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The Failure of Haute Cuisine


Steve Plotnicki
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Let me say that one of the things I enjoy when I get to France, is that I am in France. I'm not so fond of the idea that they learn from us even when we've got a good idea.

Bux - Well my question didn't pose that France should stop doing what they do well, it asked why they haven't created a new category in between very casual and very formal?

Craig - Well of course I am making a gross generalization but, in general :wink:, what I said is true. Infused with herbsis not the same as turned into a proper sauce. And I just gave the most casual example of a French-style sauce. Once you get to the high end restaurants the spread between the cooking strategies gets wider.

Robert - Whi is SNG and did I miss something in this thread? And what is this special contributor business?

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Steve P.,

I understand you didn't say the French should stop doing what they do well. I'm just saying that sometimes when I travel it's nice to be someplace different even if they are wrong or making mistakes and neither of us siad they are either. From my point of view, may it's the French who live there full time that should be complaining about the lack of casual upscale restaurants, but I suppose they won't because as others point out, they seem to enjoy downscale casual places and even downscale formal dumps. I can recall a good number of seedy rooms with mediocre food and ill fitting formal clothes on less than regal specimens of waiters. So they have the category in between casual and formal, they just have it backwards by our standard.

:biggrin:

I think the French have a very different esthetic about dining and will not be like us for a while at least, but in some ways I see change. Although the food is very different, l'Astrance and Blue Hill are not unsimilar. Do either of these seem on target for your point?

It appears Robert has copied and reposted an earlier message of his that he feels is topical to this thread.

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.

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This difference in strategy is where I think Italian usually falls short when being compared.

I was just casually browsing this thread when Steve's comment caught my eye.

It is of course a matter of opinion, not an absolute judgement, whether the use of pan juices compares with the enrichment of butter as being "better" or "less good". Were it possible to discern such a hierarchy among cuisines worldwide, the method for doing so, and the outcome, would merit considerable discussion indeed.

Sorry to butt in.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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Well I did say "I think" didn't I? But in general "I think" there is something to it. If natural juices that were infused with herbs were so great, nobody would have tried to "improve" them with butter etc. would they? This type of issue came up recently on that Sichuan food thread when someone asked if Sichuan cuisine could be as refined as Cantonese? And I believe it was Ruth who said that the oil based Sichuan cooking will always make the cuisine seem coarse and that is why it isn't as elegant and refined as other Chinese cuisines. Same general principal.

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If natural juices that were infused with herbs were so great, nobody would have tried to "improve" them with butter etc. would they? This type of issue came up recently on that Sichuan food thread when someone asked if Sichuan cuisine could be as refined as Cantonese? And I believe it was Ruth who said that the oil based Sichuan cooking will always make the cuisine seem coarse and that is why it isn't as elegant and refined as other Chinese cuisines. Same general principal.

There is no reason that the conception of a butter enrichment, to use the present example, confers inferior status (ie, something "less good") on pan juices. It would be reasonable to direct the conversation towards ideas of refinement and elegance without carrying into it the mistaken preconceived notion that simple and coarse mean the same thing, which they do not.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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Well that's not the debate. The debate is pan juices versus enriched pan juices. It doesn't matter what they are enriched with. Butter, wine, demi-glace, stock, etc. No one is doubting that natural pan juices can't be delicious. But the proffer is that enriched pan juices are generally more refined because that is the purpose of adding the additional ingredients to the natural juices.

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Magnolia - You must have had a fancy aunt.

That sounds like something a rich uncle would keep on the side. I can hear the mutterings in the kitchen about someone's brother-in-law's "fancy aunt" as if the kids would not understand. I wonder how old one would have to be to understand that one didn't take a "fancy lady" to Schraffts. :laugh:

Well come to think of it, she dressed up - hat, fur, gloves - for everything, including an outing to the also now defunct grocery shop across from her building (ironically named Gentiles! though I'm sure the real pronunciation was originally 'gen-TEE-lays' ) ! So maybe I just associate her dressing up for Schraffts with the fact that it happens to be Schraffts that we frequented together. Wonder how she might have dressed for that French place 'Le Viand' :biggrin: .

