Below is an essay I wrote a year and a half ago and posted on Mouthfuls that I am reposting for new readers. I sent it on a lark to the New York Times Op-Ed page and to Edward Behr at the Art of Eating. It went unpublished, but I believe I make an interesting and even controversial argument, which is that tasting menus have played a major part in the debasement of dining in better restaurants. I derive it from being a veteran eater, cutting my gastronomic teeth most notably in highly-rated and otherwise interesting restaurants in provincial France in the last 30% of the 20th century, and stuying change in mass or popular culture. As a result, I have witnessed, noted and participated in the changes between upper-level restaurants then and upper-level restaurants now. I think that the primary phenomenon that has driven the change between then and now is is that when fine dining lost its elitism
This is the first question and answer collaboration with me and Vedat Milor, founder and lead editor of the greatly-respected website Gastromondiale on which this Q & A also appears. We plan to present more discussions that will cover other significant and influential issues affecting gastronomy. Between us, we have observed and indulged in decades worth of the passing and dynamic gastronomic scene with what we trust are keen and observant eyes.
That gastronomy, particularly the fine dining kind, has drastically changed over the past three or four decades is beyond any doubt. One of the more-significant ways is the shift from good and gifted chefs doing the maximum to serve and please their clientele to what is now many “celebrity” chefs increasingly controlling at your expense the restaurant-going experience. It’s the predictable result of the food and restaurant boom created by the mass media and public relations machinery, and the often-questionable glorifying of this class of chefs. While there is no scarcity of culinary talent in a growing number of cities, towns and countries, there is more to a restaurant than the skills in the kitchen that influence the quality of one’s great-expectations restaurant-going.
Reviewed by Robert Brown
Lovely to look at, impossibly delightful to hold, the Netflix mini-series “Chef’s Table: France” has as its primary concern the taste of food which, unlike paintings, prints, movies, photographs and the written word, can’t be grasped and retained, but only implied. It is a misfortune shared with every manifestation of “food porn”. The people behind the series are therefore dependent on a kind of photographic intensity, if not distortion, and a hyperbolic narrative in which restaurant cooking is talked about in some mystical and spiritual way, which even in the fairly-recent past has been discussed that way. Executive Producer David Gelb thus presents his four chefs as people close to demi- gods who project little knowledge beyond cooking and running a restaurant, which is not to say that the career stories of the four chefs Alain Passard, Alexandre Couillon, Adeline Grattard and Michel Troisgros are without interest.
Reviewed by Robert Brown
The battlefield of New York restaurants is filled with the remains of foreign adventurism gone awry. Ever since the 1939 New York World’s Fair at which Henri Soulé started Restaurant Le Pavilon, foreign chefs and restaurateurs, most of whom have been from France, have both been eaten up or taken the town by storm. It seems for every Daniel or Jean-Georges, or more recently Antoine Westermann’s Le Coq Rico, there is Alain Ducasse, who after 12 years waived the white flag on New York City, or the shortest-lived venture of all, Romero, the ill-advised venture of the Catalan chef-neurologist Miguel Sanchez Romero whose restaurant lasted six months five years ago.
Let’s go back to the waltz
Take me back to the waltz
Let’s journey back to the past
Back when the world wasn’t
Turning so fast
When the tempo was slow
In the long, long ago
How I yearn
How I long to return
To the golden days of the waltz.
(Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. 1962)
There’s a gaping generational divide in the world of restaurant gastronomy. Those who began dining in the mid-to-upper echelon in so-called chef’s restaurants in the recent past know very well the Food Network, the TV cooking contests, tasting menus, food on social media and small plates with their prettified arrangements on the dish.
Ciau dei Tornavento. Treviso (Piemonte), Italy. Sent on December 16, 2016
Nearly every year just after Thanksgiving, we visit Piemonte to eat dishes covered in Alba white truffles. Just about our most preferred restaurant has been Ciau dei Tornavento in the Barbaresco vineyards about 10 minutes from Alba. For a Piemonte restaurant, it is quite luxurious. It is housed in a Fascisti-style Art Deco building from the 1930s with an enormous picture window looking over vineyards, the largest wine cellar in Italy, and about the widest-spaced tables you’ll ever see. Ciau takes truffles more seriously than any other restaurant I know of. Recently I choose my own truffle from a plate of about 30 of them. However, on this latest visit at lunch with a total of nine diners in the room, we saw the first signs of the restaurant’s cutting back. Here is my e-mail to the owner-chef’s wife Nadia Benech.
Reviewed by Robert Brown
“Real Food/Fake Food” is a book for militant gastronomes whose author is anything but. I wish the book had been published the last time I dined at Le Bernardin. Then I could have asked my waiter if the rank piece of white tuna I ended up ordering was the unsafe, banned-in-Japan fish called escolar. Now having read the book, I can hold a restaurant’s feet to the fire more often than before, something militant gastronomes live for. If I see red snapper on the menu of a seafood restaurant, chances are, according to author Larry Olmsted, I would be served some junk fish or another such as tilapia or tilefish.. The book also reminded me to bring my own maple syrup if I want pancakes, waffle or French toast at my local breakfast place since what passes as maple syrup is surely not maple syrup at all, but “high-fructose corn syrup and/or maltodextrin combined with fenugreek seed or anise.”
Reviewed by Robert Brown
In the 700 or so years of the history of culinary books, what publishers call food narratives are mere babies. After eliminating cookbooks, diet and nutrition books and those that politicize food, what you have left pretty much can be called food narratives. The general sub-categories are books about wine; ingredients; travelogues; first-person observations and memoirs; biographies; culinary histories; chefs and restaurants; and gastronomic landscapes be it whole countries or regions of countries. Before there were efficient means of travel and communication and economical color printing, you couldn’t really have the profusion of food narratives that now unfold on-line more than in book form.
By Robert Brown
Since I wrote this review and history, events have overtaken it. In early November Madame Bise transferred ownership to chef Jean Sulpice, who has a highly-rated restaurant in Val Thorens, 15 kms. from the top-rated Restaurant La Bouitte in the French Alps. Who, if anyone, is putting up the financing is unknown for the moment, though some or all of it is from the Credit Agricole bank. The sale price is secret, although the property had been on the market for four years. There was an article in a regional newspaper in April of last year that a Chinese company was buying Pere Bise, Le Cottage and L’Abbaye, the three luxury hotels cheek by jowl on the Bay of Talloires. Apparently that transaction didn’t take place.
Only by chance did I find the news on-line. The transaction was widely reported in France, but nowhere in America that I saw. Even a 113-year-old pillar of French culinary patrimony leaving the hands of an illustrious culinary family in its fourth generation is of no interest to our gastronomic press. While some of what you can read below is null and void, the historical parts are not. I concluded that I had made my last visit. Now I am curious to go back after a revitalized Pere Bise reopens next spring.
If someone can show me a better-situated restaurant in France than the Auberge du Père Bise, I would love to know where.
You can see it at the far end of the Bay of Talloires on the Lake of Annecy, the purest one in France.