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cabrales

Pierre Gagnaire: the good and the bad

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Yes they keep their stylishness and flair, but they have compressed the essence of themselves into smaller touches that often make an even stronger statement.

Patricia Wells, who calls Gagnaire the top table in Paris, certainly thinks he has done exactly that. Have you read her on this?

http://www.patriciawells.com/reviews/iht/2000/3006.htm

Specifically:

"While he has always dazzled us with his combinations, I feel that today has in fact narrowed the focus of his food down to main ingredients, while that lost list of side bars are just that, side bars to uphold and shine light on the ingredient at hand."

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Fat Guy - She speaks of his narrowing his focus in relation to when he cooked in St. Ettiene. So what she is describing as narrow I might be describing as "all over the place." He hasn't compressed the essence of Gagnaire according to my definition of what essence means.

Cabby - I don't mean to say that a particular Gagnaire dish is over my head, it's just that there is so much going on with the food that it's hard for me to honestly say I have a complete grasp of his intentions. And before I offer an opinion that is conclusory, I want to feel that I understand what makes his food tick. Which I honestly can't say is true today.

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I think you need to have a submissive streak to be able to enjoy Gagnaire's cooking.

That may well be true. I am more than happy to be taken care of in a restaurant. Perhaps it's my nature and perhaps it's a matter of respect for the chef. Maybe it's a combination or that one of those things has affected my attitude towards the other. Submissive has a negative connotation in our society, so I prefer to think of this as a relaxed and appreciative attitude, rather than a submissive one. In any event Cabrales' reaction to Gagnaire's response to her desire to add dishes to the tasting menu is a good example. I have no problem understanding his view of the meal as an entity and the request to change the flow is, in this light, no different to him than the request for a change in garnish is to another chef. There are plenty of diners who are outraged when they can't mix and match garnishes from the menu and plenty of chefs who are willing to please their wishes.

On a related issue, can anyone ever be sure they get it all? I mean how would one be sure? Let's call that self assurance confidence for purposes of the this issue. Would that same kind of confidence be related to the need to maintain the ability to make decisions? I always ask myself "what am I thinking?" when I like food that is not particularly delicious. Of course when others dislike food I find delicious, I assume they didn't get it. Chacun a son Goût, as the French say. Can anyone be mistaken in their taste? Sorry, I forgot that's already been answered. I do appreciate Plotnicki's point that he's not ready to make a conclusive determination about Gagnaire's cuisine after only two visits. I figure I've got a 50-50 chance of being thrilled by my next meal at Gagniare and am hoping I will be at least $500 wiser (in terms of food, or course).

:biggrin:

In my opinion, Fat Guy's reference to what P. Wells has said is less an "appeal to authority" than it is an attempt to present her views for our enlightenment, but of course we get more attention using a noted authority's views than some random guy who posts on the net. There's a difference between saying she likes the food and her explanation why. That review, however is over two years old and doesn't pretend to represent changes in the cuisine between the two meals eaten by Steve P.

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I want to feel that I understand what makes his food tick. Which I honestly can't say is true today.

A most reasonable position. Let me ask a simple question and it's sincerely one that is not personal. When one loves a chef's food, it can be assumed he understands it as well, as least on a subconscious level. I mean a chef cooks for your ultimate gastronomic pleasure not for you to pass a written test on his food. When one doesn't love the food, at what point does one just give up and say "I don't understand what he's doing" and is there a difference between that and saying "I understand what he's doing and he's wrong?" Is if possible to write off a chef, or an artist, from one's personal perspective and still leave room for the possibility that the chef, or artist, has made a valid point in someone else's mind and gullet?

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I've said before that I don't have that much French (as opposed to NY) fine dining experience, but I have eaten at Gagnaire. He had eaten at the restaurant I had been working at (i may change my eGullet handle so none of my former or current co-workers deduce my identity) and two weeks later I ate at his. My experience there was troubling. Nothing about the meal stood out out on the positive side, though some of the dishes were fun and everything was innovative. What did stand out was the booziness of every single dessert (he sent us all of them) and what was easily the worst dish I've ever had anywhere. It was oyster, caviar, tuna, seaweed, and a foie gras cream. The unctuous cream made the oceany flavor and textures linger in ones mouth until the booze in the desserts finally obliterated them. I guess the theory behind the dish was to combine the most luxurious ingredients possible, but, my god...

