Jump to content


Welcome to the eG Forums!

These forums are a service of the Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to advancement of the culinary arts. Anyone can read the forums, however if you would like to participate in active discussions please join the Society.

Photo

The balance of power in dining


  • This topic is locked This topic is locked
18 replies to this topic

#1 Shalmanese

Shalmanese
  • participating member
  • 3,501 posts
  • Location:San Francisco

Posted 26 September 2005 - 06:40 AM

In the future of dining thread, MX Hassett said:

I would have to say that I have been very upset a number of times going to upscale starred chef rest', and seeing people who are not enjoying the food trying to convince themeselves that it is them and not the food. I.E. a few years ago I was doing a multi-course tasting and one of the dishes was espresso crusted lamb, the couple next to me where saying to each other that they did not like this dish, "but this must be what good food is" :angry:. It is sad because it might turn these people off to inovative cuisine. There seems to be a common mentality that because it is chef so and so, and the meal costs this much it must be good and it must be something wrong with "us". Taste and pallete are very varied and subjective.

View Post


In this instance, the balance of power clearly lies with the chef and the diner defers their interpretation of the dining experience into the chefs hands. On the other hand, many chefs have horror stories of "sauce on the side, sub chicken for turkey, no butter, steamed, not grilled, gluten free" diners who are determined to control all aspects of the dining experience and shift the balance of power over to the diner. Now, I don't want to debate the relative merits of each and which is better because thats been hashed over many times before in this thread. However, I would like to ask:

1. Has the balance of power shifted noticably in the recent past
and
2. Where do you predict it will go in the future?

I would say that, in America at least, the balance was pretty firmly within the realm of the chef during the 80s with torturously convulted towers and snooty degustation menus. However, since then, it's slowly but steadily shifted towards the diner. In part, it lies in an increased culinary sophistication on the part of the diner, flashy gimmicks with no substance is harder to pull off these days.

However, I'm not convinced this trend will continue for much longer. In some ways, I feel that we are suffering from an overreaction to the previous generation and have shifted things too far in the other direction. Ultimately, diners will acknowledge and respect the expertise that a good chef has and trust their judgement more and more, while still retaining their own sense of what tastes good. I might be rather optimistic in my opinion and would love to hear what others think.

As an additional note, how does the Food Media fit into this? Has their power grown or shrunk over the years and what do you think will happen to it's influence in the future?
PS: I am a guy.

#2 Fat Guy

Fat Guy
  • eGullet Society staff emeritus
  • 29,303 posts
  • Location:New York, NY

Posted 26 September 2005 - 07:41 AM

With respect to food media, here's where I see it going: I think media will become increasingly important in the dining world. The whole concept of the celebrity chef wouldn't exist without media, and we are seeing more food TV programming, more online food coverage and expansion of food content in general interest media (Tony Bourdain, for example, now has two TV shows running, neither of which is on the Food Network).

At the same time, I think the type of influence the media has will be changed, and diluted. The powerful people in food media used to be the restaurant reviewers. This is becoming less and less the case. You want to know someone in the food media now, you want to know either a television producer or a newspaper food section editor. You want exposure, not reviews. And as Zagat, Michelin, the internet and an increasing number of newspapers provide more and more restaurant-review-type coverage, the power of any one restaurant reviewer becomes lessened. So I think food media is rising in influence, but restaurant reviewing is declining in influence (not to mention quality, which is an issue for another topic).

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#3 BeetsandBlueCheese

BeetsandBlueCheese
  • participating member
  • 13 posts
  • Location:Sleepy Hollow, NY

