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The latest wrinkle in cost control


robert brown
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In a manifestation more typical of McDonald’s than some of the best restaurants in the world, porcelain makers now appear to be in cahoots with restaurateurs in a subtle game of portion control. We serious diners need to nip this one in the bud before it becomes endemic to fine dining. At least one famous dish manufacturer, Bernadaud/Limoges, has designed at least two dishes that restrict the portion of food that a chef can put in them. One plate, to cite an example, is made in a concave fashion so that it slopes down into a small dug-out pocket in the middle that can contain any kind of liquid or any other food that can be eaten without a knife (risotto, an egg preparation, a mousse or puree of some sort, to name just a few). Another, this one with wavy edges and sloping down into a small, flat area, can be used for small portions of just about anything, including desserts.

I first took note of these dishes two weeks ago in a well-known restaurant in Piemonte and encountered it tonight in a lemon risotto dish at one of New York’s more expensive restaurants; thus these dishes are not just limited to Europe or America. In the latter instance, the risotto was part of a tasting menu, making the use of it a bit more understandable. Nonetheless, this smells like the beginning of a yet another trend meant to squeeze the restaurant patron. Has anyone noticed this latest wrinkle in dish design? Is there someone in the trade who thinks I am being paranoid and can give an innocent explanation, or reassure everyone not to give this a second thought?

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My recollection is that older dinner plates were more soup bowl-like than our current dinnerware plates are.  Therefore, whatever the motivation, and I'm sure you're onto something, this is not a new phenomenon but a return to an older style of dishware.

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The Bernardaud dishes you're talking about are now used in a LOT of restaurants right now in the world: Trotter, Keller, J-G, Tru, Cello,Radius, Clio, Gagnaire, Trama, Veyrat...

Most of the time, the 2 dishes you're specifically talking about were used in dégustation menu.  I don't think any chef  would reduce the amount of food in a plate to make it able to fit in a specific dishe.  When used correctly, theses plates can be the perfect choice to serve amuses, pre-dessert, or multi-courses meal.

Patrice Demers

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They are very beautiful dishes for careful but simple presentations. I've been thinking of ordering a set.

But I understand Robert's point.

"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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Thank you, Canada. Patrice, how did you find out the names of all the restaurant you mentioned that use these dishes? "Used correctly" is the operative phrase. I am not accusing anyone of abuse so far. I feel, however, that alert diners should be vigilant because it seems to me that there has been the beginnings of a change from the oversize plates you used to receive your food on to the dishes described above. Even though chefs are not obliged to state the net weight of their creations, this start of what appears to be a trend has the makings of the shrinking Hershey bar syndrome. I wonder if such artificial factors as plate design will also affect how chefs conceive certain dishes so that they conform to shapes and sizes. It will be interesting to see how other porcelain companies get into the act of design determining (limiting) portion size.

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Robert- except Keller, I ate in all these restaurants this past year.

I also want to point that Bernardaud, in the same line of dishes, produce some  big square plates that are also widely used in restaurants.

Patrice Demers

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I'm not sure I follow. You can have a huge plate and still have a tiny portion. Second, I think portions should be small, especially in a tasting menu. Third, I don't see any trend to squeeze the restaurant patron . Very rarely do I leave a restaurant in NY with any room for anything else to eat. Fourth, from a health standpoint, small portions are the way to go, no? (Not that I see restaurants as being the educators on this front. I don't think they should be called to be either.)

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Having cut my gastronomic teeth in an era when the generosity of great chefs (mostly French) was an attribute one could almost take for granted, I am wary of what may or may not be a budding tendency to resort to a subterfuge to limit the amount of food a chef gives to his customers. Before these Bernardaud dishes (unless someone wanted to use a salad dish to serve a main course, if you know what I mean), a chef determined of his or her own free will how much food to put on a plate. Now with these new-fangled dishes, a chef is stymied by the design of the plate in determining the amount of food he wants to let the customer have. For example, Bernardaud determined last night how much risotto I would consume, not Christian Delouvrier of Lespinasse. There was no space in the deep, narrow opening in the center of the dish to put additional risotto, and no way of knowing if DeLouvrier, left to his own devices, would have considered the amount or risotto that fit into the hole an optimum amount or if he perceived the use of the Bernardaud dish as a way to artfully short-change the diner.( Or he could have elected not to use the Bernardaud dish at all; but he did not) Regardless, because of the construction of the plate, I did not get a whole lot more than a small taste, which is why I suppose one calls what I ordered a tasting menu.