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Well that's not the debate. The debate is pan juices versus enriched pan juices. It doesn't matter what they are enriched with. Butter, wine, demi-glace, stock, etc. No one is doubting that natural pan juices can't be delicious. But the proffer is that enriched pan juices are generally more refined because that is the purpose of adding the additional ingredients to the natural juices.

Without wanting to imply support for either side, I'd buy that use of refinement if we noted that it was being used as in refined white flour or refined sugar. Refinement being the result of being made more complex. Sangria is more refined than plain red wine would be an example.

There is no debate. There is no "versus". The definition of refinement provides support for a reductive, as well as an enhanced, methodology.

That would seem to make sense. Although my personal taste would lead me to prefer one way over the other, there's no evidence my taste couldn't evolve to the point where I could appreciate the other over the one I currently favor. The nuances between cusines can often be compared on a scale, but just as often (more often?) they cannot. I might prefer jamon pata negra to prosciutto, but I can't compare either to an andouille de Guemene.

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.

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Assuming for the purposes of argument that there were no "upper middle" level in Paris, could that be because there is no need for one?

The food at the "upper" level in Paris could be so pleasing that discriminating diners who frequent *certain* of the "upper middle" restaurants in NY would clearly choose the "upper level" in Paris. Certain diners might believe that the purported "upper level" in New York is not uniformly good (even by lower NY standards) and might therefore have a subjective preference, within NY restaurants, for certain restaurants in both the "upper middle" and "upper" categories. This is a source of demand in NY with respect to "upper middle" that has therefore no counterpart in Paris. (I appreciate we might be speaking of a small-ish dining segment here.)

Edited by cabrales (log)
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To decide one cuisine is superior makes you look at that favored cuisine with a positive attitude while automatically seeking to find the faults of other cuisines that we have declared somehow inferior. This creates a situation of self-fulfilled prophesies.

This is to me not only a pointless exercise but one that deprives individuals of the true enjoyment and experience of different viewpoints. It is the experience of these differences that make dining and cooking an activity worthy of forums such as these.

When I eat at an excellent restaurant, wherever it is, I still meet the food presented with a sense of excitement and even wide-eyed innocence at what these talented and hard working individuals strive to create. I do not care if I am in Italy, France, Japan or the United States. Although I have had the privilege over the years to be exposed to the creations of some the finest chefs in the world, my love for what serious cooks everywhere strive to create constantly rekindles my wonder at the experience – it is always new and exciting. I pray that I never lose this certain childish wonder for excellent food and wine.

To debate that French cuisine is somehow superior to Italian or Chinese is to me an effort that can only lead to a lack of appreciating for the beauties each can offer. Who is a better musician, Itzhak Perlman or John Coltrane? For me the argument is pointless and perhaps worse. If I spend my time defending Perlman, I will most certainly close my ears to the subtleties that Coltrane offers just to prove my point. The difference is what makes both interesting and wonderful.

There are no superior or inferior cuisines, only superior and inferior cooks.

I intend to keep both my mind and mouth open.

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John Coltrane if what is important to you is creativity. I mean the guy created an entire language on his instrument that generations of tenor sax players copied and were influenced by. Itzhak Pearlman if you consider the grandness of the art he performs. I mean we can jigger the entire thing around by changing adjectives and their inferences can't we? So it isn't really that controversial a statement to say that a culinary culture that enhances natural juices so as to make them more luscious and complex is more refined, elegant, applies a greater level of technique, or even "better" then a cuisine that relies simply on natural juice.

There are no superior or inferior cuisines, only superior and inferior cooks.

That's sort of like saying naive artists paint as good as Picasso. There is superior technique and inferior technique so of course there have to be superior cuisines. A New England Boiled Beef dinner is an inferior version of Pot au Feu. And there are dozens of French dishes that are superior to American counterparts.Is it not a superior cuisine? Of course none of this stops you from enjoying a New England Boiled Beef dinner. But it's sort of like Twinkies. You grow up thinking it's good.

