May 11, 2016

25 for 25: Musings on Food

A fanciful dish from Noma

September, 2015: We had just come back from dinner at Pujol, in Mexico City, and were sitting in our hotel room, talking food.  And service. And writers who write about food.  In the past few weeks there had been two scathing indictments about “fine dining”.  One, an Op-Ed in the New York Times, was a thinly veiled account of Eleven Madison Park, as told through the eyes of a former employee; the other, in Harper’s magazine, a biting lashing of three Michelin starred restaurants in New York, including, yes, Eleven Madison Park.

In “Dinner and Deception,” the NYT Op-Ed, the writer confessed that “serving elaborate meals to the super-rich left me feeling empty.”  The Harper’s writer was even more pointed about her EMP meal:  “It is weaponized food, food tortured and contorted beyond what is reasonable; food taken to its illogical conclusion; food not to feed yourself but to thwart other people.”


Had the art, the science, the magic of inventive cuisine been reduced to weapons to be fed to the super-rich?

It was a depressing thought.  We were on our quest to eat at the world’s 25 best, not because we were super-rich, not because we wanted to approach each meal like a battlefield, but because we really believed that what is being created in these restaurants is its own kind of singular evolution, an art form, newly elevated, that deserves to be celebrated and experienced.

It got us thinking and talking.  About the evolution of food; about the nature of service and the theatre of dining; about food writers and whether this is all still relevant.  Here’s part of that conversation.


It’s like the pigments that Van Gogh was sent and used. 

What do you mean he was sent the pigments? I don’t know this story.

His paint supplier had these new yellow pigments and Van Gogh was so taken by these pigments; every time he mixed them he had new colours – colours that didn’t exist before.  So he did this whole series – all of these sunflowers – and they’re all experiments – they’re worth millions of dollars today – but they were just experiments. And each new painting opened another door not only for him but generations after.

So what does that have to do with food?

Well, it’s exactly the same thing. You’re taking ingredients and you’re decomposing them, you’re recomposing them, you’re taking them a step further – it’s evolution.  Rene Redzepi, Escoffier, The French Laundry, Thomas Keller. He influenced a ton of other chefs that didn’t necessarily go on to open French Laundry-like restaurants.  But it just evolved and the key to humanity is evolution – without evolution the planet stands still and we die.

What I’m really beginning to understand about these restaurants is how much theatre there is, performance art.  There’s definitely a style of service at all of them and in some cases you and I have observed there’s such a degree of formality…it’s not what I would call a fun dining experience. What about that?

There’s something to be said about tradition. There’s a proper way of showcasing, of putting the spotlight on what this is all about and in this case it’s food. So they’re honouring the food because really - what if it was just thrown at you?

What about this other thing we’ve experienced where the server is the intermediary between you and the food, between you and the chef.  The reality is whether it’s a 3 Michelin star restaurant…

…or your local pub

Yeah, exactly – well, you’re usually not meeting the person who’s making the food. So the server is the face of the food, the face of the chef.  What happens when you don’t connect with the server or when the service is perfunctory or they’re just reading their script? Because frankly, they’ve said the same thing …”be careful the plate is hot”…they’ve said that a hundred times tonight, so how can they get excited about it and then how do they make a connection with you, the diner?

That’s almost irrelevant.  It’s like walking into an art gallery.  What if you don’t connect with the art…

Let me interrupt you here because you are shown the art the way the artist created it.  You talked about Van Gogh earlier? When I see his Sunflowers or his Starry Night or a self-portrait, I see it the way he imagined it.  Now, in a restaurant I see the food the way the chef imagined it but there’s someone who’s an interpreter for the chef.  Unlike the artist or the painting where it’s left to my imagination.  So the skill of the server is really important, for me anyway, because I want that server to tell me the story behind the dish, to care about it as much as the chef did when they created it.

When you stand next to a painting and the gallery owner comes explains to you the history of the artist, or the technique that they’ve used and all of the sudden you see a completely different painting than you originally saw…

I think we’re saying the same thing. What I’m talking about is when that server doesn’t have that skill or the passion or the…

But that’s what I’m saying too. If the gallery owner doesn’t answer your question or answers your question so that you absolutely don’t understand what he or she is talking about, you’re on your own.  The connection you’re craving is almost irrelevant; it will never be a perfect experience. Somebody eating tonight at Pujol probably had a bad experience, and that’s unavoidable.  Someone here at the hotel may not have a good experience because they don’t like this kind of architecture, the room décor, whatever.   

Are you saying that we’re taking this all too seriously?

Not you and I, or certainly not me…

I think I’m taking it too seriously.


