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Ptipois

Self-conscious, narcissistic, egotistic cooking in France

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April 12th, 2009, Ptipois said on the topic on the economy in France:

…..this may well be the end (my friend) of "cuisine narcissique" (quoting my friend Julot on this), self-conscious cooking.
Ptipois - I am not sure what you (and Julot) mean by "self-conscious cooking".  Could you explain and perhaps give me an example or two?

Self-centered chef cooking, narcissistic cooking, cooking aimed at the chef's self-expression rather than feeding the customers in a generous, sensuous, unselfish way, what is referred to in French as "faire à manger".

While "faire à manger" is an outward movement from the source of the cooking to the eater, "cuisine narcissique" is an inward movement, a reality that is often blurred by the admirers of the chef who value "innovation" and "creativity" over taste, and maintain the illusion that they are really satisfied for sensorial reasons, when in fact it is more a matter of being part of a cultural elite.

Although at first sight this might be a case of the old traditional-contemporary dichotomy, actually it is not defined by style but by spirit. For instance, Cyril Lignac's (or whomever he puts in his kitchen) cooking at Le Chardenoux is self-conscious and narcissistic because its main motivation is to show the chef in a certain light.

While, to take a very eloquent counterexample, the cooking of Inaki Aizpitarte, IMO, is quite the opposite of narcissistic, it is very brilliant and inspired "real" food, as is the cooking of Ferran Adria.

So the line isn't drawn between contemporary and traditional, altough the narcissistic streak is more often associated with contemporary chefs and a certain "assemblage"-style cooking of which Bras' gargouillou is the archetype.

The most eloquent example of narcissistic cooking I can think of right now is Sa.qua.na.

One frequent feature of narcissistic cooking is the serving of dishes inspired by Asian (generally Thai or Japanese) techniques in a sligthly show-offy way that makes diners say oohs and aahs as they used to do for flambé dishes 40 years ago, when the corresponding dishes in Japan or Thailand are just correctly balanced everyday food.

Beware — I do not mean to say that Alexandre Bourdas is a narcissistic person, only that he works in a style that can be described as such. It can be good, too. But before being good, it is self-conscious.


Edited by John Talbott (log)

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I would add that in self conscious, narcissistic cooking, Narcisse is not only the cook or the restaurant team, it may as well be the client who value the restaurant as a reflection of himself rather than a direct source of pleasure (reflection being an indirect one).

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Having been educated in the obviously less nuanced Anglo-Saxon tradition, I must admit that I am struggling with your definition of "cuisine narcissique."

From your posts above, the dichotomy between "cuisine narcissique" and "faire a manger" is not just in the style of the chef, but also (and very much so) in the eye / palate of the beholder / diner.

Ptipois, I will quote you here: "'cuisine narcissique' is an inward movement, a reality that is often blurred by the admirers of the chef who value 'innovation' and 'creativity' over taste, and maintain the illusion that they are really satisfied for sensorial reasons, when in fact it is more a matter of being part of a cultural elite." Julien supports you in his subsequent post: "I would add that in self-conscious, narcissistic cooking, Narcisse is not only the cook or the restaurant team, it may as well be the client who value the restaurant as a reflection of himself rather than a direct source of pleasure (reflection being an indirect one)."

So in great measure, it is the perception of the diner, who deludes himself as to his satisfaction and sees the place he dines in as a reflection of himself. But whatever happened to the ultimate subjectivity of the dining experience? If a meal pleases me but it does not please you, does your definition not depend on how you react? If you exalt the food to the high heavens because it makes you look cool to say so, then the cuisine is narcissistic and you are complicit in this. But who are we to say whether the clientele as a whole praise the food because they like it or merely because they are faking? This raises two further issues:

a) What if the chef was merely trying to do something different to mark out his own style - is this narcissistic in itself because he dared to proclaim his personality in his cooking and people praise him for it? Perhaps it was a business decision to distinguish himself from the crowd or perhaps learning to find some self-expression, and not the inward self-elevation that you denigrate?

b) What about me - if I seriously enjoy this meal because it has pleased me? Do I then become an admirer of the "cuisine narcissique" and marked out accordingly? Or am I the ultimate sophisticated diner because I trust my palate and proclaim this place to be worthy, notwithstanding what everyone else says? The flipside to this is that denigrating the cooking of a narcissist does not make you the ultimate sophisticated diner merely because you had the guts to voice a dissenting opinion.