Posted 26 September 2005 - 08:04 AM

I personally believe that the power will always ulitimately rest with the diner. Restaurants, after all are a buissiness and they require returning customers inorder to stay in business and continue serving the food they love. In the restaurants I've been lucky enough to work in, the chef will honor just about any request that isn't physically impossible. You'd like a Pritikin(no fat, no salt) Caeser Salad? No problem. A four course mushroom tasting menu? We can do that. One out of every three tables seems to have a special request(SOS, no cheese, gluten intolerant, alergic to nuts, alergic to onions, no garlic, no alcohol, etc.). Some of the more unusual requests are entertained by the front of the house(in hopes of scoring a larger tip) and are then foisted on the back of the house, but it generally seems beneficial to everyone to comply with such requests. The axiom that the customer is always right seems to hold true for the most of the restaurant industry. There does seem to be exception, and that is the stratosphere of the culinary pantheon, the kind of places with just tasting menus, as those are the dishes the chef wants you to have in that exact order. Chefs at this level aren't often willing to compromise what they see as their 'gastronomical vision', and will probably not heed your request to have a shrimp cocktail for your second course, but I would be suprised if chefs at this level didn't honor simple food alergies or requests for the sauce on the side.

The power will always rest with the dinners as long as there is a choice of where to eat. And regardless of how mind blowingly amazing the chef thinks his food is, if other people don't eat it, enjoy it, and return, then he is going to be out of business very soon.

#4 Bux

Bux
  • eGullet Society staff emeritus
  • 12,211 posts
  • Location:New York City

Posted 26 September 2005 - 08:16 AM

Fat Guy has rather eloquently stated one of the downsides to the rise in popularity of food, dining, restaurants, chefs and perhaps most of all, culinary journalists and personalities. No need to love Tony Bourdain as a food journalist than as a chef, or as a culinary personality than a food journalist, or even as a talking head than as culinary personality, but that's the direction of the popularization of cuisine--in italics as it's become a loaded word. In my time, I've seen the Museum of Modern Art go from a rather small empty set of galleries occupied by students, scholars and artists. With the increase in art appreciation across our society, it's become, as one journalist called it, an agora for our times. It's become a center for social activity. A place a mother met her firends for lunch and the wisdom about art came perhaps solely from my four year old daughter who when asked what her daddy told her about the sculptures, relpied "don't touch."

With this kind of shift in audience, cames a a shift in power from the scholar to the sort who doesn't know much about art (or food) but who knows what he likes. The result is that we have more chef driven restaurants to choose from, although many of these are striving to meet with the approval of an uneducated palate. There are positives and negatives to a democratic society. Ultimately, the diner's power is limited to choosing a restaurant.
Robert Buxbaum
WorldTable
Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.
My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

#5 Busboy

Busboy
  • eGullet Society staff emeritus
  • 4,426 posts
  • Location:Washington, DC

Posted 26 September 2005 - 08:19 AM

I wonder. I wonder if the chef cult phenomenon is changing the way chefs think about themselves and their role as "artists." Years ago I worked for a couple of high-end restaurants run by talented chefs -- Yannick Cam and Nora Pouillon -- and those kitches were willing to do pretty much anything within reason to honor a diner's special requests. No we're seeing some local chefs so convinced of their own genious that a simle request for a minor substitution is met with a sharp rebuke. I don't know if this is a larger trend or just a couple of isolated cases; I'd be curious to hear what others are seeing out there.

Regarding the high-rise cuisine and the degustations, I actually think those are neutral. Chefs experiment, people experiment, irreconcilable differences are found and tower food goes away, to everybody's relief.
I'm on the pavement
Thinking about the government.

#6 Michael Ruhlman

Michael Ruhlman
  • participating member
  • 466 posts

Posted 26 September 2005 - 09:10 AM

The consumer definitely has the upper hand and always will. I hope what's happening gradually is that the consumer is smarter (partly bec of the media, as steven notes, and I agree with his prediction), and with a smarter consumer the chef will get smarter and deliver a better product. Chefs who think of themselves as artistes before they are hospitality professionals will select themselves out of the profession.

#7 Fat Guy

Fat Guy
  • eGullet Society staff emeritus
  • 29,303 posts
  • Location:New York, NY

Posted 26 September 2005 - 09:46 AM

For the most part, with the exception of a few restaurants in museums and culinary schools (and not necessarily even then), there is no such thing as a not-for-profit restaurant. Assuming that situation persists, consumer demand will always be a huge part of the equation that determines what restaurants serve.

