More often than not, restaurants with long tasting menus are the ones that play hard to get. Those where you have to reserve 3 months ahead, desperately refreshing your browser as the bookings open at 4:00am in your time zone. If you’re lucky enough to secure a table, you will have made the 50%, non-refundable deposit before you’re lucid enough to flirt with buyer’s remorse.
Then the fateful day arrives. You’re celebrating your birthday, or your anniversary, or maybe you speak French and those two words confusingly mean the same thing. Perhaps you’ve planned your vacation around this meal, or saved for months as you brace for the impact of a bill that is comparable to your mortgage payments. And what, pray tell, is your reward for all of this preparation and sacrifice?
A motherfucking cracker.
Or a shot of chilled soup. Or a Lilliputian tartlet filled with one humble thing (say, beetroot or cauliflower) and one luxurious (caviar, uni, truffles…). These opening snacks or “amuses” — often cold or room-temperature — fail to deliver on the fundamental promise of their name, providing micro-doses of pleasure so small as to be nearly imperceptible. And they characterize a phenomenon I call The Law of Diminishing Temperatures: that is, the more servings that are proposed on a tasting menu, the more likely it is that the vast majority of them will not be warm. But why is that?
Part of the reason is historical. As recently as the mid-1990’s, there was a culinary arms race underway among leaders like Thomas Keller at The French Laundry near Napa and Ferran Adrià at el Bulli in Spain. Even in those simpler days, when word-of-mouth and print journalism provided valuable social currency, their restaurants were fully committed months in advance.
Before blogs and Instagram enabled us as armchair travelers, their cookbooks were instantly devoured by aspiring young chefs around the world. Soon those same impressionable readers sought unpaid internships or stages in their kitchens — a deeply-rooted practice in many parts of the world, but at that time, something of a rarity in America. With this influx of free labor came an enormous increase in the production capabilities of these restaurants, allowing their menus to stretch to twenty, thirty, or even forty servings. (The one time I was able to visit el Bulli, my lunch lasted seven hours.)
Yet while stoves have a finite number of burners and ovens a fixed amount of space, there was no shortage of non-cooking tasks for those interns. To the contrary, their dexterous hands could be put to work plucking herbs, placing garnishes with tweezers, dotting and swiping sauces just so. Haute cuisine had officially entered the Cold War era. But why should that matter?
Well, to me, restaurants are dispensaries of recreational drugs. To visit them is, by any measure, unnecessary for human survival. To the contrary, many of the serotonin-seekers who do so with any regularity are simply chasing the highs of yesteryear. (The taste of the pasta at “that little trattoria” you visited on your honeymoon in Tuscany, or the warm nostalgia that washes over you at the diner your family frequented when you were little.)
In this context, one of the interesting things about hot food in particular is that it stimulates even the senses we are less prone to associate with the act of eating. Think of a sizzling platter of fajitas (hearing), a warm slurp of ramen on a winter night (touch), or even the steam emanating from that same bowl (sight). Each of these contribute to a sort of holistic pleasure that characterizes our very best dining experiences. The right combination of these catalysts can occasion a Ratatouille moment in even the most jaded diners. In their absence, the experience feels hollow.
Luckily, there are still lawbreakers out there who insist on bringing the heat. Take Victor Arguinzoniz, keeper of the fire at Asador Etxebarri in the mountains outside of Bilbao, Spain, for example. Even in a setting that has become decidedly more luxe over time, the opening volley of his €180 (~$202 USD) tasting menu is a humble cup of warm bean soup. Noma’s René Redzepi — who worked for both Keller and Adrià, and has more stagiaires than either — uses careful timing to optimize the guest experience. The pace of a meal there is calibrated as precisely as a metronome, with each course delivered at its peak in terms of freshness, aroma, and flavor: a glistening fritter just plucked from the oil, or king crab that his team whisks off the grill mere seconds before it is served. Enigma in Barcelona is where Albert Adrià (Ferran’s brother and the former pastry chef at el Bulli) has inverted the traditional meal progression by offering heartier cooked dishes first, and relieving palate fatigue and waning appetites with light, refreshing (and, yes, sometimes cold!) servings at the end.
You, Dear Restaurant Guest, can also help change the status quo. I know you are there to enjoy the company of your dining companions, but tune in to the pace at which the kitchen is working. Getting up to go to the bathroom at the wrong time during a tasting menu can be as disruptive and awkward as talking during a Broadway play. I know you like taking pictures of your food. I do, too. But please do so quickly, discreetly, or sometimes not at all, because soufflés fall, aromas fade, and surely the evanescent joy of eating hot food while it’s still hot cannot be replicated by looking at a photograph later on. Lastly, for the love of all that is holy, please do not ask your server to present a dish a second time so that you can Boomerang or otherwise record it.
The show, after all, must go on. And so it will. It’s easy to sit back and hope that the next generation of chefs will take after the Victors, Renés, and Alberts of the world. But mindful eating engenders mindful cooking, and perhaps the only way for the pleasures of the past to be recreated in the future, is for all of us who make up the restaurant ecosystem to be more present, in the present.