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Chefs Weigh in on the 'Tyranny' of Tasting Menus

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Welcome to Hot Topics, in which chefs chime in on a major issue in food.

[Illustration: Eric Lebofsky]

In recent months, there's been a debate over extended tasting menus and the chefs who orchestrate them. Is there a tasting menu epidemic spreading across the nation, as Pete Wells argued in a New York Times piece? More broadly, as Corby Kummer suggested in Vanity Fair, is the spread of tasting menus creating a restaurant culture in which chefs are tyrants and diners have less and less choice? Several critics have weighed in, but it's time for five chefs — four of whom serve tasting menus — to enter the debate.

Here now, Dominique Crenn (Atelier Crenn, San Francisco), David Kinch (Manresa, Los Gatos), Ryan Poli (Tavernita, Chicago), Paul Liebrandt (Corton, New York), and Matt Lightner (Atera, New York) weigh in on the issue.


Dominique Crenn

Restaurant: Atelier Crenn — San Francisco, CA

What are your general thoughts on the tasting menu debate?
I don't want to judge anyone for their opinions, but I will say a few things to consider that I think would make this all a little less acrimonious and more beneficial to cooking.

What are they?
The thing is, we live in a world where I think it's important to have diversity and choice. In our industry, there are so many choices. I'm a little bit concerned that opinions can get so extreme on something like this. Even if they don't like something like tasting menus, it should maybe be a little more objective and less about bringing these people down. We're talking about Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller here. If you like Monet and don't like Picasso, for instance, I don't think you would be so quick to say, "Picasso is garbage." It's just something you don't like.

I do think we also live in a time where some journalists want to be a little more extreme in their opinions to attract attention. That, to me, is not journalistic. We want to please everyone, but we can't.

Tomorrow, for example, I could open up a crêpe shop, casual, and I would love that. Would Atelier Crenn be better than that? Is Atelier Crenn better than what my friends do at Statebird Provisions? No, it's just different, and that variety is good, I think. Right now, I am focused on my restaurant, which does tasting menus. And I do it with good intentions, soul, and all of my skill.

But what about chefs that are perhaps not skilled enough to pull off tasting menus or are doing it because it's trendy or might get more critical acclaim?
That's an important thing to talk about. My stand on tasting menus is that you definitely cannot do it if it's simply because you want to look more serious. To me, a tasting menu is an experience where a chef is really cooking for you. There should be a story behind it, a coherence to everything. It's not about taking dishes from your menu and making them smaller.

I would say that a good number of tasting menus aren't as successful because it's not really what the chef is about. They do it because it looks cool or is trendy.


David Kinch

Restaurant: Manresa, Los Gatos, CA

What did you think of the Kummer article?
I think Corby Kummer makes some good points in general about the menus and the complaints. He makes legitimate points. For me, though, the easiest way is to choose not to go to those restaurants. It's a marketplace. If these restaurants open up and succeed, then great, because the chef is good. If they go out of business for whatever reason, maybe because of the food, than it means it was probably not a good concept.

The fact of the matter is, you choose where you go to eat. No one is making you go into the place, spend that amount of money, and sit through only one long menu against your will.

The article really doesn't bother me. It's one man's opinion. Maybe he's jaded. Maybe he'd rather just go out and be able to have four courses and then write about the place instead of sitting through a whole tasting. That I understand. But again, I would choose not to go to the restaurants.

Do you think it's a positive thing that chefs are aspiring to do these ambitious menus, or are most of them diving in before being ready?
You know, it's just a trend that's happening. And those have a way of getting regulated with the passage of time. A lot of it I think has to do with competitiveness among chefs. One will say, "Oh, you do eleven courses? Well, I do fourteen!" And then the next guy will say, "Oh yeah? Well I do seventeen!" There's a lot of that going on.

So the market will figure it all out?
I think so. I think it's interesting, too, that you don't see a lot of female chefs doing this competitive cooking. It's like a competition.

There's an element of machismo, you're saying?
Sometimes, especially when you're dealing with young chefs. Are they cooking for customers or to compete with each other? In the end, I am a fan of a tasting menu in the right hands.

You've mentioned to me that you've considered going to just one menu before. Can you talk about that?
At times, we've considered going to one menu, but we like the idea of offering some flexibility to our customers. We want the customer to have some choice.