This is not necessarily a good thing in all cases, as Bux intimates above. If you want the best, leaving the decision up to consumer demand is simply not a great strategy. Average tastes breed average restaurants. We have great restaurants today not because consumers demanded them but because chefs created them along the "if you build it, they will come" strategy. In order for restaurants to improve -- in order for dining to have a future -- consumers have to be willing to be led into new experiences by chefs they trust. This is the difference between pandering to consumers and serving them by educating them.

Nor is money the chief motivation for many in the restaurant business. I've met scores of chefs and restaurateurs who could be making a lot more money and doing a lot less work as investment bankers, lawyers or psychologists -- they've had the education, skills and socioeconomic background such that those were easily available choices for them. But they chose the restaurant business because they loved it. Now, of course, the average owner of a McDonald's or some other franchise is mostly in it for money not for love of the game. But at the top levels of dining, there is a healthy dose of idealism and artistry in the mix.

Will the future nurture that idealism and artistry, or will the future push for pandering? It's hard to know. The success of Zagat is not a good sign, though -- it is the expression of the average, elevated to the status of real criticism. Newspaper critics seem to be focusing on much the same consumer-oriented issues, and less on the artistry -- so they are not helping the enterprise the way architecture critics help the enterprise of creative architecture. I hope there's room for the internet to help celebrate chefs who take risks and pursue creativity and difference. I hope we'll do our part.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#8 Bux

Bux
  • eGullet Society staff emeritus
  • 12,211 posts
  • Location:New York City

Posted 26 September 2005 - 10:14 AM

I know of chefs whose flagship restaurant may be seen as advertising for other endeavors, but I don't know of any chefs who operate their business purely as a hobby, or without regard for the bottom line. My guess, based on human nature, would be that many chefs are willing to suffer an economic situation akin to poverty, simply out of the love of what they are doing in combination with the hope of establishing a reputation that will place them in a pantheon of chefs. This may be true whether they are salaried employees, or own their own restaurant. Once they've owned their own restaurant and it's become respected, my guess is that a certain challenge has been met. Having reached that goal, it would be natural for thoughts to turn to a new challenge. They've all had to become business men or their restaurants wouldn't have stayed open long enough to develop a reputation. One of the challenges of a business man is simply to make money. At some level in the back of any businessman's mind must be the question of how do I increase my profit. Having achieved a reputation, the urge to cut corners or expand beyond what you can control as tightly as a single restaurant where you can be in the kitchen as often as necessary, is more than understandable. Which is the greater achievement, to have one restaurant that may arguably be seen as the greatest restaurant in the world, or ten, five of which make the top twenty. I think it's a personal call, but having one, might make the other a challenge. That's why guys who own a chain of good and highly profitable restaurants often open one that aims to be great even if it has less chance of providing the same kind of profit margin as the others in the stable.

A great chef is going to have a hard time running more than one great restaurant at its highest potential. Ducasse has slipped in the eyes of Michelin. An owner of a chain of profitable good restaurants is likely to have a hard making the decisions necessary to create that great retaurant as well, in my opinion.
Robert Buxbaum
WorldTable
Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.
My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

#9 Jennifer Iannolo

Jennifer Iannolo
  • participating member
  • 236 posts
  • Location:New York

Posted 26 September 2005 - 11:18 AM

I hope there's room for the internet to help celebrate chefs who take risks and pursue creativity and difference. I hope we'll do our part.


Steven, I have to give you a standing ovation for that comment. In fact, I think it is one of the most important things happening here at eGullet, where there is serious discourse as well as light-hearted exploration.

This forum is a celebration of the culinary mind -- long may it prosper, because it just may be the ideal foundation from which to effect change over the long-term.
Jennifer L. Iannolo
Founder, Editor-in-Chief
The Gilded Fork™
Food Philosophy. Sensuality. Sass.
Home of the Culinary Podcast Network

Never trust a woman who doesn't like to eat. She is probably lousy in bed. (attributed to Federico Fellini)

#10 Mimi Sheraton

Mimi Sheraton
  • legacy participant
  • 192 posts

Posted 29 September 2005 - 09:04 AM

The balance of poeer shifted when chefs stopped putting salt on the table...Sometime in the late 70s, early 80s. I am trying to find out who the first such poseur was. Time to wrest control by demanding salt. The omission is pretentious.