Anyway, Chef Gagnaire invited my wife and I to have coffee with him at the hotel the next morning. Of course we did, and were quite honored as well as pleased to find how personable "the great chef" was. But it was a bit uncomfortable to have him praise the meal he had had at "my" restaurant while all I could think was to ask, "Why oysters and foie?"

Still, I wouldn't write off eating there again, though perhaps, Steve P., I'll try L'Arpege instead. :smile:

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I have yet to see anyone put forth what they feel are Gagnaire's intentions nor and adaquate "description" of his cuisine. When I see a word like "shock" or "bombardment" being thrown around, I can't help but think maybe some people really don't "get it". As a chef, believe me, I've picked apart his food as much as anyone might, but I see in Gagnaire something I've never sensed in a chef or one's cooking before or since. Beyond the "flavor combinations" and innovations inspired by Molecular Gastronomy... beyond ingredients and "perfect" technique... beyond the need for signature dishes or codification... I was thinking while at work all day since this thread began, "What do I see in all this and why has Gagnaire produced the greatest meals of my life? Why do I cook and what do I hope to achieve?"

I truly feel his is the food of life. Expression. I think he's laying it all out, trying to say something (and not necessarily about food); we often debate here whether a chef is an artist. I think one can be, surely, the great majority are not. What differentiates art from just a pretty picture is intent. I'm not ashamed to see Gagnaire in the light of any other artist- his medium just happens to be food. His food has spoken to me on different levels, not least of which is on an emotional one. Maybe I've bought in to his cult, maybe I'm submissive, perhaps I'm one who holds "unjustified reverence"... Gagnaire's food makes me smile, laugh; it has given me a pleasure and excitement that transcends a mere "meal". Really, I haven't been smoking anything!

As a chef I can only hope to one day realize the ability to elicit an emotion, not about food, but through food. I may never get to that point, and I'm not really sure yet how to go about it. I think Gagnaire has tapped into it, and that is why I admire him. Since I cannot speak for him, I'll end with a quote of his...

"My goal is to infuse my cooking with feeling and intelligence. People need poetry, tenderness, and well-made things... and being 'good' means opening up the range of emotions."

Thank you, and goodnight.

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Maybe I've bought in to his cult, maybe I'm submissive, perhaps I'm one who holds "unjustified reverence"

Those are not all synonymous. There's no question that Gagnaire has a cult, but it so happens that the members of that cult are some of the most knowledgeable and discerning eaters on the planet. There are some who revere him without justification, who don't understand and are simply following the lead of those they respect, but clearly not every instance of reverence for Gagnaire is unjustified. As for being submissive, to address both you and Bux here, there's a big difference between ordering food in a restaurant and experiencing any other kind of art. Although there was a time when all artists were craftsmen -- when rich people had not only chefs but also composers and painters in their employ -- the modern day model of the artist is artist-as-dictator. In fact most of the artists we revere today are dead. There is no interactivity. The artist sets the terms and we like it or we don't like it. There is no role for personal preference beyond interpretation and the choice to view or not to view the art. Gagnaire is in my opinion doing exactly what you say, and accomplishing exactly what you say he's accomplishing, but to do it he is bound to alienate the overwhelming majority of potential diners. Even within the subset of sophisticated diners, you can't expect Gagnaire to satisfy the majority because his restaurant is such a departure. That's why I chose submissive as my adjective. It's more than just being a willing recipient of a surprise tasting menu. It's about letting go for real.

It's pretty much all or nothing with Gagnaire. It's hard to have an average experience there. His highly polarized style demands that every dish be a success or a failure. As he denies the diner so many of the usual reference points, he forces more of a pure binary choice.

Gagnaire's flavors and combinations are very complex -- this is well known. Plenty of people grasp or "get" the flavors but still don't enjoy the experience of that sort of barrage. I have no problem with someone who says "I hate Gagnaire's food." It's not like with Ducasse, where if you say "I hate Ducasse's food" you're just saying you hate food. You can "not love" Ducasse's food for whatever reason -- insufficient creativity or personality, or flaws in execution -- but to actively hate it on a conceptual level is to reject the entire framework of Western cuisine. Whereas you can accept that entire framework and hate Gagnaire's cooking because so much of his cooking is outside the framework. So nobody is a freak or a simpleton for disliking Gagnaire. He's an artist that not everybody is going to connect with.

I have felt the connection, however. He's my kind of chef.