My second point is this: why can't "feeding customers in a generous, sensuous, unselfish way" be to show the chef in a certain light? Could this not be a "self-conscious" decision to express himself or worst still, have their admirers picture them in that light? Of those chefs who say "f*ck you" to Michelin and strike out on their own path, to feed customers "in a generous, sensuous, unselfish way", may that not be their deliberate, fully-informed and self-conscious attempt to portray themselves as the champions of a generous cuisine without any apparent aspirations, as opposed to an attempt to please the customer by making love to a large cote de boeuf? Or does the "certain light" have to be of a certain shade?

To illustrate this, let me say as a general trend that "fine dining" in my hometown of Sydney has been, they say, dying a slow painful death since the recession of the late-80s/early 90s (yeah, we are a little slow on the uptake). As people downsize from the plush old restaurants of yesteryear, their custom now goes to casual bistrot-inspired places which worship at the altar of sweetbreads and pig's ears, and more recently, bloody tapas joints. We have many chefs / cooks / serfs serving lots of tapas, which by all accounts are casual and non-pretentious, but in pretentious spaces and pretentious areas. Is there any narcissism now? These chefs (invariably young, heavily-inked and pierced to keep up the image) are lapping up the love from the public and the media because they are serving grazing plates at $12 a pop and serving wine by the glass to hot young things wearing nary a thread, whereas the haute cuisiniers are struggling to keep a main course under $55. But you cannot criticise the cooking, because it is traditional.

In these times, it is fashionable to "downsize", as much as it has become unfashionable to start a business lunch with almas caviar. So doesn't your definition rely greatly on the times we live in, and what could be perceived as being fashionable or worthy of attention? In this manner, the cooking of what you describe as "generous, sensuous, unselfish" may ironically now be fashionable and self-conscious, as your definition relies so much on the intention of the chef and the perception of the diner.

To conclude, I note Ptipois' observation above: "One frequent feature of narcissistic cooking is the serving of dishes inspired by Asian (generally Thai or Japanese) techniques in a slightly show-offy way that makes diners say oohs and aahs as they used to do for flambé dishes 40 years ago, when the corresponding dishes in Japan or Thailand are just correctly balanced everyday food." I don't know about this, but could it be because the "correctly balanced everyday food" which is commonplace in Japan and Thailand is not available in France or wherever we are discussing? I doubt Australia would be too much different in that quality "ethnic" food is still restricted to a few enclaves, and the emergence of such places (classic technique but in trendy or modern surrounds with "Western" plating) in atypical areas is still a cause for minor celebration. Perhaps the "oohs and aahs" are reserved for this, and not the fact that the cooking or its admirers is narcissistic.


Julian's Eating - Tales of Food and Drink

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I am aware that pointing out to the existence of this narcissistic trend is bound to raise controversy and urge some to discuss it frenetically as if it were a theory, doubled with an attack on persons. But is is not a theory, and not an attack either; it is a search criteria based on a very simple, instinctive perception of food.

It is not aimed at dismissing certain chefs and diners or at creating yet another new excommunication bureau (narcissistic does not mean bad food, and again it describes an approach, not persons), but at setting a few concepts right, which have been mysteriously overlooked in the general food discourse for a few years. And that Julot and I have been discussing recently in the light of many meals we have had.

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I am aware that pointing out to the existence of this narcissistic trend is bound to raise controversy and urge some to discuss it frenetically as if it were a theory, doubled with an attack on persons. But is is not a theory, and not an attack either; it is a search criteria based on a very simple, instinctive perception of food.

It is not aimed at dismissing certain chefs and diners or at creating yet another new excommunication bureau (narcissistic does not mean bad food, and again it describes an approach, not persons), but at setting a few concepts right, which have been mysteriously overlooked in the general food discourse for a few years.  And that Julot and I have been discussing recently in the light of many meals we have had.

We should perhaps come up with a less pejorative word than narcissistic. What we're talking about is an artist's ability to set his own agenda, a revolutionary achievement usually credited to Beethoven and the rise of romanticism. In other words, the artist/chef ceases to be a servant and becomes a priest, culminating in the elevation of Adria and Blumenthal to mythical status.

