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robert brown

Mind Over Palate. A Divergence of Opinions

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This is the first of a series of related topics on Symposium, all devoted to what I call "mind over palate". By this I mean the personal and psychological factors that influence how we perceive and form opinions about foods, wines, restaurants and chefs.

Several related discussions have taken place on eGullet, and Margaret Pilgrim, LEsider and Lissome have all suggested related topics. We hope that if you think of a topic that pertains to "mind over palate", you will send it to us.

* * *

Were it not for the advent of food discussion sites and the sophisticated amateur diners that frequent them, I would almost certainly have never noticed the wide range of opinions that knowledgeable people hold about famous, high-profile restaurants. My sense is that this divergence of views is increasing.

Among the restaurants and their chefs that attract wildly different judgments are Atelier Joel Robuchon, El Bulli, WD50, Pierre Gagnaire, Hiramatsu, Can Fabes, and even establishments such as the French Laundry and Alain Ducasse New York. As I write this, I am planning a visit to the Basque region of Spain. Diners’ opinions of four restaurants (Akalre, Arzak, Berastatqui, and Zurberoa) are split down the middle in terms of positive and negative.

The phenomenon is not limited to the most expensive restaurants: in London, for example, Chez Bruce has won praise from many experienced diners, jeers from others of equal sophistication.

As I think about the earlier decades during which I did a lot of gastronomic travel and dining out, I cannot recall a similar situation. In the 1970s and 1980s, almost no one disparaged such leading chefs as Joel Robuchon (before his "retirement"), Fredy Girardet, the Troisgros brothers, and Michel Guerard. Even the classic French restaurants in New York such as Lutece, La Grenouille, Café Chauveron, Le Pavillon and The Four Seasons were never held in anything but the highest esteem.

Today, however, it seems that every high-profile restaurant in the middle and upper-range has both its rabid supporters and its vociferous detractors. Restaurants and chefs have become controversial, and it is almost impossible to find a serious restaurant or chef who attracts nothing but favourable opinions.

What might cause this divergence? Could it be that:

----The chef/restaurant boom of the last 15 years that has seen the creation of more personal and varied approaches to cooking, or what is also referred to as “challenging food.” This would result in less concentration of, and exposure to, the classic cuisines and their dishes, thus making universal standards more elusive.

----More restaurants falling into what I have previously referred to as “the great unwashed middle”. In other words, the opportunities to dine in truly extraordinary restaurants have diminished, replaced by restaurants that seemingly can be great one night and mediocre on another as each tries to offer a version of “dining at the top” for less than top dollar.

----A better understanding on the part of chefs and restaurateurs about how to manipulate the diner’s psyche and hence elicit the “mind over palate” phenomenon.

----The amount of experience required to distinguish good restaurants from poorer ones

----The ease of posting one’s opinion, learned or not, on sites such as this one.

Of course, my own views about foods, wines, chefs and restaurants are objective reflections of reality and everyone should base their future consumption choices on them. But absent this rational behavior on the part of everyone else, are we doomed to increasing argument about the world’s most famous restaurants? Might there be ways in which we can move toward more aligned opinions, or is healthy debate healthy, making divergence of opinion something we could even embrace?

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A divergence of opinion is IMHO always important to embrace. I should begin by stating that I have had very little exposure to restaurants of the highest end. (the reasons why would be an interesting discussion on another thread: socio-economic status, race, culture, etc). Nonetheless, it makes sense to me that there would be varied opinions on a restaurant with a reputation of excellence. People like different foods/styles/decors for different reasons. I think I can assume that high end diners are not a homogeneous group, with multiple motivations for favouring one restaurant over another. Then again, maybe there ARE common threads among fine diners (ex: tolerance for only the finest ingredients) that would make a convergence of opinions more likely; suggesting then that they are diverging for reasons other than the food (ex: 1) ideas about/loyalties towards the "star chef" and what he/she represents? 2) notions about the self and what it means for the self to eat at a certain restaurants? (ex: "I've eaten at the French Laundry therefore I am/have/represent x, y, z etc...")

It's a good question

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----The chef/restaurant boom of the last 15 years that has seen the creation of more personal and varied approaches to cooking, or what is also referred to as “challenging food.” This would result in less concentration of, and exposure to, the classic cuisines and their dishes, thus making universal standards more elusive.