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Gee the last series of posts were terrific. In order;

Bux - Well it depends on the chef. Some chefs telegraph what their food is about. Take Pacaud. He doesn't serve a tasting menu. It's a three course affair. After you eat there, it is very easy to realize that he offers a no-frills approach to fine dining. Large portions of the best ingredients cooked perfectly. And that I didn't like my meal there has nothing to do with my being able to deduce his intentions. Same with Passard, a meal I obviously like. It isn't hard to tell what his goals are when you eat there. He has reduced his aesthetic in a way where it has real clarity to it.

I can't say the same thing about Gagnaire because I can't figure out what it's about. On my first meal there, my pork dish was a mastepiece. I walked away from that meal knowing more about pork then I knew before. That had the type of clarity I like in a meal. But this meal was lacking that sense of purpose and I walked out of there not only not liking my meal, but confused. There can be a number of reasons for this. But in keeping with the genral theme of the last few posts, it is possible that the level of abstraction is beyond what I, or eaters in general can tolerate? That is the issue with Gagnaire. Is it abstract art or is it gobbledygook? And, I think this is the real question, is there such a thing as food that is the equivelent of abstract art or is it a false premise to begin with? This gets back to the converation we had about Adria and the notion of being delicious.

Schaem - Your post is evidence of what I am trying to get at in my response to Bux. Is the pairing of oysters and Foie gras a brilliant pairing? Is it an expression of Gagnaire's restlessness? Is it gobbledygook?

It's pretty much all or nothing with Gagnaire. It's hard to have an average experience there. His highly polarized style demands that every dish be a success or a failure. As he denies the diner so many of the usual reference points, he forces more of a pure binary choice.

Michael - The obvious response to this also has to do with the notion of "deliciousness." Ultimately food is a sensual exercise. And I can't see that Gagnaire won't be tied to the deliciousness standard. The question to ask is whether his artistry has surpassed the threshold of creativity that seems natural given the technique he applies. Which is pretty much standard French technique. Serving Foie gras and peanut butter might be a brilliant personal statement by an artist but it won't matter if people think it tastes lousy. Chefs, are bound by the ideal that the emotion they have to elicit is "yum." Evoking the emotion of "isn't that interesting" is entiely dependant on converting that into a yum on additional visits. Because I'd hate to see us use a standard that says hard to understand is accpetable just because the chef exhibits artistic flair and surface brilliance (not that I am accusing Gagnaire of that.)

Fat Guy - The easiest knock against Gagnaire is that certain of the dishes that he serves you among all those small plates are good enough on their own for him to offer them as a full sized portion. This is the biggest flaw that I can see. He sacrifices what can be permanent greatness for the right to submerge them into a multi-flavor and texture statement so he can make an artistic statement. That is what makes his restaurant so difficult for people. There are no set pieces from his repetoire of dishes to sample. And I'm sure he has them, he just isn't interested in offering them because he is an "artiste." Now I'm not criticizing him for this but I think much of his criticism would go away if he had a few anchors to his cuisine.

This issue goes to a point that Robert B. always talks about. What chefs do these days. The contemporary chefs like Gagnaire and Adria dictate what you are going to eat and really don't offer much choice. They work as if they are real artists, and each time you visit there is an entirely new show of their works. ButI think most diners have more of a museum approach to these places. They want the reference point of a few pieces that offer the essence of the artists style.

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He sacrifices what can be permanent greatness for the right to submerge them into a multi-flavor and texture statement so he can make an artistic statement. That is what makes his restaurant so difficult for people…They work as if they are real artists, and each time you visit there is an entirely new show of their works. But I think most diners have more of a museum approach to these places.

Stravinsky in his autobiography, written when he was 48, made an admission of being alienated from his audience:

  • “At the beginning of my career as a composer I was a good deal spoiled by the public. Even such things as were at first received with hostility were soon afterwards acclaimed. But I have a very distinct feeling that in the course of the last fifteen years my written work has estranged me from the great mass of my listeners. They expected something different from me. Liking the music of L’Oiseau de feu, Petroushka, Le Sacre, and Les Noces, and being accustomed to the language of those works, they are astonished to hear me speaking in another idiom. They cannot and will not follow me in the progress of my musical thought. What moves and delights me leaves them indifferent, and what still continues to interest them holds no further attraction for me…I believe that there was seldom any real communion of spirit between us. If it happened—and it still happens—that we liked the same things, I very much doubt whether it was for the same reasons. Yet art postulates communion, and the artist has an imperative need to make others share the joy which he experiences himself."

