In this age of enlightened hospitality, all manner of classic diningtropes are open to reinterpretation—if not full-on rejection. White tableclothsand jacket-required rejoinders have largely gone the way of the dodo. Thereservationist—an esteemed figure who once cunningly manned phone and calendar throughoutthe day—and the maître d’—the captain of captains who, decades ago, was lookedto as more of a “celebrity” than any kitchen-cloistered chef could dream of—haveseen their duties split among several staff members or been altogether replacedby technology. Even those little frills—like the hand towels squeezed withlemon that follow finger food or the range of specialty forks and knives thataccompany the breadth of the menu—become ever more rare with each passing year.
The demise of some number of these trifles can be drawn solely fromthe passage of history. The trappings of etiquette, once upon a time, formed acoded language social climbers needed to kowtow to if they hoped to brushshoulders with the country’s bonafide blue bloods. No sooner had the upwardlymobile scaled the walls of “upper class” society than they turned around andmanned the turrets. The same traditions and tastes once used to exclude themfrom any semblance of cultural cachet now became the bulwarks against thebrimming, barbaric masses of the “upper middle class” they had left behind. Buta few decades later, the “upper middle class” had climbed their way up thecastle walls, and, just as quickly, they sought to ensure the loathed “middleclass” did not follow them inside through the backdoor.
That “middle class,” of course, casts a mythical shadow over theAmerican body politic. It is viewed not only as the repository of the nation’scherished values—the heirs of a small town, suburban or pastoral existence—butas a class that, at any moment, faces its absolute demise. The “middle class”reflects everything good and pure regarding the “average American.” At the sametime, in strictly cultural terms, it represents the mass philistine culture forwhich the country has long been deplored. “Our fellow Americans—and their humbleway of life—must be cherished and protected,” the elites seem to say, “just solong as they stick to eating their hamburgers and watching their sports games.”“Of course, they are more welcome to partake in all the same diversions astheir betters should they pay their way and observe the rules of the house.” Somuch arcana—the mannerisms, rituals, and million other social graces that mark “belonging”—provedan impenetrable fortress for the unwanted. In this way, the American elitecould sequester themselves safely without ever having their sense of patriotismor equality questioned. They could enjoy the fruits of their social advancement—whethertruly enjoyable or not—secure in the most visceral knowledge that they were, quiteliterally, “apart.”
Those touches which marked themselves—over many decades—as “standards”of the fine dining industry have now been thrown into the dustbin of “stuffiness.”Cuisine may have formed a fitting battleground for this country’s class anxietydating back to Jefferson, but the age of Anthony Bourdain and Action Bronsonhas all but ensured the thorough democratization of good eating. Yes, finedining will only ever be an occasional, rare, or once-in-a-lifetime delight forthe majority of denizens. However, freed from past frippery, great restaurantsare now altogether more approachable, and their ticket price now competes withtraditional excursions like vacations or sports games and splurges like fashionor jewelry. Fine dining forms a particularly powerful counterpoint to orderingbottle service at nightclubs, providing an almost antithetical type ofexperience rooted in a far greater value proposition (depending on one’spriorities). Freed from any condescension from the staff or so-called impostor’ssyndrome, one now need only show up and enjoy the show. This manner ofsubmission, nonetheless, forms only the first level of appreciation.
Fine dining chefs, certainly, should benefit from the trust andenthusiasm of their guests. One should only earmark an establishment from themany others serving tasting menus—and agree, wholeheartedly, to pay the priceof entry—out of a sense of intrigue for the work being done. The shallowest sortof consumer might associate a certain star rating with being a signifier of “thebest,” and, once there, they will look to bend the restaurant towards their subjectivesense of what “the best” should feel like. Dining, for this consumer, is not aprocess of exploration. Rather, it revolves around satisfaction: of their ownpersonal expectations (in pursuit of pleasure) and of their vanity (whichdesires to dine at a restaurant considered “the best” and assumes they have therequisite taste to recognize it as such). These people take “the customer isalways right” as gospel, and they do not show the slightest hesitation intreating staff as though they were servants. (One gets the sense they treat allstaff at all restaurants in such a way, but the entitlement paying for such a “finemeal” entails unleashes the very ugliest shade of their self-centeredness).