I am not now accusing anyone of gastronomic larceny. In fact, I am not sure that this new design of dishes will be a tool of abuse in the hands of chefs and restaurateurs. All I’m doing is stating that there is a new style of dish that has found its way into up-scale restaurants, and that I noticed that it has the potential of further eroding the generosity in luxury restaurants that has steadily taken place over the past decade or so. I bring it to the attention of eGullet readers in the form of a Distant Early Warning System and as a phenomenon that one may follow that may or may not ultimately be nothing more than a red herring.

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The idea that the designers of plates render chefs silent, and lacking in self-determination, on portion size I find a little hard to accept. Subterfuge? Attempts to “artfully short-change the diner”?

There are plates of all sizes as far as I can see. Robert did you have one too many mushrooms in that risotto? (I'm weaning myself off those smiley things. Maybe unwise. Dig in the ribs instead.)

Isn’t the cost of food cheap in the USA compared to other things associated with running restaurants? Would significant monies be saved in giving smaller portions?

Robert, I’m interested in learning about what you mean when you say,  “further eroding the generosity in luxury restaurants that has steadily taken place over the past decade or so”.

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Yvonne, maybe I'm not making myself clear. It's not so much the size of the plate than the"architecture' of the plate. The two plates are designed to render useless much of the surface as a carrier of food. In one model, all the chef has to work with is hole that is molded into the plate and protrudes below the surface. The other model is sloped on four sides, creating a valley. The "valley" is much smaller than the entire dish, is the only flat part of the dish and, therefore, is the only area of the dish that can hold any food. In other words, they are designed to turn big plates into small ones. The converse of these, which is what used to dominate the tables of the Nouvelle Cuisine chefs of a recently by-gone era, were the oversized plates that allowed the chef to put either several creations on it or a copious amount of one or two or them. Of course the plates were not infinite in size, but at least provided the chef to exercise much flexibility in what and/or how much he wanted to serve the client. With margins so low in the kinds of places uses Limoges china, every savings counts, especially in the use of expensive products.

I had lemon in my risotto last night, not peyote. I think that people who were hitting the gastronomic trails in France in the 1980s would recall meals that would leave them staggering away from the table. It can still happen in the USA, but not as often. One can argue that it is not necessarily a bad turn of events. To me, though, it's as much a state of mind, an attitude, a feeling that concern with the bottom line has taken over, which is why I pick up on changes such as the design and marketing of these weird plates. ( I also find them unattractive at this stage, but that's another curmudgeonly matter).

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Yvonne: It is the sort of protuberance you could put a large thumb in. It is molded so that it goes beneath the surface of the plate. That particular dish you could defend by saying it's a small plate made to look like a large one. The other one, however, since it can hold pieces of meat, fish, fowl, along with garnishes does offer more opportunity for going easy on the portion size. What to be on the lookout for is its use in serving what is offered as a full-size, a la carte selection.

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no way of knowing if DeLouvrier, left to his own devices,

You're not seriously suggesting that Delouvrier was not left to his own devices in ordering these plates for his restaurant or in choosing to use them when he feels they are appropriate. I would doubt that these plates were produced for any reason but to meet the demands of chefs looking for a plate to suit their needs in serving tasting menus. I am sure Delouvrier matched the porcelain to the portion and not vice versa.