And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It reminds me of those articles we were talking about.  What is the point of these articles? They’re not constructive at all and at the bottom of it they’re trying to stop evolution.

Explain to me what you mean by that.

From what they’re saying, questioning the importance …

Or belittling it.

Yeah. It’s like questioning Andy Warhol’s relevance in the history of art.

Well that’s a good example because there’s people who would maybe say he’s not really a “serious” artist.

Yet he’s had such a huge influence on other generations after him. He’s completely opened a door that was not even open before. I question these kinds of articles. What is the point? That these restaurants are irrelevant?

I don’t know if they’re saying they’re irrelevant. It’s about that they’re too self-important, that they take themselves too seriously, that everything about them, from the style of service to the price that you’re paying, to the ambiance, the list of ingredients is oh so overwrought that it can drive you crazy.

Doesn't have to be highbrow to make it
on to Instagram, as long as it's food
You know what I think it is, frankly? It is absolutely a moment in time.  I mean, food has never been more popular.  I think the underlying thing behind this obsession that we have with food is an analog reaction, actually, to everything else that’s around us. The fact that we’re on our phones all the time. The fact that technology has inserted itself fully into our lives. When we eat we can’t do anything but take the fork and put it in our mouth. That is a tactile experience. It is immediate. We’re trying to photograph it or Instagram it, or do whatever to it but that moment exists in the here and now. And I think there is this underlying or maybe now overt desire for people to connect with something real. And food is perhaps become the object of that.

And that’s another layer of the onion. If it’s important for someone to go to a restaurant just because it’s on their bucket list – so what? Some women will buy an Hermes bag because they know that it took a hundred hours for some craftsman to make and that woman appreciates that, where at the other end of the spectrum there’s a woman who buys it because it’s a fricking Hermes bag and it’s worth $20,000 and that’s her motivation.  But who cares?

I mean food is the topic de jour and I’m actually surprised that this food trend has gone on as long as it has. We had these supermodels, which we never had before, and all of the sudden we have these super chefs, which we’ve never had before. 

I’m sure that chefs are wishing they could say that they don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day

I think you’re on to something when you say it’s a way for us to reconnect – and I don’t mean to sound clichéd – reconnect with the world, with our earth…Because these fricking phones – we drop them, oh well; we lose them, oh well. A new one comes out, we throw out the old one. But food - it does feed our souls, it’s a social gathering.  All this social media has sucked the social – funny that it’s called social media because it’s anything but social – it has eliminated our need to really interact with people that we care about. Your phone doesn’t do that; it doesn’t provide you with that. But food…when you sit down with another person - whether it’s your spouse or your child or your best friend or a group of colleagues – it’s an experience that no technology has replaced – none.  So perhaps that’s why it’s even more important today than ever before.

When I see chefs like Grant Atchaz at Alinea...whether I appreciate the food or not, whether I think it’s worth the money or not, just the brain behind it, the science behind it, the creativity behind it…how I can produce X or Y, what can I do with this orange? These writers who are writing these articles – you’re actually telling me that you would kibosh what these people are doing? I come back to Van Gogh’s pigments – that all of the sudden he could do a 100 shades of yellow when in the past, a week before, he could only do twelve shades of yellow.

A journalist is to determine that we should only have the equivalent of twelve shades of yellow? How ridiculous is that…how limiting is that? Because we’ve had some amazing meals not spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for them.

You know, you almost have to break it down the way Miranda [Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada] – does  - that’s her name, right? The number of people employed. It’s a business, it’s not just one person’s little fanciful thing.
It’s not about a $500 dinner.  How many people are  in that kitchen? How many people does it employ? All the artisans that make the plates that perhaps somebody ends up buying – what about that? And how many people who work in the kitchen end up going and opening their own restaurants?  And then they employ people…it’s huge! It’s not that one meal. It’s not that green sweater or whatever she’s talking about.

And then we finished our wine, and realised we had stayed up way later than intended.  But just before we went to bed, we watched that great monologue from The Devil Wears Prada one more time.

Yes food, like fashion, is at its heart a business, as Miranda says; it's also still magic, still mystery, still theatre and genius. "Weaponized food, food tortured and contorted beyond what is reasonable"? That's eating without imagination and a willingness to be whisked away on the chef's journey, wherever it may take you.

Next up: putting on a show at Eleven Madison Park

NB to our readers: Yes, we are still continuing on our quest!  Eleven restaurants down, 14 to go. While we're way behind in posting about our adventures, please visit back soon to continue reading about where in the world Liz and Rich have dined next.