Breaking the FOURTH WALL of Fine Dining

In this age of enlightened hospitality, all manner of classic dining tropes are open to reinterpretation–if not full-on rejection. White tablecloths and jacket-required rejoinders have largely gone the way of the dodo. The reservationist–an esteemed figure who once cunningly manned phone and calendar throughout the day–and the maître d’–the captain of captains who, decades ago, was looked to as more of a “celebrity” than any kitchen-cloistered chef could dream of–have seen their duties split among several staff members or been altogether replaced by technology. Even those little frills–like the hand towels squeezed with lemon that follow finger food or the range of specialty forks and knives that accompany 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 from the passage of history. The trappings of etiquette, once upon a time, formed a coded language social climbers needed to kowtow to if they hoped to brush shoulders with the country’s bonafide blue bloods. No sooner had the upwardly mobile scaled the walls of “upper class” society than they turned around and manned the turrets. The same traditions and tastes once used to exclude them from any semblance of cultural cachet now became the bulwarks against the brimming, barbaric masses of the “upper middle class” they had left behind. But a few decades later, the “upper middle class” had climbed their way up the castle walls, and, just as quickly, they sought to ensure the loathed “middle class” did not follow them inside through the backdoor.

That “middle class,” of course, casts a mythical shadow over the American body politic. It is viewed not only as the repository of the nation’s cherished values–the heirs of a small town, suburban or pastoral existence–but as a class that, at any moment, faces its absolute demise. The “middle class” reflects everything good and pure regarding the “average American.” At the same time, in strictly cultural terms, it represents the mass philistine culture for which the country has long been deplored. “Our fellow Americans–and their humble way of life–must be cherished and protected,” the elites seem to say, “just so long 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 as their betters should they pay their way and observe the rules of the house.” So much arcana–the mannerisms, rituals, and million other social graces that mark “belonging”–proved an impenetrable fortress for the unwanted. In this way, the American elite could sequester themselves safely without ever having their sense of patriotism or equality questioned. They could enjoy the fruits of their social advancement–whether truly enjoyable or not–secure in the most visceral knowledge that they were, quite literally, “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 anxiety dating back to Jefferson, but the age of Anthony Bourdain and Action Bronson has all but ensured the thorough democratization of good eating. Yes, fine dining will only ever be an occasional, rare, or once-in-a-lifetime delight for the majority of denizens. However, freed from past frippery, great restaurants are now altogether more approachable, and their ticket price now competes with traditional excursions like vacations or sports games and splurges like fashion or jewelry. Fine dining forms a particularly powerful counterpoint to ordering bottle service at nightclubs, providing an almost antithetical type of experience rooted in a far greater value proposition (depending on one’s priorities). Freed from any condescension from the staff or so-called impostor’s syndrome, one now need only show up and enjoy the show. This manner of submission, nonetheless, forms only the first level of appreciation.

Fine dining chefs, certainly, should benefit from the trust and enthusiasm of their guests. One should only earmark an establishment from the many others serving tasting menus–and agree, wholeheartedly, to pay the price of entry–out of a sense of intrigue for the work being done. The shallowest sort of consumer might associate a certain star rating with being a signifier of “the best,” and, once there, they will look to bend the restaurant towards their subjective sense of what “the best” should feel like. Dining, for this consumer, is not a process of exploration. Rather, it revolves around satisfaction: of their own personal expectations (in pursuit of pleasure) and of their vanity (which desires to dine at a restaurant considered “the best” and assumes they have the requisite taste to recognize it as such). These people take “the customer is always right” as gospel, and they do not show the slightest hesitation in treating staff as though they were servants. (One gets the sense they treat all staff at all restaurants in such a way, but the entitlement paying for such a “fine meal” entails unleashes the very ugliest shade of their self-centeredness).

It is not that these poor souls are difficult to please. Rather, their pleasure derives from watching other people squirm, from exercising power in a way that makes them feel important. These diners are the outgrowths of that foregone era of exclusionary fine dining. They are emotionally and aesthetically stunted, and–because they themselves are slaves to money–the expectation follows that the price being paid for the menu places them well above any of the peons actually working, heaven forbid, as a busser, server, or sommelier. Such diners, 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 to teach them about cuisine. To do so would be to turn the conspicuous consumptive 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 have been to throughout the world. No, they cannot quite remember what they ate or drank–but they were there! And the points stands: can you really afford to displease these most eclectic, cultured individuals? Oh, and don’t forget to trot the chef over for a picture and make it snappy! People have other things to do rather than eat!

