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High Standards


jaybee
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I think he's saying more than that. I think he's saying that, objectively, the "quality" of a finely prepared recipe is "better" than a plain peach. Not necessarily that one won't "enjoy" the plain peach more. To look at a simple example, almost every will get a huge pleasure response from dropping a large pinch of sugar on their tongue. It's pure, simple and sweet in a way that most humans react very favorably to. On the other hand, a bite of, say, sauteed broccoli rabe imparts a bitter flavor. Not exactly the pleasure reaction that one gets from sugar. However, I would say that a well sauteed bite of broccoli rabe is some sense a "better" taste. (Yes, the analogy breaks down a bit.) It's more complex, more . . . . mature?

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It seems to me, the more some people know, the less they enjoy their meals. The Mill/ Bentham debate is relevant in part. But I was concerned more with enjoyment. Is it better to be happily ingnorant if you are indeed happy with a meal, or is it better to know enough to know why you shouldn't have been so happy with this meal?

One could argue that knowledge will lead you to greater heights of happiness. But I've seen people who are culinarily ignorant who derive great pleasure from their meals lose their capacity for unfettered enjoyment as they focus their attention on the culinary failings of the chef.

If one can keep that capacity for enjoyment (LIzziee, for one example seems to have it) in the face of highly developed frame of reference and sophisticated eating experience, then you are ahead of the game. But to lose it seems not worth the price of the learning. And I experience many who have lost it.

To pick up on the peach bit, if one loses the ability to revel in the deliciousness of a perfect peach because it was served in a restaurant that is known for making very delicious fruit tart is a shame. I'm not saying that the peach is superior to the tart or that it is less appropriate a dessert for this time and place; just that if the eater can't enjoy it because of these other factors, his/her high standards have cost them something precious.

Edited by jaybee (log)
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I'm reminded again of an essay from Mark Twain (something about being a river boat captian -- I'm sure folks here can provide the reference). He first discusses a trip down the river by a layman and all of its natural beauty. Then he discusses the same trip from the standpoint of a well-seasoned captian, in which all the beauty -- eddies in the water, over hanging branches covered with moss, etc. -- lose their simple appeal and become part of the job -- dangers to avoid, etc.

I for one would prefer to be, and often am, an unsatisfied human. And, more on point, I enjoy the pleasure of slogging through Faulkner to zipping through Grisham.

Edited by Stone (log)
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Hey Stone's learning that young whippersnapper.

It's not my opinion that a perfectly cooked peach is better then a plain old natural one, a perfectly prepared peach simply has more complexity then a plain one. It's the same peach for god's sake, but one presentation adds variables that the other one doesn't have. Mathematically or objectively, anyway you want to frame it, one has more to it then the other and when I say better, that is what I mean. Of course someone comes along and says wait a second, I love a perfectly ripe peach and I hate it when someone intervenes. But all that says is that they have different preferences. What does that have to do with measuring quality as a function of complexity? That nebbiolo is a "better" grape then barbera shouldn't be in dispute if we can agree on better as meaning more complex. But there are people who will refuse the analogy and they will trot out the multi-dimensional argument and say that there are occassions where barbera makes a better choice then barolo which can be too big and heavy. That's a non-starter as far as I'm concerned because it is reasonable to use the definition of better that means more complex and of better quality which is pretty much the standard in every industry.

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But you pose it as a theoretical and aren't looking at the philosophy of the cuisines. One cuisine (Italian) says we won't interfere in the natural perfection of that peach. Another cuisine (French) says that they will apply sufficient technique to improve it while maintaining the natural perfection. You will taste the terroir and the chef's hand. That they aren't always successful in doing it is a function of their performance but isn't relevent to the scope of their efforts. That's Mill's quality argument isn't it?

No, not really. Mill is not talking about the quality of the experience per se, but about the quality of the happiness that the experience brings. Both Bentham and Mill want to increase the total amount of happiness in the world. But Bentham believes all men’s happiness is equal: my pleasure in drinking 2002 white zinfandel is equal to your pleasure in drinking 1870 Lafite. Net happiness would then be increased by selling your bottle of Lafite to buy 2000 bottles of white zinfandel. But Mill argues that happiness can differ in quality: your happiness drinking the Lafite is greater and that can outweigh the lesser happiness of a larger number of people.