None of the above is tended to be dismissive but rather descriptive. My wife and I quite enjoyed Blumenthal's recent TV series of quasi-historical feasts and, unlike John Cage, I'm rather fond of Beethoven :biggrin:


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Ptipois,

Thanks for the clarification but I do not think you can say, based on your and Julot's opinions expressed thus far, that it is not an attack or that it is not meant to attach some stigma to those so termed.

When you say someone's food may be good, but "before being good, it is self-conscious", I would take that as being critical. When you talk of diners who fake satisfaction to exalt their golden calf or to pretend membership to a cultural elite, I would also take that as being critical. As John Whiting has pointed out, terming someone or someone's craft as "narcissistic" has negative connotations, and is therefore being critical.

Mind you, I do not take what you have said as criticism personally, in the same way that I am not attacking you or Julot in this; I have the utmost respect for your opinions and as fellow members here. However, I am a little perturbed that this term is being thrown around, regardless of whether there is intent to criticise or not. The fact that it relies merely on "simple, instinctive perception of food" compounds this because different people have different instinctive reactions. In short, there is no objective criteria for identification of a narcissist, only the subjective view of the beholder.

John, why stop the elevation at priesthood? Let's go all the way and make them divinities.


Julian's Eating - Tales of Food and Drink

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I do not know how Julot will respond on that, but I am a bit surprised at how quick a passionate individual response my rather abstract, general and unemotional answer to Robyn's questions provoked, and how instantly it has taken the debate on the personal level, where I do not wish to follow it. I must say that I do not understand the reactions, and think they are a bit disproportionate and are taking the debate astray.

"Narcissistic" is not a mean word, folks. Bear with it. I stand by it because it describes very accurately the trend we're referring to.

Going back to the topic, I was mentioning the narcissistic trend in cooking in regard to the economy, to say that perhaps the current "crisis" might weaken that trend, or encourage more examples of more down-to-earth, purely culinary trends. But for philosophical reasons, not necessarily for economical reasons. The financial shock is, indirectly, inducing changes in the way people think and in their priorities.


Edited by Ptipois (log)

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"Narcissistic" is not a mean word, folks. Bear with it. I stand by it because it describes very accurately the trend we're referring to.

I think I understand your concept of but you have chosen a label that has a lot of negative connotations and therefore the label gets in the way of the argument. Here is an extract from Wikipedia:

"In psychology and psychiatry, excessive narcissism is recognized as a severe personality dysfunction or personality disorder. The terms narcissism, narcissistic, and narcissist are often used as pejoratives, denoting vanity, conceit, egotism or simple selfishness. Applied to a social group, it is sometimes used to denote elitism or an indifference to the plight of others."

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I was expecting the Wikipedia reply to turn up sooner or later but I do not consider it a valid argument.

It refers to a medical context and thus distracts us from the topic. Narcissism as a term is not solely used in a strong, patronizing way and restricted to a stern psychiatrical use. It is used every day to describe benign, ordinary behaviours, sometimes annoying, sometimes just a bit amusing, sometimes just characteristic of a trend. Sometimes it may only be a style of expression. One should perhaps not let the play on words stray too far but stay focused in the context.

Not stumble on the term, but take into account the words that surrounded it, i.e. the whole post.

These days it has become impossible to use ordinary words without being morally sued in a "procès d'intention". Although we are surrounded by that kind of verbal dictatorship (as we are by narcissism and other things too), I do not accept that way of relating to the verbal word. So enough splitting hairs for now, and I will resume the discussion with those who have really understood the simple, dispassionate, impersonal meaning of "narcissistic" in the ideas we are trying to convey.


Edited by Ptipois (log)

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I'm fine with being pejorative about narcissistic food. To name but a few and in no particular order, Bourdas, Bras, Passard, Grébaut, Erfort, Alléno, Piège make food that I find frustrating and insincere, led by the will to be fancy, in, different. What I'm saying is that this approach has a difference of nature with more substantial and traditional fine dining because it relies on indirect, socially recognized pleasure as opposed to being enjoyable by and for itself because it has "something to say".

Julian, you raised the issue of subjectivity. Let me say at first that I think that subjectivity is vastly overrated, in particular the so-called different tastes. Yes, people have minor differences in appreciations, and also different backgrounds and addictions or allergies, but in essence, a well made dish is a well made dish and I don't think it is a matter of personal preference. There is a technical objectivity, a universalism to what good food is, which does not rule out dissent or novelty.

