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Dishes in Repertoire

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#1 robert brown

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Posted 05 March 2003 - 07:32 AM

We often compare chefs and musicians on these forums, with varying degrees of agreement as to whether the comparison is useful.

One aspect that they unquestionably share is the notion of a repertoire. If you follow closely the career of a musician, you are learn what changes he or she makes in a repertoire, the pieces that are added and discarded.

One musician I have followed from before his first recording as a leader until his performance in the late summer of 1980, two weeks before he died, is the jazz pianist Bill Evans. Certain songs such as "Waltz for Debby", "My Romance" and "Our Delight", which he performed on his first album, always remained in his repertoire; others such as "Spring is Here", "Alice in Wonderland" and "Beautiful Love" that he played around 1960 were dropped, only to reappear in the late 1970s.

Most vexing of all, he sometimes would introduce a song that he played miraculously well but soon after delete it forever from his personal play list. Being the great talent that he was, if you were to put on one disc all the recordings he made of, for example, "My Romance", you would have a remarkedly vivid aural document of how in his hands the song evolved from a short, languid, literal solo rendition of only the melody to one that always began with an mind-boggling unaccompanied improvised introduction that turned into a set-ending romp that featured each member of his trio.

In the upper echelons of dining, some chefs are abandoning the notion of a repertoire. Some of us are old enough to remember a time when gastronomic travellers to France sought out destination restaurants and destination dishes. Not only would one make it a point to dine at Paul Bocuse, but while there to have the "Soupe aux Truffes Noires VGE" or the "Loup en Croûte". And so it went with other of the highly-decorated restaurants. Just as significant, if you were haunted for months or even years on end by a dish, you could return to the place in question and taste the dish again, perhaps noticing subtle changes the chef had made in the interim.

While today the recently coined expression "signature dish" is still in vogue, it seems to me that signature dishes are fewer and taken off the menu sooner. Of course, much depends on the restaurant in question. Nobu, for example, has many signature dishes that are always available such that after I was dining there on a regular basis, I eventually found myself no longer needing or craving to go as often. Thomas Keller seems to understand the notion of repertoire -- perhaps an influence of his experience with and focus on France.

I wonder, though, if the notion of repertoire is losing currency with the progressive chefs of today. In my opinion what is causing this is are the prevalence and predominance of tasting menus and the attention paid to chefs who are creating at such a rate to cause virtually all dishes to come and go.

Do chefs in the forefront of modern cuisine need constant innovation, so that they create hundreds of dishes that quickly fall by the wayside? If a chef makes a particularly inspired dish, should he feel obliged to offer it for two or three years, if not permanently? Would the serious dining public get a better return for their cost of a meal if they had the option of trying at least one dish that was reputed to show the chef at his or her best?

Should the notion of repertoire be taken to heart by the better younger chefs of today?

#2 Fat Guy

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Posted 05 March 2003 - 07:43 AM

Whether non-repetition is viable as a business model is one question. Whether it makes sense is another.

I think the phenomenon will be self-limiting for business reasons: there will be limited demand for this sort of dining experience because, just as people go to concerts expecting to hear their favorite songs (it's hard for most people even to appreciate a particular song without hearing it several times), they go to restaurants expecting to eat their favorite dishes (or, to bend the analogy, the dishes they've heard about). And there will be a limited number of chefs that can pull it off at a high enough level of excellence to make it attractive enough for people to want to pay what it costs.

I am, however, strongly in favor of it as a concept. The whole notion of signature dishes is misdirection: any qualified kitchen can produce any other kitchen's signatures if it wants to. What can't be reproduced is active, constant creativity. And it's no coincidence that most of the chefs cooking in this manner -- and staying in business -- are considered to be at the very top of the talent pyramid.

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#3 Jonathan Day

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Posted 05 March 2003 - 09:36 AM

Another reason for keeping certain dishes in the repertoire is that it can be a lot of fun to introduce friends to a dish-in-repertoire that you have "discovered" at a favourite restaurant. It gives you, as a diner, a chance to re-experience your first taste of that dish as you see them taste it and react.

Another way to do this, of course, is to hold a retrospective dinner now and then, where you bring dishes back from previous years.
Jonathan Day
"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

#4 lizziee

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Posted 05 March 2003 - 02:56 PM

I fail to understand "modern" chefs reluctance to repeat dishes or establish signature dishes. Somehow a repertoire has come to mean lack of creativity. A signature dish can be tweaked, refined, subtly changed over time while still retaining the chef's signature.

I would hate the thought of going to France and discover that I would never be able to have Faugeron's Oeuf coque a la puree de truffes, George Blanc's Poularde de Bresse cuitre en croute de gros sel "selon Alexandre", Troisgros' Boeuf Charolaise , Marcon's Brochette "Marigaridou, Haeberlin's La Mousseline de Grenouilles, Boyer's Truffe en Croute, Lucas Carton's Canard Apicius and on and on. Are these dishes less exciting or extraordinary because they are familiar? If anything, the re-experiencing of these taste sensations becomes an anticipatory excitement.

I think the practice of a constant change of dishes tends to be more an American phenomenon of our "young Turk" chefs. I admire Keller's evolving style, but also welcome his adherence to his classics such as Oysters and Pearls, Cornets of Atlantic Salmon Tartar, Cauliflower Panna Cotta, White truffle Custard with Ragout of Perigord Truffles, Butter Poached Lobster etc.

Even Adria at El Bulli seems to recognize the importance of his past as witnessed by his retrospective menus this year. Gagnaire, although constantly evolving, still relies on his variations on a theme technique by taking an ingredient and reworking it in various guises. I think sometimes it is harder to maintain "signature dishes" and have them retain that "wow" factor than to constantly reinvent the wheel where the creativity is found just in its newness.

#5 Tonyfinch

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Posted 05 March 2003 - 04:02 PM

One of the underpinning assumptions of Western society is that what is new is also better. In other words we are making onwards and upwards progress in all areas of life. Now its true in the fields of, say medicine,social care, public housing, motor manufacturing etc. But is it true of cuisine? If you go to a top restaurant today will you OF NECESSITY have a better meal than if you went to one thirty, fifty a hundred years ago?

If you believe the answer to be yes then the same principle applies if you compress the time frame down to months or weeks. People often talk of chefs "constantly evolving". Well if that is true then it follows that a chef is always more evolved in the present than he was in the past. And he will be more evolved in the future than he is in the present. And if we believe that "more evolved" equals "better" then there is a whole belief system which values the latest as being the best and which therefore pressurises chefs, if only subliminally, to constantly present something new to diners and to regard the older repertoire as less good.