In the February 2013 issue of Vanity Fair, food writer Corby Kummer complains about the rise of chef-dictated tasting menus as a "new army of fresh-faced Stalins prepares to spread tyranny across the land." As Kummer laments, the "totalitarian" styles of chefs such as Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, and Ferran Adrià have left on imprint on a new generation of chefs creating hours-long tasting menus that eclipse the old adage about the customer always being right.
But if tasting menus have overtaken modern American dining, the debate over the merits of tasting menus seems to have taken over restaurant writing as of late, with rants from the likes of New York Times critic Pete Wells and The Independent's Samuel Muston. Chef José Andrés — creator of the innovative minibar — replied to Kummer's piece on Twitter, writing, "After reading your essay about tasting menus, you joined the group: lets burn the witches because they are different! Your pragmatism?gone.." Here's a look at the great tasting menu debate:
1) Back in October, New York Times critic Pete Wells expresses the "trapped, helpless sensation" he often feels when facing tasting-only menus. Like Kummer, he argues that these "are spreading like an epidemic" across the country. Though Wells praises a good number of tasting menus, he points to a "shapelessness" of certain others and concludes that "Not every novel should be 'War and Peace.' Sometimes, enough really is enough." [NYT]
2) Wells' piece stirred up plenty of conversation, including a response from The Price Hike's Ryan Sutton as to the value of tasting menus. Sutton argues that a lot of these restaurants have made their dishes accessible either through lounge menus or at sister establishments like Brooklyn's Roberta and Blanca. Further, Sutton writes, "Not every individual restaurant has to be accessible to every individual." [The Price Hike]
3) In December, The Independent's Samuel Muston also questioned whether the rise of tasting-only menus — a trend in the UK as well — is what diners really want. He uses a dinner at New York's Per Se to argue that even when a tasting menu is good, it can also be bad, writing, "It was intricate, down-the-line consistent, a sort of culinary symphony; it was also a slog, palate-crushing and an evening in which conversation was frequently stretched and broken by the endless ministrations of the staff." [The Independent]
4) Most recently, of course, is Kummer's piece, which equates the tasting menu with a form of culinary dictatorship and predicts, "tasting-only menus will empower formerly well-meaning, eager-to-please cooks and servers to become petty despots, and more and more diners will discover that absolute power irritates absolutely." Kummer specifically derides what he describes as a "tedious" meal at Eleven Madison Park, writing that chef Daniel Humm "seems to be re-inventing himself to chase trends, something he's too talented to do." Kummer also describes a meal at the French Laundry as "a form of torture." That said, he does take heart in statements from chefs such as Jacques Pépin refuting the notion of a chef as an artist. [VF]
5) Finally, Grub Street's Sierra Tishgart takes on Kummer's argument, pointing to "a greater purpose" served by tasting menu restaurants: "Treating food as art, and chefs as celebrated artists, encourages innovation as well as a culture of respect." Tishgart also writes that, "Diners are smart and in control — they know what they're getting into when they go for a multi-course feast. And if a chef-dictator serves up something they don't like, there's always the next meal." [GSNY]
What everyone seems to agree about is that certain tasting menus are perhaps above reproach — Kummer reports he felt "the thrill of the new, one spectacularly good dish after another presented in thrillingly fast succession" during a dinner at René Redzepi's Noma, while Wells grants reprieves to the likes of Benu, the Restaurant at Meadowood, and Alinea. But as the success of these restaurants continues to influence the rest of the restaurant industry, the backlash seems destined to continue.