At the other end of the spectrum from these outspoken, obnoxious dining deplorables is what you might call the naïve fine diners. They are the enthusiasts, the chef-worshippers, the foodies par excellence who would let a chef tie them to a chair and feed them their own toenails if the experience had merited three Michelin stars. These diners–having recently dipped their toes in the water of gastronomy and having liked how it felt–are inclined to view each and every experience as the best thing since sliced bread. They await each year’s Michelin ratings like so many Christmases, with World’s 50 Best 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 and upcoming restaurant of note, and they might even operate a blog or Instagram account devoted to their–sorry, you’re trying to repress your gag reflex–“food adventures.” They cook, they travel, and they also reliably ask for photographs alongside 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 majority of dishes served on tasting menus–whether, in the big picture, they are good or bad examples of the form–display levels of finesse and ingredient quality that are sure to overshadow whatever fare “naïve fine diners” are used to noshing. Nearly all caviar, wagyu beef, truffle, and foie gras preparations are guaranteed to thrill those without the requisite reference points. For, at first, it is hard to 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 textures dishes incorporating such jewels entail. Who can stand to seriously critique such obvious pleasure? It not only feels ungrateful, but there’s also a trace of 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 members of my party and the guests seated at the many surrounding tables? Surely we are not all suckers!

If one is a “naïve fine diner” (that is to say, a gracious rather than oppositional guest), only the hard road of experience will rile you out of your romantic tint. Eventually, once you’ve tasted it enough times, wagyu beef comes down from its pedestal to compete with every other beef preparation–perhaps even with the hamburger you are apt to order at the conclusion of a particularly abstract and unsubstantial tasting menu. The naked pleasure and delight that accompanies such a “rare” luxury ingredient yields itself to a more studied approach. Where did the wagyu come from? What is the cut and the grade 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 of luxury ingredients that work to give the whole “game” away. If every tasting menu displays a similar “hands off” approach to caviar, foie gras, truffles, and beef–inviting those precious morsels to dominate their respective dishes–do the dishes not more easily invite comparison to each other? Is an A5 Miyazaki striploin quite 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 to distinguish between a chef’s own creativity and the demand that a tasting menu of a certain price point “tick all the boxes” of luxury. Further, the sort of restaurant that is concerned with conspicuously serving totemic luxury ingredients is also, often, a bit afraid to do anything interesting with them. They figure that the novelty such coveted comestibles demand for much of their audience invites a light touch. “Let them really feel, undeniably, that they have been served these items and gotten their money’s worth,” such chefs seem to say. At this point, the image of the chef as “craftsman,” as “maestro” shrinks into something more like the chef as “cunning businessman.” At this point, the idea of Michelin-starred restaurants as “temples of gastronomy” is reduced, and the “naïve fine diner” begins to notice how many establishments serve the same ingredients in the same ways to hedge their bets and achieve a safe baseline of quality.

With experience, the “naïve fine diner” finds themself increasingly immune to the tricks of the trade. Hospitality “magic” becomes more of a benchmark, and even the utility of Michelin stars begins to wear off. No form of rating, they come to find, can really guarantee a “great meal.” One bad interaction with any member of the staff can poison an entire evening. A delay of thirty or forty minutes between courses, just as easily, may make one wonder why they are not back at home eating pizza on the couch. Ultimately, there is nothing worse than a one- or two- or three-star Michelin meal whose cuisine simply strikes one as being “meh.” The artistry may be there–the tenor and tone of service as well–but nothing that speaks to the soul. Instead, the dishes feel like familiar “fine dining dishes” formed from a range of routine techniques applied to all the expected totemic ingredients. While the amateur diner finds delight in their ration of wagyu, the now not-so-naïve fine diner wonders why so many preparations taste the same. They come to realize that a certain segment of renowned restaurants cultivate and cater to a contrived set of “luxurious” expectations rather than indulging in the excitement and wonder of the creative process. By worshipping at the altar of Michelin–or of the “esteemed” national food publications–these restaurants seem to erase all that would make them unique. In resembling each other, the establishments reveal just how boring all the frills of fine dining really are. They amount to mere lipstick on a pig when diners, instead, expect each restaurant of a certain caliber to be an entirely different animal.