This is, I think, relevant to eating. The pleasure that an FMJD brings is so great that it outweighs a hundred great pizzas.

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What does that have to do with measuring quality as a function of complexity?

What it's saying is that quality is not a function of complexity. They're two orthogonal variables, if you insist on mathematical analogies.

Simple and good: perfect peach.

Complex and good: DiSpirito’s scallop starter.

Simple and bad: off season tomatoes.

Complex and bad: anything at AZ.

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Actually while I understand your point, I am actually trying to say the opposite. Using your example, DiSpirito's scallop starter is "better" then a perfect peach because there is more complexity to it. It doesn't have to be that way. Some things in their natural state are extremely complex like truffles. But in general, the complexity that DisPirito adds to the scallops with the tomato water, mustard oil and uni (adding acidity, sweetness and texture among others things) is what puts it higher along the scale then just plain Taylor Bay scallops. In fact if raw ingredients or plainly roasted ingredients were typically better then prepared versions, we wouldn't have much need for restaurants would we. So the quality (of a dish) is dependant on the level of complexity.

Edited by Steve Plotnicki (log)
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The original question was whether increased knowledege of restaurants leads to decreased pleasure from them. I think the answer is "no". That's because although you may be more attuned to look for and find faults that others may not spot or care about in a particular restaurant, the pleasure and reward you receive from your absorbed interest,the acquisition of your knowledge, the anticipation of your visit and your analysis of your experience all combine to give you pleasure which outweighs the criticisms that only you may worry about. In fact even recognizing faults can confer a kind of pleasure if you place them in the context of your knowledge and experience.

People writing about restaurants on these boards criticise them all the time yet one can still detect their interest and enthusiasm in the subject. That's because being fascinated in our subject confers pleasure in itself which negative experiences in particular restaurants cannot diminish.

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This discussion looks peripherally related to the food-as-art debate. Are “complex” preparations “better” because they provide intellectual, as well as sensual, pleasure? Should we separate these aspects when discussing dishes and how different people perceive or appreciate them?

"To Serve Man"

-- Favorite Twilight Zone cookbook

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In addition, I think it's often necessary to relax one's standards in the interest of having a good time. If the service isn't exactly sharp, or a dish isn't precisely as it should be, focus rather on the greater prize: a good time in good company in pleasant surroundings.

If you think about the absolute bottom line for all of us... isn't it to enjoy ourselves to the greatest extent possible?

Now I'm just going to throw this out so you all can argue among yourselves but.....who has a better life experience, someone with mediocre standands who has a high level of enjoyment , say, 75% of the time or someone with an exacting level of requirements for pleasure who only enjoys themselves 25% of the time? And....can the level of enjoyment between two different people really be measured? Not really, other than by personal description. So I don't see it as feasible to say one person's pleasure is more "pleasureful" than anothers or more worthy.

Therefore, are we all by virtue of our increasing exposure to and sophistication in the world of food condemning ourselves to lives of unattainable pleasure?

Is ignorance really bliss?

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This dispute really comes down to whether you want to look at things in a linear way or as multi-dimensional....  As I often say, hierarchies are created by how difficult the techniques one must apply to a situation are. ...

If you want a meal cooked at the highest possible level of culinary technique, a fabulously ripe peach is not really an acceptable dessert....

I can tell you that the technique on display at the opera wipes Bob Dylan off the table. That isn't a matter of opinion, that is a fact and I do not see what about that is multi-dimensional. It is linear in the same way that a perfectly cooked and presented peach is "better" then a plain one. It is perfect plus.

But when you refuse to accept the “multi-dimensional” aspect of the dining experience and insist on applying “linear” standards, aren’t you forgetting that human beings are, themselves, multi-dimensional? Not to start a philosophical debate or a psychology lesson, but humans obviously operate on a number of levels. To oversimplify, we are, on one level, physical animals with physical appetites, urges and instincts; on another, we are thinking, cultured beings (on yet a third, we’re social animals, but that raises an entirely different set of questions). Food and cooking affect us on both levels, and can therefore be analyzed in different ways.