I wonder whether there is a correlation between these two artists and whether asking Gagnaire to formulate his cuisine to be “slightly more recognizable to his customers” is not only asking to hold back the creative expression of the artist, but as well may result in decelerating the progress of the culinary art.

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Yes, lxt, I was thinking of Sondheim, but Stravinsky will do.

Thanks for these posts which are very interesting and constructive.

Steve - did you post comments on your dinner at L'Ambroisie - from a previous trip, I presume?

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lxt, you have, or rather Stravinsky has, made an important point which is very much at the core of my relationship with food at a restaurant such as Gagniare's. I may be critical and I have every right to enjoy each morsel that I put in my mouth, but I am willing to allow a fair amount of leeway in support of the art.

I am eager to read about people's meals in Gagnaire and most eager to hear personal reactions to the food. I don't really care if people like it or think I will like it unless they know my mind fairly well. I am always reminded of a relative of mine, who told us he walked out after seeing Truffot's Jules and Jim telling all who would listen to save their money and not see the film. It was with some pride that said he managed to discourage at least one would be viewer away. Not for a moment, do I doubt he disliked the film and regretted the time spent in the theater. I am sure he could intelligently explain why the film annoyed him. I am also sure that by the standards with which most people entered a movie theater in the sixties in New York, the film was not entertaining. Nevertheless, his attitude was forever etched in my mind as synonymous with "Philistine." Whether or not one gets a certain cuisine, or even if one gets it and doesn't appreciate it or gets it and dislikes it, there are foods and chefs that one may respect.

Where the negative comments are totally dismissive, I tend to find them offensive. Where the comments are constructively critical, I find them interesting and useful. I find this, from Steve Plotnicki to be contstructive:

"I can't say the same thing about Gagnaire because I can't figure out what it's about. On my first meal there, my pork dish was a mastepiece. I walked away from that meal knowing more about pork then I knew before. That had the type of clarity I like in a meal. But this meal was lacking that sense of purpose and I walked out of there not only not liking my meal, but confused. There can be a number of reasons for this. But in keeping with the genral theme of the last few posts, it is possible that the level of abstraction is beyond what I, or eaters in general can tolerate? That is the issue with Gagnaire. Is it abstract art or is it gobbledygook? And, I think this is the real question, is there such a thing as food that is the equivelent of abstract art or is it a false premise to begin with? This gets back to the converation we had about Adria and the notion of being delicious. "

I find it constructive because he offers explanations of some detail and because he raises issues about that which didn't please him. His questions will likely be on my mind when I dine at Gagnaire. Whether or not I like my meal, these comments will help me enjoy the evening or at least make it interesting. His question, what if Gagnaire's level of abstraction is beyone what he can tolerate and beyond what most diners in general can tolerate, is interesting. A sub question might be about whether he can tolerate more or less creativity in a certain direction that the general eater. The more important question framed as is there such a thing as food that is the equivelent of abstract art, might better be asked as how many people need to get a chef's food and find it enjoyable to eat, in order for that cuisine to be valid. On a person level the answer should be "one." Can we answer on a public level and if so, can that answer be more than one at the minimum?

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Lxt - I don't believe that you can use your Stravinsky's point as being analagous. Food isn't art. You don't need to enjoy Stravinsky's music for it to be good art. In fact it can be great art and disturbing music. But horrible tasting food isn't "good" food no matter how artistic or cerebral it is. You can't serve rotten, moldy food with maggots on it and claim it makes an aesthetic statement so it is "good food." Food, like clothing or decorative arts has to have a pleasing functionality in order for it to be good.

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That relies on the premise that all art forms must share the characteristic one might call "potential to be disturbing". But since there are many other characteristics they don't share, that's as arbitrary assertion as saying something has to be "permanent" or "unique" to be art.

We don't want to have this discussion again, do we?

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But you are discussing art in the abstract. Restaurant cuisine is not in the abstract. It has parameters we accept and which are identified as "dining." Dining is something we do, not something the artist creates. It just so happens that artists or craftsmen create things that are part of our dining experience. Now of course we can rehash the "what is dining?" discussions we have so often. But again that is in the abstract. I submit that when we walk in the door at a place like Gagnaire the dining experience is sufficiently framed that the reference points we adopt are the standard ones. Someone touched on this point. Was it Michael? And that is the exact issue I am raising. Has Gagniare "crossed the threshold" of what is acceptable to diners into a sort of area that is more like performance art that features food, some delicious, some challenging etc.?