Now, I am not in favour of raising a new tax on narcisissistic cuisine and their clients. If people enjoy it, that is fine by me, and good for Bras that he is praised and his restaurant is full. What I am saying however, is that as ostentatious spending and attitudes retreat, as people focus on, if you'd like, "values", the most vain of these cooks and restaurants might be in trouble.

Another misunderstanding I would like to clarify is that the mere fact that a cooking requires some sort of culture to be appreciated doesn't make it narcissistic or vain. It's actually the case with all food. So when I talk about a cooking that is objectively appreciable, that stands by itself, it is not in reference to anybody's random immediate experience. Which bring me back to my earlier about subjectivity being mostly crap. (Hey, I'm not the one who brought metaphysics in this discussion!)

Maybe we should make a spin-off topic about that newly introduced notion of "narcissictic" cooking. At the same time, I'm against a separate topic as I was hoping to launch that debate with a full blog post that isn't ready yet. now I have to hurry and finish it.

For that, I blame Pti!

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Maybe we should make a spin-off topic about that newly introduced notion of "narcissictic" cooking. At the same time, I'm against a separate topic as I was hoping to launch that debate with a full blog post that isn't ready yet. now I have to hurry and finish it.

For that, I blame Pti!

Yeah, that's right Julot, blame me for putting you to work! :biggrin:

As for the rest of your post: I couldn't have put it better.

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Hummmmmm....

Would egoistic food settle the debate?

I for one certainly find that many of the Chef's referred to have enormous ego's. Which get expressed in some pretty weird concoctions.

I, personally, have no quarrel with narcissistic, but it does it seems to me have a rather personal connotation. Pleasing one's self.

Egoistic to me implies that I know better than anybody else - including my customers.

What do you think?

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As I would expect from its roots in Greek mythology, I have never encountered "narcissistic" in any usage other than the pejorative. Within the context of this thread, there are roughly two categories of restaurant diners: those who expect the familiar and those who demand surprises. At their extremes, the former will happily order the ame old dishes in the same old bistros; the latter will plan their visits to El Bulli a year in advance. Individuals may sometimes shift from one category to the other, but the more dogmatic in either camp constantly heap scorn upon each other.

I like an occasional surprise, but on the whole I tend to go along with Jane Grigson's shrewd remark: "We have more than enough masterpieces; what we need is a better standard of ordinariness."


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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John, I'm not sure if this remark is meant to apply to the discusison about "narcissistic" (in which case I would strongly disagree).

"Narcissistic" always had a pejorative usage in literature but grew as a clinical description during the 20th century.

Let me put it this way: for the longest time, cooking has been about techniques and recipes. You can see the memory of that with chefs such as Rostang, Bocuse or Besson: it is their skills that make their quality, it's about what is done with the ingredients. Of course good ingredients are required but as a condition, not as a star of the show.

Then, possibly with nouvelle cuisine, emerged an ingredient-center cooking: it's not that techniques are not important, but they aim at putting exceptional ingredients forward. Senderens, Loiseau, Chapel, are prime examples of that.

Some chefs, like Robuchon, clearly have one foot in each category.

Now what I call narcissistic cooking is a kind of cuisine where what we admire, what sets it apart, is not the technique or the ingredients, although both can be pretty good. But the star of the show is the story that is told, about the chef, sometimes about the diners. Gagnaire I think is a case in point. Neither the ingredients nor the techniques are what sets his cuisine apart. What does is the way it expresses Gagnaire's personality. The narcissistic schoole of cokoing is fundamentally different from the first two schools in that it does not point to the food as such.

Those three qualifications are in no way a comprehensive partition of chefs. Savoy fits in none. Robuchon is both ingredients and techniques. Passard is clearly ingredients and narcisse (it's not that his techniques are not exceptional, but that they aim at putting forward the ingredient and the chef).

And, despite the historical description I gave, it is in no way a historical evolution. I don't think that Adria, since John mentions it, is in no way narcissistic. Veyrat also not, despite his big mouth. And Piège, whose cooking is fundamentally old school, is narcissistic big time.

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All this discussion of narcissistic cheffing is a thin layer of froth on top of the massive substructure, which is the daily cooking and eating of real food. When the weather gets stormy, the froth blows away.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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