I think, too, that a chef has to go to greater lengths to gain the attention of a jaded public.

I have not eaten at El Bulli, or any of the other top spots you mention, but I have noticed that many dish descriptions (like the frozen oyster appetizer at WD50) sound more inventive than they do delicious.

Some of these inventive dishes (e.g. the El Bulli dishes that rely on hot and cold ingredients used together) probably fail completely when they fail, and a diner could have end up with something awful, as opposed to the relatively innocuous overcooked fish you might get on an off night at a spot with more traditional approaches. For some diners, novelty and innovation are very important, but for others, criteria like taste, tradition, or quality of ingredients may be more important.

A related question: do you think that individual diners also swing more in their opinions about specific restaurants? I know that I judge a place more harshly if I expect a lot from it, and that the fall of a favorite spot can inspire severe criticism indeed.

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I would suppose that the number of valid answers to the question is as large as the range of restaurants and chefs which it addresses.

I am a proponent of the "emperor's clothes" syndrome. For syntactical simplicity, I will refer to the fictitious restaurant "Bona" and its chef M Petit as being symbolic of a classic, long-established high-end restaurant.

In the days when dining at Bona was the sole prerogative of the wealthy and privileged few, to dine there was a mark of status. It was essential that those who did so never broke ranks to criticise the place, since this would render it useless as a symbol of rank. After all, if the food at Bona was bad, then where was the status conferred by eating there ?

This situation in turn meant that those who dined at Bona were as likely to be doing so because that was the place to be seen as because they liked the food. And of course many who dined there knew too little about food to make a judgement. To support the mystique surrounding Bona, it became necessary to assign magical abilities to its chef M Petit. Because everyone understood food, indeed the great unwashed actually cooked and ate it at home. So Bona needed to have something about it which those unwashed would accept as making it different and unattainable. So M Petit became a "celebrity chef".

Finally, aspirants to status (who had never eaten at Bona) were obliged to admire Bona as an act of deference to their "betters" and as proof of their credentials to assume that status one day.

It must be the case that much of the admiration of Bona and Petit was the result of "emperor's clothes" syndrome. If Bona had served dry toast as a starter, many people would have ooohed and aaahed about this brilliant innovation by a visionary and talented wunderkind, about this classic simplicity which epitomised the fundamental values of society, about the unique quality of dryness which Petit imparted to such humble ingredients, and so on.

It is interesting to ponder why we believe today that Bona ever served good food. After all, the main critical criteria of those who expressed the judgement back then were money and inaccessibility.

If Bona was established in Paris in the late 19th Century (and it probably was) then it had a clear run of over a hundred years, catering to the uncritical few, before the nouveau riche started to dine there. And the nouveau riche started to dine there only because they were the nouveau riche and this was their arriviste display to the world. So again, their interest lay in maintaining the established reputation.

But the nouveau riche is a very fast-growing social group. A higher and higher proportion of people are able and willing now to spend the money demanded by Bona. Many who have the means are also less insistent on the social status that their money brings. They care little for "old" reputations, and are more demanding of value for money.

There is wider knowledge of what the world of cuisine offers. There are more and more entrepreneurs, and chefs, who have recognised that there is money to be made in the restaurant business. And they are transmitting their message to a larger and larger population, and expanding their market.

Where people once knew only of Bona as "the best restaurant in Paris", they are now aware that there are perhaps 50 other restaurants which are being rated by "experts" as being as good or better. Of course only 10 are in Paris, but today Brussels or London or Milan are equally accessible to people who can afford the price at Bona.

Maybe more important, suppliers no longer follow slavishly the old concept of high-end/other restaurants. Borders have become blurred. People can now choose to satisfy their priorities as between food/presentation/ambience/service and so on in different restaurants which "major" on each of these different elements. People can now compare Petit as a chef with Gros as a chef in two conceptually different restaurants, so Petit can no longer hide behind the glitz (if indeed that was what he was doing) but has to stand or fall solely on his culinary skill. Bona can no longer charge £400 a head on the basis that this was the only show in town, because people will now go to Gros's restaurant (Quatre) to forego only Bona's comfortable chairs and pay £100.

In short, the market has become less arcane, more rational, better understood, and nowadays when the emperor has no clothes, most people know it.

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