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(Leslie C) God I'd take the Fontaine de Mars over Union Square Cafe any day.

FdM is like a big party. It is a very informal atmosphere, almost gemutichkeit (sp?). The food, I agree is very good, though very traditional.

What about a place like Les Fontaines, when the old man ran it? That looked like a cafeteria, with neon lights and formica topped tables, but the food was absolutley top rank. It could compete with any one star and many two star places. You don't find many restaurants like that even in NY.

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That's sort of like saying naive artists paint as good as Picasso. There is superior technique and inferior technique so of course there have to be superior cuisines. A New England Boiled Beef dinner is an inferior version of Pot au Feu.

This is again following your argument that YOUR preference is superior so that negates all others to a secondary status. I am sure there are many New England Boiled Beef Dinner prepared by loving cooks that far outdistance many Pot au Feu.

I do not understand your hard-line attitude and extreme self assurance that you somehow know what is superior. Please tell me why you know the answer.

To me the beauty of the experience is not knowing the answer and constantly seeking to know.

One thing is for sure the more that I know – the more that I realize I do not know.

Eating is for joy.

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There is superior technique and inferior technique so of course there have to be superior cuisines.

There is superior and inferior technique in all cuisines. Do you think we should judge Italian cuisine by Olive Garden or American food by T.G.I.F. Fridays. There is excellent food to be found everywhere if prepared by dedicated cooks seeking the best local and fresh ingredients.

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I can't help but (as a new enthusiastic member) tell the following story re. formality etc., in the French establishments. It was 1982 and in our early and mid 20s my wife and I were on honeymoon at the French Riviera. We wanted to splurge one day and chose Outhier's L'Oasis, then 3 stars. We were dressed casually but not in the casual-chique style we pretend to pass as informal nowdays but really really casually with non-designer jeans. I also knew nothing about the wine(those happy days when I did not ruin my mood getting angry at the wine merchants who shortshrifted me by telling they are sold out of Coche Dury' s Perrieres). Consequently I ordered the cheapest wine with a Montrachet word attached to it (probably a Chassagne), thinking it was the same as Le Montrachet which I had read somewhere was the best white wine on earth!

Anyway our reception was phenomenal, we were seated in the largest corner table for 4 in a crowded room , were offered complementary champagne and what not and treated like a celebrity. Our waiter was esp. supercilious. It was as if he feared me. At some point he asked something about England and was taken aback with my answer that I did not give any damn about the country( this was Thatcher time whom I still detest).

"Are not you English ?" he asked.

"I am very proud to be Turkish" I replied.

"Vay canina" he muttered ( no direct translation but in the context would read somethin like " O holy shit!"

It turned out that he was Mr. Ali from Izmir in Turkey. And the incredible story went something like this. A young English lord of something, Mr Miller was vacationing in the area and was expected to come to the restaurant. When I showed up poorly dressed and given my last name (Milor no D at the end), somebody had mistaken me for the fellow. Who but a young English aristocrat-iconoclast would dare to go there so casually!

Well sometimes you can dress casually in haute cuisine places.

I do agree with Mr. Plotnicki though the thing I hate most in haute cuisine pretenders in France is not being allowed to pour your holy drink. In a couple great places he mentions(L'ambroisie and Arpege) this will not be a problem because the service will be smooth and discreet. But in lesser pretendors this is a serious problem.

Vedat Milor

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This past September at the suggestion of Robert Brown, I dined at a restaurant named Jerome in La Turbie, which is a lovely town on the Grand Corniche between Nice and Monaco. I was hoping for a nice casual country style meal but when we got there, we were met by waiters in white dinner jackets and bow ties and the place, service, and clientele was far more formal then I had hoped for. And I think this uneccessary formality spilled over into the cooking because this place that prides itself on top market ingredients, let what I thought was overly fussy cooking get in the way. And what could have been a French version of Craft ended up being an inferior version of a place like Arpege or L'Ambroisie.

We had a very different experience at the Hostellerie Jérome, last October.

