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Are "Challenging" Restaurants Pleasurable?


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I've been talking to a few people about eating at Alinea lately, and this recent post by heightsgtltd in the eG Forums Alinea topic reminded me of a theme that has been recurring in those discussions:

I understand that the intention is to challenge diners, but in my opinion you need some anchors within that framework that do the opposite to be successful.

There were no moments in the meal that were not challenges.

I've just read through a few topics, and this notion of a "challenging" meal threads through a lot of responses about Alinea, El Bulli, WD-50, and other restaurants delivering food from the forefront of the molecular gastronomy movement. I use the word "movement" carefully here, intending to reference the avant garde movements of the early 20th century that sought to remake our experiences with and through art.

Risking oversimplification (and being told that I'm not the first to make this comparison), I'd argue that the "manipulation" of Achatz, Adria, Blumenthal, Dufresne, et al has parallels with the confrontations of Hugo Ball, F. T. Marinetti, André Breton, et al in dada, Futurism, and Surrealism respectively. For example, I think that a meal at Alinea is not accidentally related to a meal with F. T. Marinetti, the father of the Futurism movement and the writer of a cookbook of the same name: though there may not be direct parallels (though my chat with Will Goldfarb at the now defunct Room 4 Dessert would suggest there are), the desire to challenge the consumer of art at a Futurist event bears some resemblance to the desire to challenge the consumer of food at Alinea.

That's context for heightsgtltd's point above, a point that was echoed by at least three other people who have eaten at Alinea. Don't get me wrong: my meal there was the best I've ever had. But I'm also able to enjoy a challenging aesthetic experience that leaves me exhilirated, exhausted, and "full" on every level. Others have stated that, while Alinea was an experience they'd never want to replace, they don't really feel that they gained any enjoyment in a classic sense. They meant classic in a good way, of course; they didn't spit it out the way Breton would have done. :wink:

I had dinner at Oleana a few days ago, Ana Sortun's fantastic restaurant in Cambridge MA. As I was polishing off a hefty scoop of salted caramel ice cream with a friend, I thought about the difference between the utterly pleasurable meal we were having at Oleana and our meals at Alinea. Her point was that we had enjoyed our lamb steak and crispy duck skin in a way that she hadn't enjoyed Alinea a few weeks earlier. Nothing wrong with a challenging avant garde meal, she argued, but at some level it's just not as pleasurable and satisfying as a meal such as this.

False consciousness? Differences in taste? Retrograde embrace of pre-21st century approaches to food? I can't quite tell myself, having licked up the sauce on plates at both Alinea and Oleana.

What do you think?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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This is one of those questions that will never be "answered", but can be debated forever.

"Debated" may not even be the correct term.

It's all a matter of mood and personal taste in regard to what gives one pleasure at any given moment.

Sometimes you just want a hamburger.

Sometimes you want something that tastes like meat, served in a shot glass with tomato "caviar" and lettuce "foam". :raz:

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I agree that it's a question that can't be settled, but I'm happy to debate it forever because I feel so strongly that challenging meals can be incredibly pleasurable for those willing to rise to the challenge.

The thing to bear in mind about Alinea and its ilk is that the chefs are very much focused on hedonistic pleasure. They're not nihilists or perverse postmodernists trying to prove a point like "all taste is subjective therefore we're going to serve dog shit to make that point." They do challenge the diner but all in the context of a pleasurable outcome.

However, as with opera or any other advanced art form, the overwhelming majority of people can't just walk into Alinea with no background and enjoy it -- though some people can. But for the most part it's something you build up to over a lifetime of eating. And for some people, it never clicks, which is fine. There are plenty of people who know a whole heck of a lot about music but just aren't into opera. Nothing wrong with that, but when those people say "Opera is just not enjoyable" I think they overreach. It's not enjoyable to them, is what they mean.

I found my meal at Alinea (as well as meals at many other restaurants in the vanguard of culinary creativity) to be absolutely first rate and enjoyable in every way. But it did require letting go of preconceptions and giving oneself over to the experience.

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)

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For me, it's all very simple:

If the food tastes good, I'm game. If it doesn't, all bets are off.

Outside of that, I'll accept a lot of differences to classic dining, be it utensils, comfort levels, etc. The reason I liked Alinea had little to do with gimmicks or any other thing, the food just tasted great to me.

What I don't understand is why people feel so compelled to argue the superiority or otherwise of "classic" restaurants and the more modern equivalent. You prefer one over the other, great. If I hear "the Emperor's new clothes" line again, I might just scream.

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What does that mean? Is dinner supposed to be unthrilling and unfun?