After an early period of outright submission to the charms of the finest cuisine, the formerly “naïve” fine diner faces the disillusionment of a mature palate. Not just a mature palate, mind you, but a sensibility that has now experienced the varied manners in which a restaurant complements (or distracts from) the fare they serve. Whereas the shallow consumer adopts a combative, “customer is always right” posture in search of special treatment (and in fulfillment of their power trip), the “mature” fine diner meets a poor experience with something closer to disillusionment. The former, through wanton complaining, makes clear that the problem is them. The latter, instead, may find nothing 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,” but not extraordinary. They’re not memorable, and everyone knows the coin of the realm of hospitality is nostalgia.

Though, previously, all the tasting menus one tasted were transformative, now many of them simply seem middling. “Variations on a theme” might best describe it, though the theme in question happens to be “Michelin-starred restaurant.” The Guide becomes less a pantheon of the “greatest” and more a collection of cult members. These chefs all choose to clip their wings and pursue a certain style of dining that yields dishes made from certain ingredients in a certain way. Once one comes to see the pattern replicated over and over at supposedly distinct establishments, the whole exercise of fine dining becomes increasingly off-putting. Is it really so special to be served five or seven or nine different courses that, while intricate, amount to less joy than a humble hamburger? 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 role of the genteel gourmand for expense account diners?

With more time spent in more dining rooms, the “mature” fine diner removes the blinders from their eyes. They pay increasing attention to the “noise” surrounding the meal and not simply the “signal” being broadcast to their individual table. “Why does this table get a visit from the chef? Why does that table get invited to go to the kitchen? Did the sommelier bring them a special pour of wine? Was that dish you saw brought out really on the menu?” all form the sort of questions that flow from the increasing salience of the diner’s surroundings. When the food no longer strikes you as being so distinct, your eyes strain to notice what makes this particular restaurant is really so different than the rest. If the hospitality is enlightened, front of house staff will work their best to ensure a personalized experience for each table, if not an emotional connection to each guest. However, if the style of hospitality is more buttoned-up, a different game gets played.

Such an austere style allows for less interaction, of course, and less of a chance to bend the experience towards one’s personal tastes. The service may be impeccably choreographed and polished to the finest sheen, but it all amounts to a show put on for the sake of the tasting menu. The hospitality, in this case, forms a means to the end of expediting the meal, rather than an end in itself. Whereas striking some emotional connection with the staff lends a tasting 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 a staff that–while they may not err–does nothing to distinguish the experience either. Suddenly, the last of the fine dining magic is stripped away. You are not 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 portions spread out over the course of a few hours.

Does the emperor actually have no clothes? Is fine dining just as anonymous as chain dining, but taken to the nth degree? Why not secure some of these luxury ingredients yourself and simply cook them at home? Why not save yourself the markup on beverages to boot? Yet, the other parties seated in the 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 close to resembling that conspicuous consumptive “customer is always right” sort of diner. While the former’s righteousness results from a range of prior dining experiences whose quality is not, in this instance, being met, the latter’s righteousness is simply the mark of an ingrained entitlement unleashed on any and all members of the service sector. The end result, in both cases, is the same: feelings of insecurity that infect any possible enjoyment of the meal for what it is and heap misery onto those poor souls trying to keep the show on the road.