It is not that these poor souls are difficult to please. Rather, theirpleasure derives from watching other people squirm, from exercising power in away that makes them feel important. These diners are the outgrowths of thatforegone era of exclusionary fine dining. They are emotionally andaesthetically stunted, and—because they themselves are slaves to money—the expectationfollows that the price being paid for the menu places them well above any ofthe peons actually working, heaven forbid, as a busser, server, or sommelier. Suchdiners, you think, would do well to submit more to the experience.However, to do so would be to acknowledge that some lowly chef has something toteach them about cuisine. To do so would be to turn the conspicuousconsumptive value system on which their entire life operates on its head. Instead,they will be the first to tell you of all the wonderful restaurants they havebeen to throughout the world. No, they cannot quite remember what they ate ordrank—but they were there! And the points stands: can you really afford todisplease these most eclectic, cultured individuals? Oh, and don’t forget totrot the chef over for a picture and make it snappy! People have other thingsto do rather than eat!
At the other end of the spectrum from these outspoken, obnoxiousdining deplorables is what you might call the naïve fine diners. They are theenthusiasts, the chef-worshippers, the foodies par excellence who wouldlet a chef tie them to a chair and feed them their own toenails if theexperience had merited three Michelin stars. These diners—having recently dippedtheir toes in the water of gastronomy and having liked how it felt—are inclinedto view each and every experience as the best thing since sliced bread. Theyawait each year’s Michelin ratings like so many Christmases, with World’s 50Best and the James Beard Foundation forming a Hanukkah and Kwanzaa to boot.They have watched every episode of Chef’s Table, can name every new andupcoming restaurant of note, and they might even operate a blog or Instagramaccount devoted to their—sorry, you’re trying to repress your gag reflex—“foodadventures.” They cook, they travel, and they also reliably ask for photographsalongside every idolized chef. They are “true believers” of the art of gastronomy,yet you think they submit just a bit too much.
As devoted readers may have surmised, you would have placed yourself in this category of “naïve fine diners” years ago. The cult surrounding the celebrity chef as a craftsman extraordinaire spoke to you. Their semblance of precision, the intensity of their focus, and the mystery surrounding the unseen forms familiar ingredients—under their command—would take amounted to a manner of artistic engagement that was eminently approachable and unrivaled in its romanticism. Why compare chefs to “rock stars” when the unwashed masses would never receive anything like a serenade from their favorite musician? Instead, for the cost of a tasting menu, nearly any diner can have a chat and a photograph with their favorite chef. Not only that, should the menu be particularly pleasing, the diner may connect their sensory enjoyment to a brief dalliance with the man or woman who made it all happen. In contrast with most any other contemporary art form, the maestro is within reach. The fruits of their labor are visceral: they are absorbed into our very bodies and deliver a pleasure—in some cases—that is universal and life-affirming. Food cannot speak, but the chef can and often does. Their presence in a restaurant provides the emotional underpinning that transforms cuisine into a joint expression of both nature and humanity.
Obviously, it is easy to get lost in such romanticism. The vast majorityof dishes served on tasting menus—whether, in the big picture, they are good orbad examples of the form—display levels of finesse and ingredient quality thatare sure to overshadow whatever fare “naïve fine diners” are used to noshing. Nearlyall caviar, wagyu beef, truffle, and foie gras preparations are guaranteed tothrill those without the requisite reference points. For, at first, it is hardto get over the good fortune one feels to be served one of nature’s treasures.One’s tongue is blown away by the cacophony of contrasting flavors and texturesdishes incorporating such jewels entail. Who can stand to seriously critiquesuch obvious pleasure? It not only feels ungrateful, but there’s also a traceof insecurity. Who am I to undermine the chef with all their Michelin stars?How can I, in good faith, break with the contentment felt by the other membersof my party and the guests seated at the many surrounding tables? Surely we arenot all suckers!
If one is a “naïve fine diner” (that is to say, a gracious rather thanoppositional guest), only the hard road of experience will rile you out of yourromantic tint. Eventually, once you’ve tasted it enough times, wagyu beef comesdown from its pedestal to compete with every other beef preparation—perhapseven with the hamburger you are apt to order at the conclusion of aparticularly abstract and unsubstantial tasting menu. The naked pleasure anddelight that accompanies such a “rare” luxury ingredient yields itself to amore studied approach. Where did the wagyu come from? What is the cut and thegrade of its marbling? Has the chef put their stylistic stamp on the preparation,or are they content to cater to some sense of “purity”?
