had—at Momofuku, Le Bernardin, and Next, describing them as “exemplary—exciting to eat throughout, each completely original, not overly long, and leaving us happily sated and not uncomfortably full.” (Michael, I’m a bit skeptical so please let me know the next time you do this and I’ll join you in order to verify.)

Two years ago my wife and I took on the tasting menu at Per Se, Thomas Keller’s New York four-star outpost. As I mentioned at the time, Keller himself was there and told us we can stop anytime we want. He also said, “if all you want is a bowl of cornflakes, I’ll go downstairs [to Bouchon, I presume] and get you a bowl of cornflakes.” I knew it would be daunting (a former Per Se employee warned me about this as well). But I also knew if I threw in the towel, I’d spend the rest of my life wondering what singular creations I’d missed. By the end of the evening, we’d sampled some 14 dishes, including Keller’s signature “Oysters and Pearls” (“sabayon” of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and Ossetra caviar) and “Macaroni and Cheese” (butter-poached Nova Scotia lobster and mascarpone-enriched orzo and parmesan crisp). Sure, I was pretty much up all night—but I still think it was worth it. (And no, this was not a free meal.)

None of this is new. Read about Lucullus or check out The Physiology of Taste by Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. It’s not something you should do on a regular basis for health or moral reasons (“Once a month at most,” Michel Richard once advised). But it’s good to enjoy life from time to time. And as Paulie says in the prison scene in Goodfellas, “Tomorrow we eat sangwiches.”

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