Over the past few years, tasting menus have grown into an industry-wide trend that gave way to a few noteworthy side effects pervading our restaurant culture.
Some are an exhibition of the chef’s creative genius, presented with the attitude that a substitution request would be a personal affront; others swing entirely in the opposite direction, allowing diners to dictate exactly which aspects of the chef’s “signature menu” they’re willing to try.
Sometimes, a particular course attracts the kind of press and social media buzz – like Thomas Keller’s fabled “Oysters and Pearls” and Guy Savoy’s famous “Colors of Caviar” – that locks chefs into churning out the same dishes for fear of disappointing customers’ expectations.
Now, a few chefs are looking to re-introduce balance between the desires of the dining room and those of the kitchen. Just like Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park and Marc Vetri of his eponymous Philadelphia boîte, some chefs recognize that their food cannot be served with little to no regard for their guests’ needs, but that diners must also place a certain degree of trust in a kitchen when they opt in for a special menu.
New York City’s Brendan McHale of The Eddy in the East Village and Derrick Paez of Wallflower in the West Village are two such chefs who relish experimentation and exploration, and they’re helping to spearhead the next generation of tasting menus with their concept, Let Us Cook For You.
It was born of the type of hospitality industry insiders show one another, explains owner and wine director, Jason Soloway. “We noticed that whenever another chef dines in one of our restaurants and is stoked for a great meal they say, ‘just cook for me,’ and that’s what we’re doing for our guests with Let Us Cook For You.”
No predetermined courses means McHale and Paez are free to make creative decisions on a whim—pair this environment with their penchant to reward the diners smart enough to trust them with beautiful produce and proteins they receive too limited quantities of to include on the standard menu, and you have one very unique (and delicious) dining experience.
“How would you feel about some red meat?” our server asked us with a smile. We were six courses into our nine-course Let Us Cook For You meal at The Eddy, and chef McHale had sent us a parade of dishes exemplifying true market-to-table dining at its best. I had cut through the Union Square Greenmarket on my way to the restaurant that evening and noticed the farmers selling asparagus, carrots, and the other fresh produce typically in season during the second week of September. Little to my surprise, they were the stars on McHale’s plates, along with top-sourced fish and impeccably marbled steak from a farm Upstate. The chef’s preparations walked the line between over simple and fussy, giving us a full sense of his individual take on what we should be eating there and then.
In short, Let Us Cook For You is the remedy to overwrought tasting menus we didn’t know we were looking for and proves that sometimes, the chef really does know best.