Ironically, it is the simple, pristine, “traditional” preparations ofluxury ingredients that work to give the whole “game” away. If every tastingmenu displays a similar “hands off” approach to caviar, foie gras, truffles,and beef—inviting those precious morsels to dominate their respective dishes—dothe dishes not more easily invite comparison to each other? Is an A5 Miyazaki striploinquite so special when scores of chefs are content merely to serve it “as is”and simply pay lip service to its “quality”? The “naïve fine diner” comes todistinguish between a chef’s own creativity and the demand that a tasting menuof a certain price point “tick all the boxes” of luxury. Further, the sort ofrestaurant that is concerned with conspicuously serving totemic luxury ingredientsis also, often, a bit afraid to do anything interesting with them. They figure thatthe novelty such coveted comestibles demand for much of their audience invitesa light touch. “Let them really feel, undeniably, that they have been servedthese items and gotten their money’s worth,” such chefs seem to say. At thispoint, the image of the chef as “craftsman,” as “maestro” shrinks intosomething more like the chef as “cunning businessman.” At this point, the ideaof Michelin-starred restaurants as “temples of gastronomy” is reduced, and the “naïvefine diner” begins to notice how many establishments serve the same ingredientsin the same ways to hedge their bets and achieve a safe baseline of quality.
With experience, the “naïve fine diner” finds themself increasinglyimmune to the tricks of the trade. Hospitality “magic” becomes more of abenchmark, and even the utility of Michelin stars begins to wear off. No formof rating, they come to find, can really guarantee a “great meal.” One badinteraction with any member of the staff can poison an entire evening. A delayof thirty or forty minutes between courses, just as easily, may make one wonderwhy they are not back at home eating pizza on the couch. Ultimately, there isnothing worse than a one- or two- or three-star Michelin meal whose cuisinesimply strikes one as being “meh.” The artistry may be there—the tenor and toneof service as well—but nothing that speaks to the soul. Instead, the dishesfeel like familiar “fine dining dishes” formed from a range of routine techniquesapplied to all the expected totemic ingredients. While the amateur diner findsdelight in their ration of wagyu, the now not-so-naïve fine diner wonders why somany preparations taste the same. They come to realize that a certain segmentof renowned restaurants cultivate and cater to a contrived set of “luxurious” expectationsrather than indulging in the excitement and wonder of the creative process. Byworshipping at the altar of Michelin—or of the “esteemed” national food publications—theserestaurants seem to erase all that would make them unique. In resembling eachother, the establishments reveal just how boring all the frills of fine diningreally are. They amount to mere lipstick on a pig when diners, instead, expecteach restaurant of a certain caliber to be an entirely different animal.
After an early period of outright submission to the charms of the finestcuisine, the formerly “naïve” fine diner faces the disillusionment of a maturepalate. Not just a mature palate, mind you, but a sensibility that has nowexperienced the varied manners in which a restaurant complements (or distractsfrom) the fare they serve. Whereas the shallow consumer adopts a combative, “customeris always right” posture in search of special treatment (and in fulfillment oftheir power trip), the “mature” fine diner meets a poor experience withsomething closer to disillusionment. The former, through wanton complaining,makes clear that the problem is them. The latter, instead, may findnothing obviously wrong with either the service or the dishes served. The menu,rather, just doesn’t hit “right.” The flavors are familiar, they’re “fine,” butnot extraordinary. They’re not memorable, and everyone knows the coin of therealm of hospitality is nostalgia.
Though, previously, all the tasting menus one tasted weretransformative, now many of them simply seem middling. “Variations on a theme”might best describe it, though the theme in question happens to be “Michelin-starredrestaurant.” The Guide becomes less a pantheon of the “greatest” and more acollection of cult members. These chefs all choose to clip their wings andpursue a certain style of dining that yields dishes made from certain ingredientsin a certain way. Once one comes to see the pattern replicated over and over atsupposedly distinct establishments, the whole exercise of fine dining becomesincreasingly off-putting. Is it really so special to be served five or seven ornine different courses that, while intricate, amount to less joy than a humblehamburger? How often do those dishes speak unmistakably of a chef’s individualism,rather than his or her concern with pleasing the critics and playing the roleof the genteel gourmand for expense account diners?
With more time spent in more dining rooms, the “mature” fine dinerremoves the blinders from their eyes. They pay increasing attention to the “noise”surrounding the meal and not simply the “signal” being broadcast to their individualtable. “Why does this table get a visit from the chef? Why does thattable get invited to go to the kitchen? Did the sommelier bring them a specialpour of wine? Was that dish you saw brought out really on the menu?” allform the sort of questions that flow from the increasing salience of the diner’ssurroundings. When the food no longer strikes you as being so distinct, youreyes strain to notice what makes this particular restaurant is really sodifferent than the rest. If the hospitality is enlightened, front of housestaff will work their best to ensure a personalized experience for each table,if not an emotional connection to each guest. However, if the style ofhospitality is more buttoned-up, a different game gets played.