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Yup. Ixnay to the rehash (I understand that is some kind of American backslang).

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It's rewarding when one gets a "yup" from Wilfrid. Other great thinkers on this site (like Lxt) are much stingier with the yups even when I'm right :raz:.

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I think the answer to that last question you asked, Plotnicki, is yes: Of the three-star French chefs he has pushed that boundary to the greatest extent. There's nothing absurd about the restaurant and it isn't a total reinvention, but the experience is far more out-there than at any other place I've visited in France. But I think his food is delicious. It's not an anti-deliciousness statement. It's more a question of pushing the edge of the deliciousness envelope. Remember, as we have discussed before, there are flavors like bitterness that are presumptively negative but when combined and utilized properly in composed dishes they contribute to overall deliciousness. Once people train their palates to enjoy bitterness, they actually adopt the completely counterintuitive view of bitterness: They crave it. A lot of Gagnaire's cooking is about acquiring tastes -- quickly.

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Fat Guy - While I agree with everything in your last post, isn't the threshold issue, is there such a thing as bad abstract art? Which raises the question of how would we know in this instance? What's the difference between bitter as an aesthetic statement and bitter that's unenjoyable and is used inappropriately?

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Yes, there is such a thing as bad abstract art.

And it wasn't yup, Steve, you're right, it was yup, Steve, let's not go all over that again.

:wink:

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I think I mentioned elsewhere that my view of abstract art is you judge it by whatever the standards of non-abstract art are but you make allowances for whatever standards can't be applied. Bux added that sometimes an abstract artist can succeed by selectively violating the old standards in an interesting way, so that has to be allowed for as well. But I think we throw the word abstract around too much without thinking about what it means. Abstract does not mean totally disconnected and random. In painting and such, as I understand it the boundary between regular art and abstract art is simply whether the art is representational. I don't know exactly what the boundary would be between regular food and abstract food. I suppose there's a point at which the ingredients, flavors, and textures could become denatured to such an extent that you're experiencing the pure intellect of the chef without any representational middle ground. I think to have abstract food you would need machines that create flavors out of base chemical compounds. I know of no chef who has gone that far. As long as you're just transforming potatoes into mashed potatoes or even potato foam, I don't think you're being abstract. I would not describe Gagnaire as abstract; I would describe him as very modern, unusual, unpredictable, and complex.

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As there's no representational content in the first place, I would agree the term "abstract" doesn't make sense here. If that's what you were saying.

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Lxt - I don't believe that you can use your Stravinsky's point as being analagous. Food isn't art. You don't need to enjoy Stravinsky's music for it to be good art. In fact it can be great art and disturbing music. But horrible tasting food isn't "good" food no matter how artistic or cerebral it is. You can't serve rotten, moldy food with maggots on it and claim it makes an aesthetic statement so it is "good food." Food, like clothing or decorative arts has to have a pleasing functionality in order for it to be good.

Food and music share the same function, i.e. to provide aesthetic satisfaction and are much closer to each other than food and art or literature, for instance. Dining is a sensual pleasure; so is music. “You can’t serve rotten, moldy food” and appreciate it exactly the same way that you can’t listen to squeaky doors or wailing alley cats and call it “good music” because both food and music directly affect our senses, not just our intellect and emotions. I could concur that art and literature, in an attempt to convey reality or surrealism, may encompass terrifying images and still provoke a sense of artistic aesthetic; however, music and food require a certain sensual satisfaction before stimulating any intellectual or emotional response.

Therefore, it seems that the question of whether Gagnier as an innovator is reaching the boundary of his communication link with diners by establishing a new perception of food is legitimately compared to the struggle between Stravinsky and his audience.

It's rewarding when one gets a "yup" from Wilfrid. Other great thinkers on this site (like Lxt) are much stingier with the yups even when I'm right  :raz:.

That's because I don’t speak American backslang. :raz: :raz:

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I could concur that art and literature, in an attempt to convey reality or surrealism, may encompass terrifying images and still provoke a sense of artistic aesthetic; however, music and food require a certain sensual satisfaction before stimulating any intellectual or emotional response.

I can see you're unfamiliar with Psychick TV's version of "Skinhead Moonstomp". :raz:

(Edit - I got my Psychick TVs and Throbbing Gristles mixed up. Easily done.)

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