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How Chefs Navigate the Transition Between a la Carte and Tasting Menus

Checking in on the state of the tasting menu in America.

Alma, Los Angeles.
Alma, Los Angeles.

The tasting menu supposedly died in January 2013, and yet almost two years later, tasting menus are more prevalent than ever before. In a now-famous Vanity Fair article, food writer Corby Kummer criticized the "tyranny" of the tasting menu, during which the "subjugation to the will of the creative genius [aka the chef] comes first." Chefs weighed in, critics debated, and then, after the initial fervor, conversations about the impressiveness or oppressiveness of the tasting menu dissipated. But when two-Michelin-starred chef David Kinch (of the currently fire-damaged Manresa) announced his switch to the tasting-menu-only format in late 2013, it brought the menu format back to the forefront. "Going to a single menu is something we've always considered, but for whatever reason... we were afraid to pull the trigger," Kinch told Eater at the time. "But I think this is something that will be embraced and accepted, so we're going to take the plunge."

Kinch wasn't the only one. In 2014, chefs like Ari Taymor (of Los Angeles's Alma), Tory Miller (Madison, Wisconsin's L'Etoile), and Paul Qui (Austin's Qui) all cut loose a la carte or prix fixe options to switch to a tasting menu format. In recent months, industry veterans like Dan Barber followed suit: Barber's iconic Blue Hill at Stone Barns switched to a sole tasting menu just for the summer months, while San Francisco restaurateur Michael Mina dropped the a la carte menu at his eponymous SF flagship restaurant. The move, Mina told ISSF, was in an attempt to make it a "four-star restaurant," implying that the tasting menu format is still privileged as the pillar of fine dining.

Photo of a tasting-menu course at Alma: Bill Addison/Eater

But how have chefs and diners been responding to the tasting-menu-only format? "It's definitely been a transition for everybody," says Alma's Taymor, whose $95 tasting menu offers 10 courses (on paper; often extra bites pump up the total courses to 12 to 14). The Alma chef calls last year's launch of the tasting menu a natural progression, one that admittedly has had its rough patches. (During an April 2014 review, Eater critic Bill Addison praised the menu's ambition but pointed out "it was the execution I sometimes questioned.") "I think that we definitely evolved in how we were doing it over the past year," Taymor says. "I've made a lot of mistakes conceptually in terms of dishes I was putting out — things that weren't necessarily great — and it's [gotten] to the point now where I feel like we have a base point to start evolving from."

"The past, say, eight months have definitely been the biggest progression in my cooking career."

According to Taymor, the tasting menu format has helped refine his approach as a chef. "The past, say, eight months have definitely been the biggest progression in my cooking ever," he says. "Just really focusing, trying to strip away all the excess, all the extra stuff that we did in the past like extra components, extra technique... In terms of that, it really forced me to focus on extracting really simple flavor. I feel very grateful for the ability to do that, it just better influences me as a cook as a whole, having to think like this."

At the 38-year-old L'Etoile, which Tory Miller took over and purchased in 2005, the chef says the new tasting menu format represents "what I love about cooking." Miller's switch to tasting menus offered one $125, seven-course menu and a three-course, $65 menu (in which the diner had some options to choose). "It's just been a lot of fun to work with my chefs, work with my cooks, and be like, ‘What are we thinking? What are we feeling right now?'" Miller says of the tasting menu, which features off-the-cuff riffs on bay scallops and foie gras. "It's really flowing... Because we don't repeat dishes, we try to always come up with something different and keep up with what's in season. It's just been really awesome."


Making adjustments

But both chefs have recently made adjustments. Last week, Taymor announced he would be adding a three-course market menu from Tuesday through Thursdays. Miller says he was surprised at diners' enthusiastic reception to the seven-course menu, but in mid-November, the chef re-introduced a la carte options at L'Etoile. The change essentially transformed the restaurant's three-course tasting menu, which always offered choices with in course, into a more traditional a la carte menu.

This week, Alma introduced a three-course market menu. A few weeks ago, L'Etoile brought back a la carte options.

At Alma, the $50 market menu represents Taymor's effort to accommodate neighborhood residents and Alma regulars, who aren't necessarily looking for a "destination dining" experience. "We don't see it as a menu change, we just see it as an addition," he says. The menu mirrors Alma's former five-course, $65 tasting menu, which Taymor says he nixed this summer after some guests expressed frustrations. But changing neighborhood demographics led to some diners expressing the menu structure limited their ability to come in. "We felt like there were enough of our neighbors and regulars who were looking for it, [so] we're happy to do it," he says now. "It's not a menu change so much as being able to participate a little better in the growth of the neighborhood." Taymor's first three-course menu, which launched last Tuesday, features a grilled grass-fed rib-eye, carrot, maitake mushrooms, New Zealand spinach, and brown butter béarnaise as the proper entree.

The re-introduction of L'Etoile's a la carte menu came about when Miller noticed few diners were ordering the three-course tasting. "Servers that said, 'All of these choices on the three-course menu are available a la carte,' guests were more focused on the fact that they only had two choices and they felt very boxed in my that," Miller says. "So to be real, we just put prices on the three-course menu and now people are like, super chill — and ordering the seven-course anyway." He laughs. "It's really funny; we all laugh about it because you literally have the same menus. One now has prices on it and people chill out. It's all about the guests and their perspective, and I don't want to make guests feel uneasy."

As Miller hints, the perception of value comes up frequently. "Value changes at different price points," Taymor says. "But we feel the product we're sourcing, the length of the menu, the amount of labor, and technique and care that goes into the food that people are getting, we feel like the price point they were at is a good value. That being said, I know it's not the way every single person wants [eat] every day. There's trade-offs, for better or for worse, with that."


Finding middle ground

Both chefs' recent adjustments suggest a delicate balance between ambition and diners' needs. Some chefs have worked around that. When Qui announced its evolution into an tasting-menu-only format, its chef still retained a la carte options on the restaurant's casual patio. "I'm trying to build three experiences here at Qui," Paul Qui told Eater Austin at the time. The three experiences — the patio, the tasting-menu-only dining room, and a chef's counter, where Qui serves an extended chef's tasting menu — naturally call for three price points. According to Qui, the trifold approach makes the restaurant accessible to a wide range of diners: "Under $20 at the patio or sitting at bar, about $60 on the 50-seat side, and then the counter, which will be in the low hundreds," he counts.

Other veteran chefs have also implemented multiple menu versions. Dominique Crenn's eponymous restaurant has long offered two tasting menus: A shorter version, still pricey at $140, makes the restaurant more accessible to guests willing to dine on Tuesday or Wednesday. (During all other services, only the longer chef's tasting menu is available.) At Blue Hill, Dan Barber's foray into tasting menus was designed as a temporary one. Barber told Eater in July that although the longer tasting "most excites our cooks and waiters," he had to pay attention to cost: "The shorter menu will be much less expensive."

Miller believes he's found the right balance. "In my mind, we're giving them the best of both worlds," Miller says. "What I want to do is the seven-course and what everyone's used to doing is the a la carte menu." And offering both options takes a cue from other traditions. Taymor stresses he still considers Alma to be a "tasting menu only" restaurant, modeled after concepts in Europe. "It's like the restaurants that I really loved in Paris, you can get a couple of options: At Frenchie you could get tasting menus of various lengths, whether they're three, five, or seven [courses], or places like Septime, that have different lengths," Taymor says. "So for me, it’s really just about being a part of the city, being a part of the urban environment, and constantly trying to make people happy."

Alma at the Standard

8300 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, CA 90069 323-822-3131

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