Such an austere style allows for less interaction, of course, and lessof a chance to bend the experience towards one’s personal tastes. The servicemay be impeccably choreographed and polished to the finest sheen, but it allamounts to a show put on for the sake of the tasting menu. The hospitality, inthis case, forms a means to the end of expediting the meal, rather than an endin itself. Whereas striking some emotional connection with the staff lends atasting menu an incomparable, memorable aspect, this, too, is denied. So the “mature”fine diner is left eating food they feel they have seen before, served by astaff that—while they may not err—does nothing to distinguish the experienceeither. Suddenly, the last of the fine dining magic is stripped away. You arenot appreciating “art,” a grand “occasion,” or some “celebration of nature,”but rather are just a fool paying a few hundred dollars for a few tiny portionsspread out over the course of a few hours.
Does the emperor actually have no clothes? Is fine dining just asanonymous as chain dining, but taken to the nth degree? Why not securesome of these luxury ingredients yourself and simply cook them at home? Why notsave yourself the markup on beverages to boot? Yet, the other parties seated inthe restaurant seem to be having fun. Worse, they seem to be having more fun,and the staff seems to be enjoying their presence more too. Special treatment?Could it be? Don’t they know you’re a paying customer too?
At this point, ironically, the “mature” fine diner’s disillusionment, cynicism,and self-importance (from dining at so many wonderful restaurants) comes closeto resembling that conspicuous consumptive “customer is always right” sort ofdiner. While the former’s righteousness results from a range of prior diningexperiences whose quality is not, in this instance, being met, the latter’srighteousness is simply the mark of an ingrained entitlement unleashed on anyand all members of the service sector. The end result, in both cases, is thesame: feelings of insecurity that infect any possible enjoyment of the meal forwhat it is and heap misery onto those poor souls trying to keep the show on theroad.
In summation, too great a submission to chefs’ whims stunts the developmentof the critical faculty in the so-called “naïve” fine diner. While the Michelinguide may lead such a diner to a range of great dinners, some will seem to fallflat. Even old favorites will falter. Those luxury ingredients that once spelleddelight whenever they would appear become tired pantomimes, culinary tropes,totems meant to please customers with far less experience. Service, in thesense that it is crisp and coordinated, becomes less transfixing. Excellencebecomes the expectation, and only a greater emotional connection (or extremeuse of “smoke and mirrors”) stands out as exceptional. You used to sit at thetable, tuck the napkin onto your lap, and sparks would fly! Now, the “magic”just isn’t there. Increasingly, every restaurant feels like a “rerun,” andevery other diner seems to be having more fun. Some places still find themselvesable to seduce you, but their quality has little to do with star ratings ormedia buzz. Truth be told, the mature fine diner comes to view plaudits withsuspicion. Once akin to a holy book, the Michelin guide now exists only toremind them of wasted evenings, wasted money spent in search of greatexperiences that rarely ever hit the mark.
This, you think, forms a sort of “rock bottom” for the first level ofgastronomic appreciation. Lured in to trying fine dining by celebrity chefs andsacred ingredients, the “naïve” fine diner comes to look behind the curtain bythe time they reach “maturity.” Michelin, it becomes clear, is not concernedwith leading you to the “best” experiences. They publish guidebooks for internationaltravelers, and their ratings ensure a reliable baseline of hospitality andcuisine for those lacking the requisite local knowledge or reference points tofind those establishments in every city that really speak to the soul. “Soul,”yes, that’s the word. The “mature” fine diner realizes how destructive the caricatureof the celebrity chef sustained in popular culture really is. Only a luckyhandful of cooks—relative to the vast majority slaving away across the entiretyof the food system—can really engage in a constant process of creativity withregards to nature. Only a lucky handful can design (let alone successfullysell) menus derived solely from a process of self-expression and independent ofquotidian business concerns. “Great chefs” rarely design menus for “mature” dinersat the expense of the first timers. Instead, each menu keeps some element ofthe “lowest common denominator” diner in mind. And, while it might be the imageof the renowned chef working the line that first seduces the “naïve” diners,the “mature” diner knows that only a select few “famous” chefs can be expectedto show their face (let alone craft one’s food) on any given night.
Where does one go from here? How does one fall back in love with finedining once they have outlived all the tricks of the trade? The “mature” finediner must abandon any last remnants of submissiveness, of the expectation thatthey walk into a chef’s workplace simply to sit down and be fed. For, if theygo down this road, every bit of expertise they have cultivated will quicklybecome a bane. Every “Michelin-starred” restaurant will have to measure up tothe best exemplars of one’s past meals at that level to be judged as worthy ofits ranking. Every dish that makes use of the same ingredient—or aims toconstruct a similar contrast of flavors—will be compared to its doppelganger atanother establishment. From the submissive diner’s point of view, the chef isthere to please them, and it is only by accident that he or she goes astray.Submission spoils guests into thinking that pleasure is easily attained, andthat it can and should be delivered on a whim.