You say that a plain, natural peach is objectively not as good as one manipulated in various ways by a chef. I gather from your comments that your reasoning is that it requires no technique to present a peach on a plate, that good cuisine is about technique, and therefore the peach that is cut, cooked and sauced is better. But I would argue that -- regardless of whether that is true -- on the physical, instinctive level, the unadorned peach is better. From that perspective, the peach is a delicious, sweet, caloric, juicy fuzz-enclosed ball of immediate nutrition – no waiting necessary. Now, the cultured side of us may prefer a little more sophistication with our fruit, but sometimes that animal just wins out. I’d go further and argue that for a dish to be called truly great, it would have to appeal to both levels (and others, but let’s not complicate things).

Trying to say that a great peach dessert is better than a great raw peach is like trying to say that the Mona Lisa is better than a spectacular sunrise; it’s not wrong, really. It’s just woefully misguided.

But then you change tack, so let me try to keep up here:

It's not my opinion that a perfectly cooked peach is better then a plain old natural one, a perfectly prepared peach simply has more complexity then a plain one. It's the same peach for god's sake, but one presentation adds variables that the other one doesn't have. Mathematically or objectively, anyway you want to frame it, one has more to it then the other and when I say better, that is what I mean.

Wait a minute... if I poach a peach in Belgian ale, glaze it with a horseradish-apricot reduction, garnish it with pureed chickpeas, toasted hazelnuts and sichuan peppercorns, that's better than the ripe, uncooked peach? It's complex, so that makes it better?

Yes, of course I'm exaggerating. But let me just leave the peach example behind and present a real one. I once had a soup (incidentally, made by the executive chef of a well known and respected restaurant in San Francisco) that was constructed as follows: a base was pumpkin and sweet potatoes cooked in chicken broth and pureed with some nutmeg and cloves and enriched with some cream. It was garnished with: creme fraiche, some diced and partially rendered pancetta, some sprigs of chervil, a sprinkling of dried saffron threads and a grilled prawn. Complex? Yes. Good? No. "Wretched excess" is the phrase that springs to mind (and don't ask about the cornbread made with pine nuts, diced roasted red pepper, currants, minced onion, cilantro, orange zest and garlic).

Then:

That nebbiolo is a "better" grape then barbera shouldn't be in dispute if we can agree on better as meaning more complex.

But that begs the question (in the original logical sense of the term, which means not that it avoids it, but that it assumes the truth of a premise that's at least as doubtful as the conclusion it's supposed to prove). I mean, if we could agree on "better" as meaning "more complex," we wouldn't be having this discussion, would we?

Finally, you end with:

...It is reasonable to use the definition of better that means more complex and of better quality which is pretty much the standard in every industry.

Whoa, there...back up the horse. First, you're going on about technique. Okay, fine; you have a good point to make there. But then, you switch to complexity, which is much more problematic. But I'll concede that it is an element to be recokoned with, if not anything close to the sole criterion for a definititon of good cuisine.

But come on, don't try to muddy up the waters by sneaking in an extra little phrase about "quality," hoping that no one will notice. Look at your conclusion: if you take away the unproven and suspect element of "complexity" then what you've said is this:

"It's reasonable to use the definition of 'better' that means...of better quality which is pretty much the standard in every industry." In logic class, we call that a tautology.

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If what Steve is saying is that a perfect peach prepared deliciously will be even better than that perfect peach eaten out of hand, then of course he's right; otherwise, we'd never cook beyond the most basic level.

But to get back to the original question, I'm happier (and will have a happier taste memory) eating the plain perfect peach than I am that same perfect peach that's been prepared with technique, complexity in a not-good tasting way. So if I go to a restaurant that does complicated, technique-driven food using good ingredients and the food isn't really memorably delicious, then I'm disappointed.