No, just that it's more accurate to compare a meal like this to a ride, to an experience, than to a simple meal. It's about the journey as much as the destination. I have to admit that I've not deconstructed the sentiment much, as it's just made intuitive sense to me...

From the Minibar thread

Probably the best way to think a meal like this is more like a carnival ride than an actual meal.  It's fast: 33 dishes in two and a half hours means only five minutes between dishes.  Some dishes are designed to be weird or surprising.  Others are just designed to be different.  Many reviews of this place don't bother listing the different dishes, writing more about the highlights of the experience.  I think it's worth listing the dishes, because that's how to describe the ride.  But because it's a ride, I took few notes.  Assume I liked whatever it is unless I say otherwise.

Tammy's Tastings

Creating unique food and drink experiences

eGullet Foodblogs #1 and #2
Dinner for 40

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I agree that it's a question that can't be settled, but I'm happy to debate it forever because I feel so strongly that challenging meals can be incredibly pleasurable for those willing to rise to the challenge.

. . .

Wow. That's pretty much the same attitude some over in the Alinea topic are accusing heightsgtltd of having, except it's with regards to an opposing opinion.

The only answer to the question "Are 'challenging' restaurants pleasurable?" can be "It depends on the person." What's the point of debating that?

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Are you saying that, if people disagree about something, there's no reason to debate it? That position would tend to undermine the reason for debating anything, ever. And I'm not really sure what you're comparing to what. Maybe some direct quotes would be helpful, demonstrating the similarities you think you see.

I think when it comes to dining at the cutting edge, there's a substantial and credible group of food-knowledgeable people who find it thrilling. And, to me, that means it's incumbent upon members of that group to try to explain why they feel that way. Or should those who believed in impressionism, jazz and other cutting-edge movements have just kept their mouths shut and said, oh well, some people like it and some people don't? It depends on the person. So we'll just give up and look at this kind of art or listen to this kind of music, but we won't try to champion it or explain it.

The fact of the matter is that we are in the midst of a creative revolution in gastronomy, and as with creative revolutions in all art-forms it needs explanation, elaboration and, most of all, it needs to be defended by those who believe in it. Because it most certainly is under attack.

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)

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I don't understand how a meal can be challenging.

A meal can challenge your expectations about what something "should" taste, look, or feel like, for example. An item that usually is considered to be savory is prepared in a sweet form to bring out unexpected resonances in that food, or an ingredient is prepared to look like something it's not. In so doing, such a meal causes you to reflect not only on the food but also on your expectations for food, taste, and pleasure.

Of course, a lot of these challenges are present in other foods but we don't notice them. The temperature juxtaposition of Alinea's hot potato/cold potato dish is similar to a hot fudge sundae, to take one of many examples.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I don't understand how a meal can be challenging.

I guess as a reference point I'd ask whether you'd say the same thing about music, painting and other art forms. Assuming you'd say there is such a thing as a challenging opera performance or a challenging painting then I don't think it's such a big leap to the concept of a challenging meal. The chefs at the cutting edge right now are essentially performing artists (as well as creative artists), and a meal in a restaurant like Alinea or elBulli is a performance. To the extent eating that meal involves more effort than, say, eating a bowl of ice cream or eating foods on the familiar spectrum, with familiar utensils, traditional service, etc., it can be challenging.

There are plenty of example of challenging food in traditional cuisines, and indeed most acquired tastes are challenging at first. Capsicum pepper, for example. But because these tastes have been acquired at a glacial pace over generations they're only seen as acquired tastes by children, foreigners and the like. Whereas, when you have a challenging meal at the creative forefront of gastronomy, you may be asked to encounter a couple of dozen new flavor, texture and temperature combinations in a single sitting. That can be challenging, yet I find it enjoyable.

Now the other way to come at it is to say, no, food shouldn't be art and, moreover, all meals should be and taste basically like other meals we've had -- they shouldn't be challenging. I think that gets back to the whole food-as-art debate, which this discussion can't really happen without.

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)

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I think when it comes to dining at the cutting edge, there's a substantial and credible group of food-knowledgeable people who find it thrilling. And, to me, that means it's incumbent upon members of that group to try to explain why they feel that way. Or should those who believed in impressionism, jazz and other cutting-edge movements have just kept their mouths shut and said, oh well, some people like it and some people don't? It depends on the person. So we'll just give up and look at this kind of art or listen to this kind of music, but we won't try to champion it or explain it.

It's one thing to debate facts. In regard to food, beauty, art......it's all subjective; in the eye of the beholder. If something doesn't appeal to someone or taste good to someone, then there's no amount of explaining that is going to change their mind about it.

If someone has a great dining experience, and wants to share it, that's great....nothing wrong with that.