As Steve says, the town itself is beautiful. The restaurant's interior itself is refined but countrified, less fussy than, say, Chibois in Grasse, where we had eaten two days before.

I was wearing wool trousers (not jeans) and a fairly casual jacket ("unstructured", I think it's called), but no tie. My wife wore a good dress and some jewelry.

I did not inspect every table, but we may have been the most elaborately attired customers in the room.

The table immediately next to us had four young people, several of them in jeans (neat and clean, but jeans) who were having a good time tasting different wines and debating the menu with the waiters. Another table had a couple -- he in leather jacket (Italian, not Harley-Davidson), she wearing jeans. All of these people looked good and enhanced the ambiance of the place but they weren't wearing fancy clothes. No ties except on the waiters, who, as Steve notes, wore white jackets.

At the end of the room nearest the windows, there was a man with wild hair and a long beard, fuzzy jumper, jeans and leather boots (no, it was not Richard Branson), tasting wine after wine, dish after dish, and constantly jotting in a notebook. His companion was a woman who looked like a supermodel, simply but beautifully dressed. She nibbled a salad and sipped mineral water, occasionally tasting a dish he had offered her. By the end of the evening, he had pushed his chair far back from the table and was leaning and gesticulating as he talked with his companion and the waiters. We were too far away to pick up the conversation. But this customer attracted a lot of attention from the waitstaff, who kept bringing him dishes and wines -- this to the point that we had some trouble getting the final bill when we had finished.

I don't remember the cooking at Jérome as being particularly fussy. I was offered, off-menu I think, a veal kidney, roasted in its own fat and served with, if I recall correctly, girolles and hazelnuts (noisettes). It was presented smoking hot, still encased in its fat, and then taken away and carved and served with every trace of fat removed, in a very simple sauce: delicious.

All in all the place seemed relaxed, perhaps because it was a somewhat quiet weekday evening.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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To decide one cuisine is superior makes you look at that favored cuisine with a positive attitude while automatically seeking to find the faults of other cuisines that we have declared somehow inferior. This creates a situation of self-fulfilled prophesies.

Only for certain diners who aren't capable of arresting any such predisposition in themselves. :hmmm:

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This is again following your argument that YOUR preference is superior so that negates all others to a secondary status. I am sure there are many New England Boiled Beef Dinner prepared by loving cooks that far outdistance many Pot au Feu

Craig - This is a complex subjext. If you read Baphie's great post on the history of food criticism in my recent food criticism thread, that would make a good foundation for the rest of my argument. But in it's simplest form, on paper, a pot au feu is a more complex dish then a boiled beef dinner. Of course there are crappy POF's and terrific BBD's. But that has to do with relativity and nothing to do with evaluating technique and complexity. As many of us have often used as an example to show this, the melody of Mary Had a Little Lamb is a catchy one but not a complex one. The opening theme of the Rite of Spring on the other hand is complex. What makes one complex and the other simple is not a matter of opinion as much as an evalutaion of the various techniques they each employ to make their statements.

I think Cabrales has this right. There really shouldn't be that much of a dispute as to what is delicious or not. Pretty much everyone agrees. But my personal opinion is that people vary from the norm for reasons of personal preference or inability to taste certain things properly. Take a simple thing like a steak. 90% of the people agree on what makes a great NY strip but there are 10% who do not like a char crust. How should we characterize that 10%. Should we look at that statistic and say aha it's all a matter of opinion or should we say they are not representative because they have a bias.? On my flight to London last night, the German girl sitting across the aisle from me was telling me how good her in-flight lamb medallions were. Should we accept her opinion as legitimate? Of course not. They were bad no matter how you slice it.

Jonathan - Well without getting into a lineup of people who were there and what they wore, I was really comparing Jerome, or countless other restaurants on the Cote, to any of the restaurants in other beach resort areas like the Hamptons. There is a formalness in France that doesn't exist in the U.S. unless you are at one of those classic hotels like the Greenbriar. And part of that is who is dining there. I remember being at La Chaumiere and the women were all wearing Channel outfits with brassy jewelry. And I think the cuisine matches the clientel and that it trends towards more formal with more formal service. If you want sauteed Foie gras in France, getting it in a place that is casual without tuxuedoed waiters is near impossible. And by the way, you are not allowed to wear wool slacks in the Hamptons when you go out to dinner. Even in the winter :wink:.