#11 Busboy

Busboy
  • eGullet Society staff emeritus
  • 4,426 posts
  • Location:Washington, DC

Posted 29 September 2005 - 09:07 AM

The balance of poeer shifted when chefs stopped putting salt on the table...Sometime in the late 70s, early 80s. I am trying to find out who the first such poseur was. Time to wrest control by demanding salt. The omission is pretentious.

View Post


Last time I asked for salt at such a place, the waiter came over with a salt grinder (!), dusted me and then whisked the grinder away. Winning the salt war may be more difficult than we had thought.
I'm on the pavement
Thinking about the government.

#12 Mimi Sheraton

Mimi Sheraton
  • legacy participant
  • 192 posts

Posted 29 September 2005 - 10:52 AM

Perhaps the cure is to take a big box of Diamond Kosher Salt into such restaurants, put it on the table, then salt away to your palate's contentment.

#13 Michael Ruhlman

Michael Ruhlman
  • participating member
  • 466 posts

Posted 29 September 2005 - 12:55 PM

Thank you mimi! If i ever find myself looking around for the salt then ask for some and the waiter is snooty, I say, either bring me some salt or tell your chef to learn how to season his food properly.

that kind of arrogance drives me crazy. who DID do it first?

#14 Fat Guy

Fat Guy
  • eGullet Society staff emeritus
  • 29,303 posts
  • Location:New York, NY

Posted 29 September 2005 - 01:52 PM

Maybe there should be a negotiated settlement: chefs promise to put salt on the table, and customers promise to taste the food before they salt it.

Seriously, I don't know that it's arrogant as such to leave salt off the table. I think it's more of a flow of history thing: it strikes me as part and parcel of the shift from gueridon service to composed plated service, and the attendant changes in styles of cooking that flowed from nouvelle cuisine. If you bring a gueridon to the table and you carve up a bird and plate it with some simple garnishes, chances are it may need further seasoning. Moreover, seasoning at the table is a logical part of that process: the sauce may also be in a gravy boat on the side -- it's a different way of eating from what restaurants largely do now. Today, if you're plating a nouvelle cuisine dish in the kitchen and creating a composition of cubes of this and stacks of that and every bit of sauce and garnish each in its place, you're supposed to be delivering a finished product. If it needs salt at the table, it's defective -- or at least that's what current culinary standards hold (personally, I think some people prefer more salt than others, so they should have their salt).

That being said, most chefs who refuse to put salt on the table aren't actually up to the task of running a kitchen that puts out properly seasoned dishes every time. And some of the top chefs (Ducasse, for example) do provide salt.

In terms of the future, I would love to see a return to gueridon service, dessert cart service, etc., but I think it's not going to happen so long as restaurants have to rely upon human employees. The labor equation just doesn't balance.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#15 Bux

Bux
  • eGullet Society staff emeritus
  • 12,211 posts
  • Location:New York City

Posted 29 September 2005 - 08:53 PM

.  . . .  who DID do it first?

View Post

Good question. It's not something that bothers me most of the time. I usually don't feel the need for more salt in the kinds of restaurants that don't provide salt shakers. They're most often absent from the tables at haute cuisine luxury restaurants, but I can't remember when they disappeared. I wonder where it happened first. My guess is that it's an imported habit in America. Did it start in France?
Robert Buxbaum
WorldTable
Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.
My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

#16 Mimi Sheraton

Mimi Sheraton
  • legacy participant
  • 192 posts

Posted 30 September 2005 - 10:57 AM

Maybe there should be a negotiated settlement: chefs promise to put salt on the table, and customers promise to taste the food before they salt it.