In summation, too great a submission to chefs’ whims stunts the development of the critical faculty in the so-called “naïve” fine diner. While the Michelin guide may lead such a diner to a range of great dinners, some will seem to fall flat. Even old favorites will falter. Those luxury ingredients that once spelled delight whenever they would appear become tired pantomimes, culinary tropes, totems meant to please customers with far less experience. Service, in the sense that it is crisp and coordinated, becomes less transfixing. Excellence becomes the expectation, and only a greater emotional connection (or extreme use of “smoke and mirrors”) stands out as exceptional. You used to sit at the table, tuck the napkin onto your lap, and sparks would fly! Now, the “magic” just isn’t there. Increasingly, every restaurant feels like a “rerun,” and every other diner seems to be having more fun. Some places still find themselves able to seduce you, but their quality has little to do with star ratings or media buzz. Truth be told, the mature fine diner comes to view plaudits with suspicion. Once akin to a holy book, the Michelin guide now exists only to remind them of wasted evenings, wasted money spent in search of great experiences that rarely ever hit the mark.

This, you think, forms a sort of “rock bottom” for the first level of gastronomic appreciation. Lured in to trying fine dining by celebrity chefs and sacred ingredients, the “naïve” fine diner comes to look behind the curtain by the time they reach “maturity.” Michelin, it becomes clear, is not concerned with leading you to the “best” experiences. They publish guidebooks for international travelers, and their ratings ensure a reliable baseline of hospitality and cuisine for those lacking the requisite local knowledge or reference points to find 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 caricature of the celebrity chef sustained in popular culture really is. Only a lucky handful of cooks–relative to the vast majority slaving away across the entirety of the food system–can really engage in a constant process of creativity with regards to nature. Only a lucky handful can design (let alone successfully sell) menus derived solely from a process of self-expression and independent of quotidian business concerns. “Great chefs” rarely design menus for “mature” diners at the expense of the first timers. Instead, each menu keeps some element of the “lowest common denominator” diner in mind. And, while it might be the image of 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 expected to 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 fine dining once they have outlived all the tricks of the trade? The “mature” fine diner must abandon any last remnants of submissiveness, of the expectation that they walk into a chef’s workplace simply to sit down and be fed. For, if they go down this road, every bit of expertise they have cultivated will quickly become a bane. Every “Michelin-starred” restaurant will have to measure up to the best exemplars of one’s past meals at that level to be judged as worthy of its ranking. Every dish that makes use of the same ingredient–or aims to construct a similar contrast of flavors–will be compared to its doppelganger at another establishment. From the submissive diner’s point of view, the chef is there 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, and that it can and should be delivered on a whim.

You cannot fault them, for, at first, fine dining surely seems that way. So many of the details, across every aspect of the experience, are altogether new. On the plate, there are almost countless textures, techniques, and totemic ingredients that would stun any palate raised at the beck and call of the American food system. When you are naïve, everything tastes amazing and feels magical. You find that different restaurants deliver different takes on the same delight, until the very point that “delight” becomes a bit less delightful. You try to enjoy tasting menus the same way you used to–the manner which 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 retreat into their memories, meanly making clear that this or that restaurant “isn’t like it 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 will lean back and “enjoy the ride” no longer bears fruit, you will know it is time to become a more active fine diner. “Active,” not in the sense of those power-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 diner wields their knowledge to the benefit of the craftsman. The oppositional stance that pure submission sometimes entails (“you are going to take me on a journey without knowing anything about me, and you had better please me!”) yields to a more careful, considered appreciation. Past experiences, rather than standing as a sort of unattainable nostalgia against which all future meals will be judged, 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 any chef 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 both sequence (the way dishes at different points in the meal play off of each other) and diminishing returns (serving just enough–but not too much–of something to create an impression). Fine dining chefs are not interested in providing naked pleasure in the same way a pit master does. Sometimes, yes, they arrive at a level of pleasure that puts more traditional comfort foods to shame. However, this is usually the byproduct of what is better viewed as an experiment, 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 of self-expression and advancement of the craft that entails creating new dishes and 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 running a good business is the point at which a chef becomes a “patron.” Only those professionals lucky enough to operate their own business really get to define such 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 two palates closer to accepting his or her vision. Whatever the case, the engaged, experience fine diner operates at a liminal point between the kitchen–aching to cook as chefs do for other chefs–and the humble customer–who may be skeptical of the menu price and merely want to be shown a great time. They play an essential role in translating the guttural reactions of the everyman’s palate for the sake of the restaurant while also being the first to appreciate the kitchen’s most adventurous dishes. These diners form, in a sense, an advance guard of eater that may help a chef grow their other guests’ palates without losing site of their truest creative spark. This enlightened, “mature” fine diner becomes a boon to any establishment and, in balancing their own personal taste with the goals of the restaurant, they may become a lot like “family” to the staff that earn a living there.