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I've had sauteed foie gras in a lot of casual places in Paris...

Anti-alcoholics are unfortunates in the grip of water, that terrible poison, so corrosive that out of all substances it has been chosen for washing and scouring, and a drop of water added to a clear liquid like Absinthe, muddles it." ALFRED JARRY

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Steve, you know I agree with you that there are criteria by which one can evaluate the validity of judgments of taste; it's not a free-for-all.

I still disagree with you on whether there is a necessary correlation between complexity and excellence. If you check out my recent post about Bill Grimes's menu exhibition, you'll see I mention Schockli's cooking at the Forum of the Twelve Caesars. I didn't copy out any of the dishes, but my goodness those entrees were complex, and one can make a reasonable guess they would have been prepared by a large battery of kitchen staff using a variety of classic techniques. These entrees were glazed and sauced and garnished to the point of death. Maybe they were great, who knows, but Jonathan's description of his veal kidney was a lot more appetizing.

And you are using the unfair-musical-comparison trope again. Sure "Rite of Spring' is more complex than a nursery rhyme, but if you want to say it's better, my question is always "At what?" Better for singing to babies?

Edited by Wilfrid (log)
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|I still disagree with you on whether there is a necessary correlation between complexity and excellence.

Well that is just another way of restating the Boiled Beef dinner Pot au Feu comparison. And when you say excellence, that takes into consideration all sorts of things like how good a job somebody did. It's the example of the perfect peach versus....... Yes we agree, a peach grown under perfect conditions in the perfect microclimate is better then a less then perfect peach gussied up with great technique. That is why, to make the blanket statement I made, you really need to put everything on the same continuum. And when you compare a nursery rhyme to a symphony, they are compared based on how great a musical statement they have made, not whether they are particularly successful at their statement. So it doesn't matter how popular Mary had a Little Lamb is, it will never be "as good" a piece of music as Beethoven's 5th. And I think you would have a hard time finding someone who could make the argument that it is from an analytical perspective that has to do with the music itself. All the arguments will be external like how pervasive the song is in our culture. So in general, symphonies are "better" pieces of music then nursery rhymes, with pieces of music being the operative phrase here.

And do you not sing the Rite of Spring to babies? I used to sing it to the twins all of the time. They had this puzzled look on their faces.

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And I think you would have a hard time finding someone who could make the argument that it is from an analytical perspective that has to do with the music itself.

Tautologous, because you rule out every consideration other than the complexity a musicologist could analyse. And you always fall back on music because the argument is much less plausible in other art forms. I can show you poems of much greater complexity on a technical level than a short lyric by Blake or Shakespeare, but which are widely regarded as lesser achievements. Try any one of the first ten books of "A" by Louis Zukofsky. Similarly, you could find a lot of connoisseurs who think an essentially simple "zip" abstract by Barnett Newman is a much finer painting than the fussy, complicated modernisms of a Rauschenberg.

If I was a musicologist, I could demonstrate that there are complex scores which work less successfully than relative simple ones. You are expressing a prejudice in favor of the intricate.

When it comes to food, I am not persuaded that poulet a la financiere, complete with coxcombs, truffle-studded potatoes, chicken quennelles and langoustines in little pastry barges, is a better dish than poulet Henri IV or poulet jaune or even a simple roast chicken with some tarragon under its skin, just because it's obviously more complicated. (And I agree, all things being equal in terms of the quality of ingredients and skill of the chef.)

What would be interesting (maybe on a different thread) would be to review what the differences between pot au feu and a traditional boiled dinner actually are. When Adam and I tried to do that with navarin d'agneau and Irish stew, you just wanted to change the subject.

Edited by Wilfrid (log)
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