You cannot fault them, for, at first, fine dining surely seems thatway. So many of the details, across every aspect of the experience, are altogethernew. On the plate, there are almost countless textures, techniques, and totemicingredients that would stun any palate raised at the beck and call of theAmerican food system. When you are naïve, everything tastes amazing and feelsmagical. You find that different restaurants deliver different takes on thesame delight, until the very point that “delight” becomes a bit lessdelightful. You try to enjoy tasting menus the same way you used to—the mannerwhich once pleased you to the point you proudly labelled yourself a “foodie.”But the pleasure does not come. The stars no longer seduce you. One may retreatinto their memories, meanly making clear that this or that restaurant “isn’t likeit used to be.” But it is you, dear diner, who has changed.
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” a wise man once said.When sitting down for a tasting menu with the sole expectation that you willlean back and “enjoy the ride” no longer bears fruit, you will know it is time tobecome a more active fine diner. “Active,” not in the sense of thosepower-tripping nincompoops that form a nightmare for the service staff. Rather,like a good critic or steward of the arts, the “active” or “engaged” fine dinerwields their knowledge to the benefit of the craftsman. The oppositional stancethat pure submission sometimes entails (“you are going to take me on a journeywithout knowing anything about me, and you had better please me!”) yields to amore careful, considered appreciation. Past experiences, rather than standingas a sort of unattainable nostalgia against which all future meals will bejudged, are put to use in defining one’s personal taste. That personal taste,then, can be placed somewhere between the “lowest common denominator,”entry-level diner and the palate of the chef themself. This is key, for anychef worth their salt will seek, yes, to please guests but, more importantly,to challenge them.
This is because, in its essence, the tasting menu form embraces bothsequence (the way dishes at different points in the meal play off of eachother) and diminishing returns (serving just enough—but not too much—ofsomething to create an impression). Fine dining chefs are not interested in providingnaked pleasure in the same way a pit master does. Sometimes, yes, they arriveat a level of pleasure that puts more traditional comfort foods to shame.However, this is usually the byproduct of what is better viewed as anexperiment, a challenge embraced by the chef in pursuit of some greater flavor,texture, form, or presentation. The chef, in that sense, is on a mission ofself-expression and advancement of the craft that entails creating new dishesand menus. These, nonetheless, must balance the novel with the known. For,experienced fine diners (of any stripe) form but a small segment of customers,and the food must be approachable to first-timers.
Tempering one’s free-wheeling creative impulses in the interest of runninga good business is the point at which a chef becomes a “patron.” Only thoseprofessionals lucky enough to operate their own business really get to definesuch a line. The other chefs might know very well what sort of food their “partners”want served, and they are engaged in a constant battle to push one or twopalates closer to accepting his or her vision. Whatever the case, the engaged,experience fine diner operates at a liminal point between the kitchen—aching tocook as chefs do for other chefs—and the humble customer—who may be skepticalof the menu price and merely want to be shown a great time. They play anessential role in translating the guttural reactions of the everyman’s palatefor the sake of the restaurant while also being the first to appreciate thekitchen’s most adventurous dishes. These diners form, in a sense, an advance guardof eater that may help a chef grow their other guests’ palates without losingsite of their truest creative spark. This enlightened, “mature” fine dinerbecomes a boon to any establishment and, in balancing their own personal tastewith the goals of the restaurant, they may become a lot like “family” to thestaff that earn a living there.
This, you think, is the highest expression of dining, and it demands botha delicacy and an open-mindedness to distinguish itself fully. Any dilletantecan confidently demean a dish served to them at a fine dining restaurant formyriad reasons. The diner may wish to impress their date or assembled guests byasserting their taste over that of the chef. Or, perhaps, they may have learnedthat the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” once upon a time and resolved tobrowbeat each and every busser, always ask to see the manager, and wring out acomp of some sort whenever the occasion presents itself. Still, others mayvoice a sincere dislike of a dish with the best intentions but find themselvesunable to offer a useful critique. These reports—which rarely venture beyond “Ididn’t like that” or a lukewarm “that was okay”—may be relayed to the kitchenand form a data point from which a recipe is troubleshooted. Often times,however, it can be hard to distinguish a legitimate (if detail-sparse) gripefrom someone who is out to “get one over” on the restaurant.