This, you think, is the highest expression of dining, and it demands both a delicacy and an open-mindedness to distinguish itself fully. Any dilletante can confidently demean a dish served to them at a fine dining restaurant for myriad reasons. The diner may wish to impress their date or assembled guests by asserting their taste over that of the chef. Or, perhaps, they may have learned that the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” once upon a time and resolved to browbeat each and every busser, always ask to see the manager, and wring out a comp of some sort whenever the occasion presents itself. Still, others may voice a sincere dislike of a dish with the best intentions but find themselves unable to offer a useful critique. These reports–which rarely venture beyond “I didn’t like that” or a lukewarm “that was okay”–may be relayed to the kitchen and form a data point from which a recipe is troubleshooted. Often times, however, it can be hard to distinguish a legitimate (if detail-sparse) gripe from someone who is out to “get one over” on the restaurant.

For example, you once dined at Brass Heart, an establishment in the former 42 Grams space serving contemporary American tasting menus crafted by a Schwa alumnus. The first dish of the evening featured potato chip ice cream, potato chip crumble, and a dollop of golden osetra caviar. While the assembled flavors and textures were certainly pleasing, this caviar course–you thought–could do with one tiny tweak. So, you surveyed the three other guests at the table and came to a consensus: while the dish was tasty, it could do with a touch more sweetness to contrast the saltier notes of the dual potato chip elements. Such a tweak, while by no means an infringement on the quality achieved by the version of the dish served, would–at least for the four palates perched at your table–bring the creation closer to that “perfect” balance of which “perfection” itself entails.

The caviar course in question from Brass Heart.

Brass Heart being an intimate restaurant, it happened that the head chef came out from the kitchen to clear our plates. (Looking back, you wonder if this is something of a “victory lap” for him, given the generosity and irreverence showcased by that opening caviar course. For, golden osetra is certainly a “totemic” luxury ingredient, but one rarely sees it paired with such creative accompaniments. Perhaps it is thought of as a “sure thing”?) As the chef bussed the table, you believe he asked for your collective impression of the dish. (If not, and you admit to not quite remembering, you must have broached the topic yourself). Assuring him how much you all enjoyed the dish–how creative and playful you found the usage of the potato chips–you politely recommended that he might consider adding a touch more sweetness to the combination. You do not remember receiving much of a reaction and, for that reason, made especially sure to thank the chef again as he returned to the kitchen. Shortly after, one of the other guests at the table said, “wow.” He had found your declaration forward, and the response from the restaurant only confirmed that the critique was taken as an insult.

Moments later, a suited manager visited the table to “check in.” This hulking presence, in truth, was actually the restaurant’s co-owner (along with his wife). He was by no means rude or accusatory, but it was clear to you that what was intended as constructive feedback had been lost in translation and interpreted as something closer to a slap in the face. (You can imagine the head chef returning to the kitchen, plates clean, telling his boss that the table “didn’t like” the dish and wanted it to be “sweeter”). The owner’s energy was imbued with pride and suspicion, as if to say: “if you’ve got a problem with the restaurant or are playing some kind of game with your complaints, you’ll have to deal with me.” “Message received,” you thought, as you continued to express forthrightly that everything was fine and that you were enjoying yourselves there. The rest of the tasting menu proceeded uneventfully–the meal was “good, not great” and, nearly two years later, altogether forgettable. When the chef’s “signature dish” of Spanish sausage and pig trotter caramel “rice and beans” arrived later in the meal, you kept any thought of improving it close to 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 be considered that you had never visited Brass Heart before, and, at the time, it was very much still a new restaurant fighting for a place among Chicago’s finest restaurants. You had ordered your wine before the opening caviar course was served–a gesture that, for better or worse, quantifies for the restaurant just how invested you are in the art of dining (and adjacent pleasures). However, the caviar course was the first item served, and even trace amounts of negativity (no matter how carefully they are couched within words of praise) can very well upset a chef who feels he has only just started to serve you. Likewise, the size of the restaurant meant less front of house staff and fewer degrees of separation from the owner. His involvement in Brass Heart’s day to day operation is probably a good thing, but such an investment brings with it a deeply held pride. The caviar dish, in particular, must have been looked to as one of their strongest offerings. So, ultimately, you can understand how timing (relative to the start of the meal), translation (of what was a minor critique into major dissatisfaction), and ownership (of the dining experience by an engaged partner in the project) added up to an abrasive encounter.