Seriously, I don't know that it's arrogant as such to leave salt off the table. I think it's more of a flow of history thing: it strikes me as part and parcel of the shift from gueridon service to composed plated service, and the attendant changes in styles of cooking that flowed from nouvelle cuisine. If you bring a gueridon to the table and you carve up a bird and plate it with some simple garnishes, chances are it may need further seasoning. Moreover, seasoning at the table is a logical part of that process: the sauce may also be in a gravy boat on the side -- it's a different way of eating from what restaurants largely do now. Today, if you're plating a nouvelle cuisine dish in the kitchen and creating a composition of cubes of this and stacks of that and every bit of sauce and garnish each in its place, you're supposed to be delivering a finished product. If it needs salt at the table, it's defective -- or at least that's what current culinary standards hold (personally, I think some people prefer more salt than others, so they should have their salt).

That being said, most chefs who refuse to put salt on the table aren't actually up to the task of running a kitchen that puts out properly seasoned dishes every

time. And some of the top chefs (Ducasse, for example) do provide salt.

In terms of the future, I would love to see a return to gueridon service, dessert cart service, etc., but I think it's not going to happen so long as restaurants have to rely upon human employees. The labor equation just doesn't balance.

View Post

Thing is, Fat Guy, that virtually no two people taste alike - especially salt - something that increases with age. So a dish that needs salt may not be "defective" . I agree diners should taste first but, in the end, whose dinner is it anyway?

#17 Mimi Sheraton

Mimi Sheraton
  • legacy participant
  • 192 posts

Posted 30 September 2005 - 11:04 AM

Thank you mimi!  If i ever find myself looking around for the salt then ask for some and the waiter is snooty, I say, either bring me some salt or tell your chef to learn how to season his food properly.

that kind of arrogance drives me crazy.  who DID do it first?

View Post


I'm seriously trying to find out who did it first..my recollection is that it was late 70s -early 80s and that it was here...I remember reading about it in a review...maybe Claiborne or Gael Greene..sort of nouvelle time...salt was conspicuous by its absence. In such places, when you did ask for salt, you were handed some miserable little tacky salt cellar, maybe even with greasy fingerprints to show the kitchen's contempt...The great master chef, Andre Soltner, told me he regards not having salt on the table as ridiculous...We should mount a salt brigade, diners carrying their own mills just as some people I know carry Tabasco. Ismail Merchant always carried hot crushed chili peppers.

#18 Mimi Sheraton

Mimi Sheraton
  • legacy participant
  • 192 posts

Posted 30 September 2005 - 11:07 AM

I hope there's room for the internet to help celebrate chefs who take risks and pursue creativity and difference. I hope we'll do our part.


Steven, I have to give you a standing ovation for that comment. In fact, I think it is one of the most important things happening here at eGullet, where there is serious discourse as well as light-hearted exploration.

This forum is a celebration of the culinary mind -- long may it prosper, because it just may be the ideal foundation from which to effect change over the long-term.

View Post


I give no points for taking risks. Only for good results. Chefs these days want to be judged by their goals, not by their achievments...Their prices say they are playing hardball and therefore so should critics.

#19 Carrot Top

Carrot Top
  • legacy participant
  • 4,164 posts

Posted 30 September 2005 - 01:33 PM

The great master chef, Andre Soltner, told me he regards not having salt on the table as ridiculous...

View Post


Andre Soltner is a man who not only is a great master chef but who also is a person uncommonly charming and intelligent.

I remember being dragged into his kitchen one night after dinner there, by the small determined woman who was head of "protocol" at Goldman Sachs.

With a grand flourish, she introduced me as their executive chef. Quite overdone. Quite nonsensical given the reality of the situation and who he was.

He nodded and bowed slightly, smiling a brilliantly charming smile as I blushed.

"Ah. I am only the chef, here. No executive chef."

:laugh:

Beautiful.

Yes, there is a sense that happens often now of lionizing chefs that did not exist at this level in that not-so-far-distant past.

How many of the "top chefs" that we have today are as deprecatory about themselves as he was that night, or as he was on countless other occasions that I've heard of? How many even of the "second-runner" chefs are this deprecatory about themselves?

That is something to think about.

But the question is: Have they become that way simply on their own, or has the public demanded this sort of theatre from them.

Edited by Carrot Top, 30 September 2005 - 01:34 PM.