Are Tasting Menus Totalitarian?

In a lengthy Op-Ed piece in Vanity Fair, Corby Kummer throws shade at Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, and more

Looks like there might be a backlash to the tasting menu; Atlantic food critic Corby Kummer pops up in the most recent issue of Vanity Fair, seriously dissing some big shots in the food world like Ferran Adrià, Charlie Trotter, and Thomas Keller. His qualm? These chefs, he writes, "Demand unconditional surrender from their customers."

The tasting menus, Kummer pointed out, were more modest presentations in France where courses numbered at five or six; here, however, there are as much as 40 at French Laundry. As Kummer points out in one anecdote, a half-Parisian guest at Per Se was astonished at the number of courses, asking, "How is it possible to eat this much... without feeling… heavy?' Seen through French eyes, what began as an earnest re-creation of a French model looked like it had passed through Disney World with a stop at Mount Rushmore," Kummer writes.

This isn't the first time tasting menus have been criticized by the food media; back in October, Pete Wells noted his own good and bad experiences with tasting menus. On the good side? Grant Achatz's Alinea, where meals "are almost like symphonies in their skillful manipulation of complexity, volume, tempo and harmony." But other times? "The consumer of such a meal may feel as much like a victim as a guest. The reservation is hard won, the night is exhausting, the food is cold, the interruptions are frequent. The courses blur, the palate flags and the check stings," Wells wrote.

In the meantime, Felix Salmon over at Reuters also suggests that tasting menus have "increasingly [become] as inaccessible and irrelevant as the world of first-growth Bordeaux," catering to a clientele of "international gastro-tourists."

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So what's next? As Wells suggested back in October, not every restaurant needs to create a War and Peace of the food world. And other chefs, like Alain Passard, still follow the rule that the customer is always right. "I am there to serve others’ commands, and I always do what I am asked to do. I put aside my own concerns when faced with a client who orders a dish cooked a certain way or asks for a certain seasoning," Passard said in The Financial Times. But there will always be customers who want the 40-plate tasting menu for three hours, gastro-tourists or food lovers, critics be damned.