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If what Steve is saying is that a perfect peach prepared deliciously will be even better than that perfect peach eaten out of hand, then of course he's right; otherwise, we'd never cook beyond the most basic level.

Not really, Toby. Sometimes we'd eat the perfect peach out of hand, and sometimes we'd cook beyond - sometimes way beyond - the most basic level. The two aren't mutually exclusive. "Better" is just the wrong frame of reference.

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

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You are all so stingy with allowing the use of the word better. It really comes down to the fact that you want to reserve the use of the word for your personal preferences. But if one was to divorce their personal preference from the discussion, there would be no debate about whether a plain peach is even as good as a perfectly cooked peach. Let alone disputing that the perfect peach, prepared perfectly, is "better" then a plain peach. All you have to do is write down what each one offers on a piece of paper. And indeed people have done that through the centuries. It's called cooking. So much for the virtues of the perfect peach. It was so good that people have spent millions of hours trying to improve it. Otherwise;

But when you refuse to accept the “multi-dimensional” aspect of the dining experience and insist on applying “linear” standards, aren’t you forgetting that human beings are, themselves, multi-dimensional?

Jaz - But I'm not describing the dining experience. I am describing each individual dish and plotting them on a linear scale. That they each apply to a different dining experience is discreet from where they fall on the continuum of dishes.

But I would argue that -- regardless of whether that is true -- on the physical, instinctive level, the unadorned peach is better. From that perspective, the peach is a delicious, sweet, caloric, juicy fuzz-enclosed ball of immediate nutrition – no waiting necessary.

But you see you keep changing the subject. You are describing how people react to the item, i.e., describing people and not the item. I am trying to talk about the item and the item only. I am trying to remove subjective preference from the equation and look at the variables. So my animal instinct has nothing to do with it. And trying to say that a great peach dessert is better then a plain peach is not analogous to the Mona Lisa. It is analagous to say that the form of a play written for theater is a greater artform then a skit is. Or that grand opera is a greater artform then light opera. That leaves room for lousy peach desserts and great natural peaches because after all, they are both presented as desserts.

Wait a minute... if I poach a peach in Belgian ale, glaze it with a horseradish-apricot reduction, garnish it with pureed chickpeas, toasted hazelnuts and sichuan peppercorns, that's better than the ripe, uncooked peach? It's complex, so that makes it better?

Well I haven't said that things are better just because they are complex, I have said that among things that are good manifestations of what they represent, complex things are typically better then things that are less complex. That is why the Barolo producers plant nebbiolo instead of babera in their best terroir. It is a grape that makes a more complex statement so they plant it where the terroir is most complex. So the only reason we don't agree on "better" is because if what I wrote above. You want to reserve the use of the word for yourself just because you might disagree about barbera and nebbiolo when any objective evaluation of those two grapes and their terroirs would show that the "better" grape is the more complex one.

And as for better meaning better quality, well despite the fact that everyone presents it as if it is totally subjective, I would think that most of us would be in agreement about what is better and what is worse. And it pains me to say that people who disagree with the norm, most likely do not know the difference between the two. Because to taste the best Barbera in the world and then to taste say, 1978 Giacomo Conterno Monfortino and to not be able to say that the GC is better is to either not know, or to think of the world on the multi-dimensional scale you describe which gets back to the debate of the semantics of the world "better."

Edited by Steve Plotnicki (log)
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I am not concerned here with the relative merits of one preparation over another in providing the eater with enjoyment. I am concerned with an inverse relationship between knowledge and critical acuity about food and pleasure in eating it. Some argue the more you know the more you are capable of enjoying yourself. Yet the more you know the harder you may be to please.

My question is whether it is possible to develop a highly critical sense of food and still maintain one's level of enjoyment for meals that fall far short of the bar. One proposed answer is that one's expectations need to be adjusted prior ot every meal. In other words, raise and lower the bar based on where you are eating and what you can expect from the cook or chef.

Edited by jaybee (log)
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Well let me ask you, can you enjoy a beurre blanc that wasn't made at La Grille?