For example, you once dined at Brass Heart, an establishment in theformer 42 Grams space serving contemporary American tasting menus crafted by a Schwaalumnus. The first dish of the evening featured potato chip ice cream, potatochip crumble, and a dollop of golden osetra caviar. While the assembled flavorsand textures were certainly pleasing, this caviar course—you thought—could dowith one tiny tweak. So, you surveyed the three other guests at the table andcame to a consensus: while the dish was tasty, it could do with a touch moresweetness to contrast the saltier notes of the dual potato chip elements. Sucha tweak, while by no means an infringement on the quality achieved by theversion of the dish served, would—at least for the four palates perched at yourtable—bring the creation closer to that “perfect” balance of which “perfection”itself entails.
Brass Heart being an intimate restaurant, it happened that the headchef came out from the kitchen to clear our plates. (Looking back, you wonderif this is something of a “victory lap” for him, given the generosity andirreverence showcased by that opening caviar course. For, golden osetra iscertainly a “totemic” luxury ingredient, but one rarely sees it paired withsuch creative accompaniments. Perhaps it is thought of as a “sure thing”?) Asthe chef bussed the table, you believe he asked for your collective impressionof the dish. (If not, and you admit to not quite remembering, you must havebroached the topic yourself). Assuring him how much you all enjoyed thedish—how creative and playful you found the usage of the potato chips—youpolitely recommended that he might consider adding a touch more sweetness tothe combination. You do not remember receiving much of a reaction and, for thatreason, made especially sure to thank the chef again as he returned to thekitchen. Shortly after, one of the other guests at the table said, “wow.” Hehad found your declaration forward, and the response from the restaurant onlyconfirmed that the critique was taken as an insult.
Moments later, a suited manager visited the table to “check in.” Thishulking presence, in truth, was actually the restaurant’s co-owner (along withhis wife). He was by no means rude or accusatory, but it was clear to you thatwhat was intended as constructive feedback had been lost in translation andinterpreted as something closer to a slap in the face. (You can imagine thehead chef returning to the kitchen, plates clean, telling his boss that thetable “didn’t like” the dish and wanted it to be “sweeter”). The owner’s energywas imbued with pride and suspicion, as if to say: “if you’ve got a problemwith the restaurant or are playing some kind of game with your complaints, you’llhave to deal with me.” “Message received,” you thought, as you continued toexpress forthrightly that everything was fine and that you were enjoyingyourselves there. The rest of the tasting menu proceeded uneventfully—the mealwas “good, not great” and, nearly two years later, altogether forgettable. Whenthe chef’s “signature dish” of Spanish sausage and pig trotter caramel “riceand beans” arrived later in the meal, you kept any thought of improving it closeto the vest. Brass Heart has since changed chefs.
If “enlightened” dining—featuring good faith criticism from “mature”palates—is supposedly so great, then what went wrong? Well, it should beconsidered that you had never visited Brass Heart before, and, at the time, itwas very much still a new restaurant fighting for a place among Chicago’sfinest restaurants. You had ordered your wine before the opening caviar coursewas served—a gesture that, for better or worse, quantifies for the restaurantjust how invested you are in the art of dining (and adjacent pleasures).However, the caviar course was the first item served, and even traceamounts of negativity (no matter how carefully they are couched within words ofpraise) can very well upset a chef who feels he has only just started to serveyou. Likewise, the size of the restaurant meant less front of house staff andfewer degrees of separation from the owner. His involvement in Brass Heart’s dayto day operation is probably a good thing, but such an investment brings withit a deeply held pride. The caviar dish, in particular, must have been lookedto as one of their strongest offerings. So, ultimately, you can understand howtiming (relative to the start of the meal), translation (of what was a minorcritique into major dissatisfaction), and ownership (of the dining experienceby an engaged partner in the project) added up to an abrasive encounter.
And yet, the misfire at Brass Heart did nothing to slow down youractualization as an “enlightened” fine diner. It served as a valuable reminderthat, no matter the branding, these restaurants were filled with sensitivebeings who are filled with plenty of doubts. A place like Brass Heart, inparticular, which had yet to secure the safety a Michelin star provides, waslikely especially prone to see any nitpicking as a bit unfair. This is a pointthat deserves some attention.