Do you really think movements like impressionism, surrealism, jazz, etc, gained momentum because people were out there explaining it? I doubt it. They survived and flourished on their

own merits. Enough people were drawn to it, and these art forms are still practiced today.

In regard to food trends/movements......all I can say is get it out there.....let people try it. They'll come up with their own conclusions based on their personal taste. When it comes to things subjective as this, it's undebatable.....there are no facts, just opinions.

Molecular Gastronomy just might really take off if there's enough chefs interested in the concept to risk the investment and market it wisely. I know that I would LOVE to experience that kind of dining. I also know we live in a world where people gravitate toward the old and familiar, so it could be a hard sell. I believe that time, exposure, marketing, and the masses will determine the success/failure of any particular trend.

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Do you really think movements like impressionism, surrealism, jazz, etc, gained momentum because people were out there explaining it?

Absolutely. I'm not aware of anybody who has studied the subject who would dispute, for example, the importance of art critics in spreading the word about impressionism (and in resisting it).

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)

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It's quite well-established that criticism, buzz, the academy PR, "the street," the media, et al contribute mightily to our sense of what these challenges are and mean, and they have for some time. Many of the aesthetic movements that we now "remember" were helmed by savvy self-promoters who knew how to create interpretations around their art that stuck.

The same is true for many of these challenging restaurants. After all, save for chains and the odd "that place looks interesting," there's gotta be some non-experiential reason that diners make choices to go to one place and not another for the first time. And expectations matter: imagine if you pulled into a friendly little diner off a state highway and were told you could eat the menu as an app.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I think part of the reason debates about restaurants like Alinea don't go anywhere is that each person has a different matrix of assumptions that can sometimes be difficult to unpack. One could have various assumption sets along the lines of:

A. I completely reject the notion that food can or should be challenging. Alinea is challenging. Therefore it's bad.

B. I love challenging food and dining experiences. I embrace the notion of food as experimental, cutting-edge art. As a reference point, I love elBulli, Moto and WD-50. I just happen to think Alinea doesn't do a good job.

Both of those people don't like Alinea, but there's a different conversation to be had with each of them. And if you try to have conversation B with person A, it's going to be like talking to a wall.

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)

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The analogy between arts is a useful one. Everybody interprets human communication and it can be challenging to a greater or lesser degree in the course of a day. When something that we do everyday like communicating becomes art, I think that there is an element of challenge built in (the goal switches from conveying information in a straightforward manner to provoking thought). Also, most of the great artists that I can think of broke from tradition in many respects. They didn't leave tradition behind, they just went off in a new direction that followed from that tradition, interpreting it according to a new cultural context. I think the same can be said of Alinea, for instance.

Take Joyce's Ulysses for example. Most people cannot read this and enjoy it much without some kind of guidance (such as a professor, a guidebook, or a deep knowledge of the tradition from which it evolved). Ulysses takes the element of challenge and uses it for effect--I think the same can be said of challenging cuisine.

Cuisine and dining are of course different than literature. Their histories as art are totally different. But if literature can be both very challenging and very pleasurable, why can't food?

nunc est bibendum...

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There's a theory that what makes music enjoyable is the right mix of predictablility and surprise.

Melodic patterns, familiar chord progressions, familiar forms, and familiar chord/note relationships set up expectations for what's coming next. Music that you like satisfies these expectations enough to be comforting, and surprises you enough to be interesting.

The catch is that this mix is going to be different for everyone. A little kid who hasn't heard much music can revel in the simplest patterns repeated over and over. Barney singing "I love you" in major triads, while the parents start looking for the most potent bottle of pills to swallow. At the other end of the scale is a musical sophisticate ... like a composer or a jazz musician who's studied most popular traditions until they sound predictable and even boring. They'll like some music might sound like random noise to me; I wouldn't grasp the pattern so nothing would be predictable. And with nothing predicted there can be no surprise.

Food strikes me as similar. The most enjoyable dishes have some mix of predictability and surprise. Comfort food (whatever your version of it might be) leans heavily on the predictable. Avante garde food leans heavily on the surprise. Whether or not the food goes so far into the realm of suprise that it just seems ungrounded and random depends on the context that you bring with you to the table.

Guys like Achatz and Adria are probably riffing in subtle ways on existing traditions (some of which might be fairly sophisticated themeselves). You'll probably like a dish best when you can grasp where it came from, but be surprised and delighted by where it takes you. It seems t me like a delicate act to pull off; customers are going range from pizza-eating brooklynites like me to chefs who crossed an ocean to sample the new ideas. I don't know how you can create a peak experience for everyone.

Notes from the underbelly

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Are you saying that, if people disagree about something, there's no reason to debate it? That position would tend to undermine the reason for debating anything, ever.