:laugh::laugh: You know me well. I had a whole paragraph about beurre blanc sauce before and after Yves Culliere' and took it off. It is hard to enjoy another having tasted his. I approach with hope, almost always end disappointed. So am I the better for knowing that this tiny bistro in the Rue de Fauberg Poissonaire has the world's best beurre blanc sauce, which I will eat maybe once a year? Perhaps. Not having tasted it, I might be enjoying many local dishes with bb sauce.

Edited by jaybee (log)
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Yes, I haunt Chinese restaurants in New York, ordering salt and pepper squid, hoping to get something approximating the salt and pepper squid at Yuet Lee's in San Francisco. But the fact that I'm perpetually disappointed is not only because I can't find anyone who makes it as good as Yuet Lee; all the versions I've sampled have just not been very good and I would know they weren't very good whether or not I'd ever tasted what to me is the best version.

Edited by Toby (log)
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"My question is whether it is possible to develop a highly critical sense of food and still maintain one's level of enjoyment for meals that fall far short of the bar. One proposed answer is that one's expectations need to be adjusted prior to every meal. In other words, raise and lower the bar based on where you are eating and what you can expect from the cook or chef."

To take this discussion from the theoretical to the practical, I will focus on Jaybee's question. It is absolutely possible to have an acute awareness of cuisine and maintain that sense of love and enthusiasm.

I love food. I love all sorts of food from a hot dog to haute cuisine. What I don't like is mediocre food. I am definitely a food snob when it comes to places like the Sizzler or Cheesecake Factory. I won't go.

Given that, I have very different expectations at a Langer's Deli than I have at Arpege or Gagnaire. For me, it is not a matter of easy versus complex, but rather I expect a great deal from Passard and Gagnaire. Would those expectations be there if I did not have a long history of eating at this level? Probably not. But does this culinary awareness make me a less enthusiastic diner? Not at all.

I have had numerous meals with other chefs as dinner companions. They know far more than I do. Their palates are much better than mine. Do they pick apart every nuance? Are they jaded diners? Not in the least. In fact, there have been many times we have been served horrible food and we laughed and socialized, instead of criticized.

I thank Jaybee for his comment that "If one can keep that capacity for enjoyment (LIzziee, for one example seems to have it)in the face of highly developed frame of reference and sophisticated eating experience, then you are ahead of the game." I hope that my love of food, discovery of food, passion for food never makes me so hypercritical that one "off note" destroys the whole experience. I honestly think that the only loser in the "rating game" is the diner himself.

This might be overly simplistic to the discussion at hand, but for me this is what works and keeps me as enthusiastic as when I started this marathon of dining years ago.

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If what Steve is saying is that a perfect peach prepared deliciously will be even better than that perfect peach eaten out of hand, then of course he's right; otherwise, we'd never cook beyond the most basic level.

Not really, Toby. Sometimes we'd eat the perfect peach out of hand, and sometimes we'd cook beyond - sometimes way beyond - the most basic level. The two aren't mutually exclusive. "Better" is just the wrong frame of reference.

Exactly.

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Steve, I (subjectively) dislike your current linear/multidimensional trope. Linear (to me) means one after the other, while multidimensional means activity all around. Which is what is actually always happening.

Linearity can well = one damn thing after another. This might be cumulative but does not at all imply development. Multidimensional does not = chaotic. It can be and is hierarchical, even if by autopoesis.

And certainly so if we are discussing measurements derived from personal and general evaluations.

Please. I ask you to kindly desist and reframe.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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For me, enjoyment of food increased in leaps and bounds as I have been exposed to more varied and better cuisine. I like to believe I know what "good" is (and even what "unusually good" is) in many categories of food. I can distinguish great sushi from good sushi immediately. The same with pasta, the same with a range of French dishes. The key for me is not to get so worked up about a meal that, as Liziee said, one off note destroys my ability to enjoy the whole experience. I've been with people who really lose it when somethng they are served doesn't measure up.

My reaction is to feel sorry for them that they can't loosen up enough to let it go and enjoy what they can.

Edited by jaybee (log)
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