And yet, the misfire at Brass Heart did nothing to slow down your actualization as an “enlightened” fine diner. It served as a valuable reminder that, no matter the branding, these restaurants were filled with sensitive beings who are filled with plenty of doubts. A place like Brass Heart, in particular, which had yet to secure the safety a Michelin star provides, was likely especially prone to see any nitpicking as a bit unfair. This is a point that deserves some attention.

While it is all too easy for you to rail at every aspect of Alinea’s experience, you do so with full acknowledgement of (perhaps even deference to) the restaurant’s historic place in American dining. You level your criticisms knowing 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 accounts of where the restaurant’s aesthetic goals fall short in pleasing experienced diners. There is nothing personal, you hope, about the displeasure you have committed to words. To wit, you have visited Alinea and its sister properties more times than you can count (and, despite any criticism, you will continue going). In many ways, the Alinea Group has done more to form your frame of reference with regards to fine dining than anyone else. Thus, any harshness should be interpreted as a hard challenge doled out by a “regular” who knows Alinea can withstand and rise to any negative appraisal of their work. The restaurant, no doubt, is secure (and unabashedly successful) in what they do. Thus, you feel it is a duty to lodge careful complaints about what can be done better, particularly when the Group’s impenetrable mystique and mouthy ownership work to 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, must remain a rather bleak prospect). At what point, then, does even the most polite criticism amount to stepping on someone’s fingers as they dandle from the ledge? Of course, any secure chef–or artist–can withstand and grow from even the most extreme criticism. Yet you cannot fault any individual chef’s insecurity, their essential humanity, that undoubtedly suffers any time a customer is anything but pleased with the dishes they have designed and crafted. Chefs, like diners, are engaged in a perpetual process of growth. Risk-taking, then, must be understood and celebrated even when it does not amount to “perfection.” Your comments were meant to assure and advise that the caviar dish was on the right track and, with some minor tweaking, could attain an even greater pleasure. But the circumstances did not enable your expertise to shine through. What you considered supportive came off as displeased, and, in the future, you would probably provide more general feedback at the conclusion of the meal rather than pinpoint changes to particular dishes as they are served.

This, of course, only applies to first-time visits. By the time you visit a fine dining restaurant for even the second time, it is safe to say that you taken some liking to the establishment. Criticism can be shared more freely since the staff knows you possess the proper reference point (whatever outside experience might remain unknown to them) and that you do not offer negative feedback 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 of many 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 trusted as a custodian of the restaurant. While clunky criticism of this or that may falsely earmark you at some establishments as a “problem” customer, the trust cultivated through repeat visits sets the tone of your interactions. “Nitpicking” is properly read as expertise, and the staff will see the value of having an experienced diner provide feedback regarding new dishes.

This “fourth wall,” mind you, is not only broken by way of repeat patronage. It can, in fact, be broken during one’s very first visit. Perhaps a member of the front or back of house recognizes you and can attest to your virtue as displayed during their time at another establishment. They’ll tip off your server and ensure you’re “taken care of” (which could mean anything from anticipating 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’s mannerisms 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 are comfortable enough to ask for extra dishes from the à la carte section to be added onto your tasting menu. Maybe the wine service is where you shine, browsing the wine book with aplomb and picking out the very best of the bottles (with regards to QPR). This, naturally, lets the sommelier know you are serious, and he or she may prove the most direct link towards developing an “insider” experience of the restaurant.