While it is all too easy for you to rail at every aspect of Alinea’sexperience, you do so with full acknowledgement of (perhaps even deference to)the restaurant’s historic place in American dining. You level your criticismsknowing they will have little effect on Alinea’s business and that, in truth,they stand as some of the rare, informed, and (you like to think) fair accountsof where the restaurant’s aesthetic goals fall short in pleasing experienceddiners. There is nothing personal, you hope, about the displeasure you have committedto words. To wit, you have visited Alinea and its sister properties more timesthan you can count (and, despite any criticism, you will continue going). Inmany ways, the Alinea Group has done more to form your frame of reference withregards to fine dining than anyone else. Thus, any harshness should beinterpreted as a hard challenge doled out by a “regular” who knows Alinea canwithstand and rise to any negative appraisal of their work. The restaurant, nodoubt, is secure (and unabashedly successful) in what they do. Thus, you feelit is a duty to lodge careful complaints about what can be done better,particularly when the Group’s impenetrable mystique and mouthy ownership workto disarm the usual critics.
Brass Heart, by comparison, was fighting hard to “make it.” Success,for that team, was by no means a given (and, with today’s conditions, mustremain a rather bleak prospect). At what point, then, does even the most politecriticism amount to stepping on someone’s fingers as they dandle from theledge? Of course, any secure chef—or artist—can withstand and grow from eventhe most extreme criticism. Yet you cannot fault any individual chef’sinsecurity, their essential humanity, that undoubtedly suffers any time acustomer is anything but pleased with the dishes they have designed andcrafted. Chefs, like diners, are engaged in a perpetual process of growth.Risk-taking, then, must be understood and celebrated even when it does not amountto “perfection.” Your comments were meant to assure and advise that the caviardish was on the right track and, with some minor tweaking, could attain an evengreater pleasure. But the circumstances did not enable your expertise to shinethrough. What you considered supportive came off as displeased, and, in thefuture, you would probably provide more general feedback at the conclusion ofthe meal rather than pinpoint changes to particular dishes as they are served.
This, of course, only applies to first-time visits. By the time youvisit a fine dining restaurant for even the second time, it is safe to say thatyou taken some liking to the establishment. Criticism can be shared more freelysince the staff knows you possess the proper reference point (whatever outsideexperience might remain unknown to them) and that you do not offer negativefeedback as a means to an end. At some point in the course of one’s patronage,whether one notices it or not, the “fourth wall” of fine dining gets broken.You come to be seen not as one of many anonymous customers receiving one ofmany flavors of the “hospitality experience.” Rather, whether you are a known “regular”or someone whose notes simply attest to habitual visits, you come to be trustedas a custodian of the restaurant. While clunky criticism of this or that may falselyearmark you at some establishments as a “problem” customer, the trustcultivated through repeat visits sets the tone of your interactions. “Nitpicking”is properly read as expertise, and the staff will see the value of having anexperienced diner provide feedback regarding new dishes.
This “fourth wall,” mind you, is not only broken by way of repeatpatronage. It can, in fact, be broken during one’s very first visit. Perhaps amember of the front or back of house recognizes you and can attest to yourvirtue as displayed during their time at another establishment. They’ll tip offyour server and ensure you’re “taken care of” (which could mean anything fromanticipating a large amount of food, offering up a new dish from the kitchen,or providing a complimentary nightcap). In other cases (of full anonymity), one’smannerisms tip off the staff to the fact that they’re dealing with a rare bird.Perhaps you know how to pronounce every item on the menu, or maybe you arecomfortable enough to ask for extra dishes from the à la carte section to be added ontoyour tasting menu. Maybe the wine service is where you shine, browsing the winebook with aplomb and picking out the very best of the bottles (with regards toQPR). This, naturally, lets the sommelier know you are serious, and he or shemay prove the most direct link towards developing an “insider” experience ofthe restaurant.
The secretto breaking the fourth wall, as with seduction, is to not try too hard. Ostentation,pretension, and the like tend to lump one in with the bevy of looky-loos enjoyingtheir annual special occasion meal. Dropping the names of the nicest restaurantsone has been to reeks of desperation. Likewise, letting it be known that youwish to order the “nicest bottle of champagne in the house” (or something ofthe sort) lets the sommelier know it’s an indulgent evening yet ultimatelyoutsources one’s taste to the “real” experts. As you described in yourexperience of Brass Heart, offering unsolicited criticism of the food—no matterhow nuanced—may be read rather simply as there being a “problem.” A manager maybe dispatched to smooth things over, interpreting one’s engagement with thechef’s cuisine as just the kind of song and dance jilted diners put on todemand discounts and comps. Likewise, asking to see the chef, to tour thekitchen, to take pictures of this and that might show enthusiasm. However, suchwanton nerdiness seems to place one more in the “foodie” or “influencer”category than the esteem which may desired. Remember, chefs and cooks are notzoo animals to be seen behind the lens of a camera!