Is that because you don't want to get customers angry or because you like the idea of having choice?
No, I do think it's important and positive. But who knows, that could change as we change as a restaurant.

Do you think you'd experience a backlash for going to one menu?
Yes, I think that would happen, so you have to keep that in mind.


Matt Lightner

Restaurant: Atera — New York, NY

As the chef of a tasting-menu-only restaurant, how do you view this debate, controversy, or whatever you want to call it?
I think this is a wonderful time for food in this country. There is no shortage of concepts — fast food, restaurants, and these tasting menus. If you look at Europe over the last few decades, you'll see that a lot of those places are just tasting menu restaurants. So, now some of these talented [American] chefs are getting to the point where they think they can match that. That's really exciting.

With that said, there are some that work and some that don't. But look, I'm a Midwest boy, and if my mom, who lives around a bunch of Applebee's restaurants, were to go to Per Se or Trotter's, it would change her life. There's something very special about that.

The way the restaurant business works — some places stay open, others don't depending on how successfully they do this format. These articles make that even clearer, but I don't think we should read these pieces and suddenly stop doing tasting menus. That's not the wisest.

What's important if you want to have a successful tasting menu?
It goes down to having really good products and products that you don't see anywhere else. You have to make sure that the menu is quick and efficient. Look at elBulli: he did a bunch of small snacks and he did it quickly. If you're waiting twenty minutes between courses, then it's grueling. Those are the things I try to think about.

Why do you think this is suddenly a topic of discussion?
You always have to have something to write about. And you have to think that a lot of these critics go to restaurants like this, which are more special occasion, way more often than anyone else would. That is probably really devastating and not fun. I'm of course not certain about that.

I do think the majority of the people that come to these restaurants know what they're in for. They struggle to get a reservation and they make an evening out of it. They're not being forced to do that, because there are tons of wonderful à la carte places out there for them.


Paul Liebrandt

Restaurant: Corton — New York, NY

How have you reacted to the articles analyzing and criticizing the tasting menu craze?
Tasting menus have always been there. There's always been a degustation menu in French cookery, for example.

How do you react to the observation that these tasting menus are spreading like an epidemic, then?
Well, I mean, it's quite simple: if you don't like tasting menus, then don't go to a restaurant that has a tasting menu. If you don't like Japanese food, don't go to a Japanese restaurant.

I don't understand how the ambition to have a tasting menu restaurant is harmful. If a customer isn't interested, then he or she won't go.

But do you think too many ill-prepared chefs are trying to do it?
I can't really speak to that, since I don't eat out as much as the critics. But I think that's the same with anything that's popular. Are there a lot of artists that try to replicate Picasso? I'm sure, but few if any can pull it off.

Can you talk more about your point that this format has always been there?
Always. Take it back even further and look at China. You go to a royal banquet, which they do at weddings, and there are like ninety courses there. No one is complaining about the tyranny of chefs. It's an expression of a celebration of food. It's an expression of a chef's love for food, the experience. It's always been there.

We're lucky, especially in New York, that there are choices for diners. People know what they're in for. It's not necessarily sensible to criticize the format, the style — not the substance and quality — when you know what it's going to be. Why would you complain about something you already know is the case?


Ryan Poli

Restaurants: Little Market and Tavernita — Chicago, Illinois

You trained at the French Laundry and at three-star-Michelin places in Spain, yet you're not the biggest fan of tasting menus.
Personally, I don't go to many of them because that type of cuisine tends to not offer you choice. I don't eat that way anymore. I don't want to sit at a restaurant for four hours.

I was just at Next, though, and I think they make it exciting, concise, and engaging enough that it's wonderful. They nail it. It's more of an event. It wasn't 25 courses and four hours. Also, I'm not going there every weekend. It's a one-time deal, mostly.

Right now, I like to put sharing plates out at my restaurants. I like to encourage interaction and fun.

When you went the more casual route, did you ever feel like some would view you as being less serious or ambitious?
No one ever told me that, but I certainly thought about it when I made the change.

I really do feel that some chefs think that they need to do this in order to get Michelin stars and a certain type of acclaim. I think that when that mold starts to break more — Michelin is supposed to be about just the food, right? — there won't be that pressure to put out menus that are made up of 20 or more dishes. But what you see right now, for the most part, is a lot of the same in three-star Michelin category. The model right now puts too much weight on tasting menus.

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