The secret to 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 enjoying their annual special occasion meal. Dropping the names of the nicest restaurants one has been to reeks of desperation. Likewise, letting it be known that you wish to order the “nicest bottle of champagne in the house” (or something of the sort) lets the sommelier know it’s an indulgent evening yet ultimately outsources one’s taste to the “real” experts. As you described in your experience of Brass Heart, offering unsolicited criticism of the food–no matter how nuanced–may be read rather simply as there being a “problem.” A manager may be dispatched to smooth things over, interpreting one’s engagement with the chef’s cuisine as just the kind of song and dance jilted diners put on to demand discounts and comps. Likewise, asking to see the chef, to tour the kitchen, to take pictures of this and that might show enthusiasm. However, such wanton nerdiness seems to place one more in the “foodie” or “influencer” category than the esteem which may desired. Remember, chefs and cooks are not zoo 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 an ultimate antidote to the cynicism that strikes a “mature” fine diner. In terms of pure submission, one tasting menu might come to look a lot like another, and one’s personal pleasure vis-à-vis the “dining experience” is sure to decline as novelty wears off. However, from the eyes of a “regular,” “insider,” or respected guest, each menu forms another chapter of a living culinary book. A bit of plagiarism (or, most probably, the mere coincidence ascribed to seasonal ingredients) does little to mar the overall narrative. That being, a story of a chef, 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 establishment in the eye, holding their gaze that extra couple seconds which make clear one’s presence in the moment. They smile graciously, generously in full revelry regarding the superlative service being shown. For, no matter how many Michelin stars notched onto their belt, every experience–free from forlorn expectations–is a gift. The “enlightened” fine diner savors every second of the “show,” appreciating the quirks and mannerisms of their hosts in much the same manner they, as guests, are studied. The busser, server, captain, sommelier, and floor manager, to them, are like individual flowers. They express the restaurant, the season, the moment in time through all the intricacy of the human soul. They are not automatons programmed to dole out portions of food but, rather, woven into the establishment in such a way as to express its very essence with every word and motion.

The “enlightened” fine diner does not seek out similarities from restaurant to restaurant in an ego-stroking bid to declare they have already “seen it all.” Instead, they find delight in the smallest of details: a painting, a flowerpot, the din of music in the dining room, a few unique bottles of wine, a wonderful presentation of bread and butter, a plate, a fork, a handwritten receipt. 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 on the preparation of a few dishes; it is “true” or “false” based on the nature of its expression and its good faith effort to please those who walk through their doors. Food plays its part, with due respect to the canon (or its break from it) and fidelity towards the season (or some prior part of it which has been preserved).

The “enlightened” fine diner’s goal, when all is said and done, has little to do with fulfilling personal pleasure. This might happen on occasion, and it should be duly noted. It points to a kinship between a particular customer and a particular chef that should be sustained and further explored. Otherwise, for the majority of fine dining restaurants, the “enlightened” fine diner’s goal should be an appreciation of an establishment’s distinction–relative to any other place in the world–through understanding what is done and why. For example, what nostalgia is being referenced? Whose story is being told? What motivates and fulfills the staff? What connects everybody–customers, staff, and critics included–who walks through those doors? And what impediments, restrictions, and realities must be faced–each and every day–just to keep those doors open?

The questions–which should course through the lifeblood of any “critic”–amount to some small effort on behalf of the diner to interpret a restaurant experience 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 yield the desired level of pleasure. But, past the point of preferential treatment or a lapse in technique, no diner–no matter how experienced–should seek to bend a restaurant to his or her will. This may entail rudely making demands but, more often, occurs more insidiously by way of expectations. No one or two or three or no-star restaurant, of the caliber considered “fine dining,” should be judged against past experiences anywhere else. To do so is to deny the given restaurant the benefit of speaking in its own voice, to damn its creativity to questions of comparison and derivation. Such a perspective transforms expertise into a kind of prison: nothing is beautiful because nothing is as beautiful as that 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 front and back of house become family, where staff and customer become family, where man and nature combine in celebration of something rejuvenating and eternal. Any “enlightened” diner who stumbles across such a place would never dare to blemish it by bending it to their tastes. Instead, they feel a humble duty to wield their expertise in the service of the restaurant’s goals, to walk hand in hand through nature with the head chef as he or she seeks to express its mystery. This journey, which may include any number of transcendent or perplexing flavors, forms the real essence of dining appreciation. Therein, food becomes but one player in a dance between souls that defines, as best as you have yet learned, the meaning of hospitality.