While engaging more deeply with a given restaurant has its pitfalls,breaking through to the “other side” of the guest experience provides anultimate antidote to the cynicism that strikes a “mature” fine diner. In termsof pure submission, one tasting menu might come to look a lot like another, andone’s personal pleasure vis-à-vis the “dining experience” is sure to decline asnovelty wears off. However, from the eyes of a “regular,” “insider,” orrespected guest, each menu forms another chapter of a living culinary book. Abit of plagiarism (or, most probably, the mere coincidence ascribed to seasonalingredients) does little to mar the overall narrative. That being, a story of achef, a kitchen, and a team that spans from back of house to fisherman’s boat,to farm, field, forest, and terroir itself. Get it?
An “enlightened” fine diner, having broken the fourth wall between “server”and “served,” makes no demands. They look every employee of the establishmentin the eye, holding their gaze that extra couple seconds which make clear one’spresence in the moment. They smile graciously, generously in full revelry regardingthe superlative service being shown. For, no matter how many Michelin starsnotched onto their belt, every experience—free from forlorn expectations—is agift. The “enlightened” fine diner savors every second of the “show,”appreciating the quirks and mannerisms of their hosts in much the same mannerthey, as guests, are studied. The busser, server, captain, sommelier, and floormanager, to them, are like individual flowers. They express the restaurant, theseason, the moment in time through all the intricacy of the human soul. Theyare not automatons programmed to dole out portions of food but, rather, woveninto the establishment in such a way as to express its very essence with everyword and motion.
The “enlightened” fine diner does not seek out similarities fromrestaurant to restaurant in an ego-stroking bid to declare they have already “seenit all.” Instead, they find delight in the smallest of details: a painting, aflowerpot, the din of music in the dining room, a few unique bottles of wine, awonderful presentation of bread and butter, a plate, a fork, a handwrittenreceipt. These simple touches—even if the larger trends of interior,conceptual, and culinary design cannot be escaped—speak to the essentially “human”nature of the whole enterprise. A restaurant is not “good” or “bad” based onthe preparation of a few dishes; it is “true” or “false” based on the nature ofits expression and its good faith effort to please those who walk through theirdoors. Food plays its part, with due respect to the canon (or its break fromit) and fidelity towards the season (or some prior part of it which has beenpreserved).
The “enlightened” fine diner’s goal, when all is said and done, haslittle to do with fulfilling personal pleasure. This might happen on occasion,and it should be duly noted. It points to a kinship between a particularcustomer and a particular chef that should be sustained and further explored.Otherwise, for the majority of fine dining restaurants, the “enlightened” finediner’s goal should be an appreciation of an establishment’s distinction—relativeto any other place in the world—through understanding what is done and why. Forexample, what nostalgia is being referenced? Whose story is being told? Whatmotivates and fulfills the staff? What connects everybody—customers, staff, andcritics included—who walks through those doors? And what impediments,restrictions, and realities must be faced—each and every day—just to keep thosedoors open?
The questions—which should course through the lifeblood of any “critic”—amountto some small effort on behalf of the diner to interpret a restaurantexperience on its own terms. Profiling certain customers (as possessing less connoisseurship)and paying less attention to their table (relative to “VIPs”) is surely wrong.So is lacking the consistency required to create tasting menus that reliably yieldthe desired level of pleasure. But, past the point of preferential treatment ora lapse in technique, no diner—no matter how experienced—should seek to bend arestaurant to his or her will. This may entail rudely making demands but, moreoften, occurs more insidiously by way of expectations. No one or two or threeor no-star restaurant, of the caliber considered “fine dining,” should bejudged against past experiences anywhere else. To do so is to deny the givenrestaurant the benefit of speaking in its own voice, to damn its creativity toquestions of comparison and derivation. Such a perspective transforms expertiseinto a kind of prison: nothing is beautiful because nothing is as beautiful asthat perfect portrait of the past that resides in our memory.
And yes, there is a “perfection” greater than that subjective,personal “perfection.” It is the perfection of self-assured self-expression,the perfection of the restaurant which expresses itself, without hesitation,unlike any other place in the world. It is the perfection of the place where frontand back of house become family, where staff and customer become family, whereman and nature combine in celebration of something rejuvenating and eternal.Any “enlightened” diner who stumbles across such a place would never dare toblemish it by bending it to their tastes. Instead, they feel a humble duty to wieldtheir expertise in the service of the restaurant’s goals, to walk hand in hand throughnature with the head chef as he or she seeks to express its mystery. Thisjourney, which may include any number of transcendent or perplexing flavors,forms the real essence of dining appreciation. Therein, food becomes but oneplayer in a dance between souls that defines, as best as you have yet learned,the meaning of hospitality.