If the original question posed were "Can food be challenging?" then there is certainly a debate to be had. However, the question is "Are challenging restaurants pleasurable?" You really want to "debate" a subjective experience? A "debate" implies one person will be found "right" and the other "wrong". The likes and dislikes of individuals can certainly be discussed, and opinions can be given, but to attempt to "debate" someone's experience smacks of arrogance. How can anyone possibly tell me the way I experience something is "wrong"?

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So if someone says "Impressionism is crap, and if you try to convince me it's worth liking you're arrogant," we should just all fold up our tents and go home because there's nothing left to discuss? I think not. I think someone who thinks impressionism is crap may very well just need to be educated. Is it arrogant to offer art-history classes to students? In many fields -- art, music -- society agrees on the need to teach taste; we don't just throw up our hands and say "In matters of taste there's no dispute." Needless to say, there are probably some highly educated, art-knowledgeable people out there who hate impressionism. That's person B from my example above. At that point, sure, I think it's probably time to agree to disagree with that person. But in my experience a lot of people who dismiss culinary creativity as too "weird" do so as a result of unfamiliarity with the subject matter and not as the result of any sort of informed opinion. I know quite a few people who had dismissive attitudes but were converted by a meal at Alinea or elBulli. And I know a few who weren't.

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)

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So if someone says "Impressionism is crap, and if you try to convince me it's worth liking you're arrogant," we should just all fold up our tents and go home because there's nothing left to discuss? I think not. I think someone who thinks impressionism is crap may very well just need to be educated. Is it arrogant to offer art-history classes to students? In many fields -- art, music -- society agrees on the need to teach taste; we don't just throw up our hands and say "In matters of taste there's no dispute." Needless to say, there are probably some highly educated, art-knowledgeable people out there who hate impressionism. That's person B from my example above. At that point, sure, I think it's probably time to agree to disagree with that person. But in my experience a lot of people who dismiss culinary creativity as too "weird" do so as a result of unfamiliarity with the subject matter and not as the result of any sort of informed opinion. I know quite a few people who had dismissive attitudes but were converted by a meal at Alinea or elBulli. And I know a few who weren't.

Again, the question was not "Can food be challenging" but "Is challenging food pleasurable?"

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One thing that discussion and education such as art history courses provide is context. I know that my understanding and therefore appreciation for various schools of art increased tremendously after I took a course in art history in college because I was able to put someone like Jackson Pollock or the Impressionists in context. The same applies to food and dining. What puts a challenging meal above and beyond are all the contextual references that go along with the meal. One will enjoy them most with an open mind and some ability to put them into context. The more one is familiar with Catalan cooking and the recent history of western culinary tradition (since Escoffier), the more one can appreciate the cooking of elBulli. It is not that that cooking reproduces those traditions. It does, however, use those traditions as well as other s from the pantheon of world cuisine (especially Japanese) to come up with a cuisine that is on some levels familiar, but in others startlingly new.

Whether one is into being challenged depends a lot on how receptive one is to creativity for its own sake. That is not to say that creativity alone makes for a successful meal, but that creativity is in itself an important element in a successful meal. The food must still be enjoyable, but is the meal heightened or reduced for an individual because of the creative element. Some people are simply turned off by the unfamiliar and don't give it a chance. Some creativity simply isn't good or useful to an individual regardless of context. Other examples of creativity resonate with a more widespread audience.

I happen to love creativity when it resonates with me. To me that is the added element that makes a meal stand out. Of course, more traditional meals also can stand out to me when particularly well executed. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. A delicious meal that is also creative feeds my mind as well as my soul.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Again, the question was not "Can food be challenging" but "Is challenging food pleasurable?"

But we know food can be challenging. I'm not suggesting that's the debate, because to me that's an obvious statement. The question of whether it's pleasurable, however, is one that offers fertile ground for discussion and debate.

Sure, I totally get that in the final analysis if a person says, "Well, it's just not pleasurable to me," there's not much that can be done about that. But that doesn't mean there's no discussion to be had.

This whole question of "is it pleasurable?" is wrapped up in questions like "is it beautiful?" "does it taste good?" and "does it have merit?" I guess someone could say "It's beautiful, delicious and has merit but still I take no pleasure in it," but that would be kind of weird. So if you look at this question of "pleasurable" and you ask what people mean when they say pleasurable you can discuss all the components of that.

In any art-form, it's possible to have discussion and debate about the artistic merits of a given work or style. Few people would suggest that there's no reasonable grounds for debate about the artistic merit of impressionist works, yet plenty of people are willing to make that claim with regard to food. Which makes no sense.

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)

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