I'm not sure where I first ran across them, but they struck me as perfectly suited to use in a tasting menu. If memory serves at all, it may have been in Spain at Berasategui or perhaps Can Fabes. They appeared at Daniel Saturday night in a tasting menu and I can assure you that our meal was most generous. They are ideal for serving risotto as part of a tasting menu. They strike me not as being designed to turn big plates into small ones, but to turn small plates into presentation plates. They are a bit of a fad and perhaps affectation, but they struck me as elegant when I first saw them.

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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Bux, again I am not accusing anyone so far of doing anything sinister. Delouvrier most likely chose to use such plates to serve certain dishes on his tasting menus because he thought they were suitable. Perhaps even the dishes come with the hole in three or four different sizes so that he could choose the one closest to the portion size he would ideally want to serve. But I doubt it; at least not yet. Again, I took note of an interesting phenomenon: that of plate design being a factor in the amount of food a chef gives a customer. I also feel it was interesting to alert my fellow diners to a phenomenon that I feel has the potential of tightening the noose on portion control. To advance the theory that these plates are a by-product of, or evolutionary development in, an era in dining where cost control and portion control go increasingly hand-in-glove isn't nutty. All I am saying is watch and see what happens. In fact, here is how it may happen: Chefs will increase the number of "amuse bouches", "entremets", and palate cleansers, over which the diner has no choice and which can be prepared ahead of time, and then use these "portion-control" dishes to present "full plates" of lesser amounts of food for the rest of the meal. You heard it here first.

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They strike me not as being designed to turn big plates into small ones, but to turn small plates into presentation plates.

Bux, I completely agree. In fact, I liked them so much that I ordered a set for myself. They are perfect to use for a tasting menu.They are not used to serve less food, but to enhance the presentation as well as the quality of the dining experience.

Richard,

The best way to describe this is to quote Thomas Keller from his cookbook, The French Laundry. Let me say first that I have eaten over 16 meals at The French Laundry and have discussed in great detail food, dining etc with Thomas. In no way does he want to short change the diner.

To quote Thomas:

"Most chefs try to satisfy a customer's hunger in a short time with one or two dishes. They begin with something great. The intial bite is fabulous. The second bite is great. But by the third bite - with many more to come - the flavors begin to deaden, and the diner loses interest. It's like getting into a hot bath or jumping into a cold pool. At first the temperture is shocking, but after a few minutes, you get so used to it that you don't even notice it. Your mouth reacts the same way to flavors and sensations.

Many chefs try to counter the deadening effect by putting a lot of different flavors on the plate to keep interest alive. But then the diner can't focus on anything because it is confusing.

What I want is that intial shock, that jolt, that surprise to be the only thing you experience..... I want you to say," God, I wish I had just one more bite of that."

Cooking like this is not using pre-made amuse to make it easier for the chef. It is very challenging to compose a multi-course tasting menu which has to be carefully constructed. Each dish must be perfect to stand on its own.

As an aside, if you thought those plates were small, you should see the very small egg cups from JL Croquet. I first saw them at Gagnaire - a small cup is balanced on a round small plate at a cock-eyed angle (there's a magnet on both the cup and the plate) I also had to have a set of these and I have served canape soups - purees of avocado, peas, tomato even a loster bisque. I can tell you that the preparation was just as long for the sips as if I had served a large bowl.

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Robert--I'm with Bux and lizziee on this one and suspect it has been the chefs driving the size, style and creation of plates, not the reverse, and chefs themselves altering the more traditional presentation--a big plate full of food--in order to give customers more of an experience, more of their talents and more of what they came there for.  You write "Chefs will increase the number of "amuse bouches", "entremets", and palate cleansers, over which the diner has no choice and which can be prepared ahead of time, and then use these "portion-control" dishes to present "full plates" of lesser amounts of food for the rest of the meal."

Yes amuse will increase--so will petit fours and pre-desserts--but solely because diners are coming to expect them--they are becoming more knowledgeable and chefs realize they have to do the extra work for these or they will not be taken as seriously.  I don't think dish size is driving this phenomenon--only spurring greater options and creativity.  Some of these efforts can be done ahead but many cannot--many of these little amuse tastings have to be done a la minute and require as much plating effort as an entree.  You are certainly correct chefs are taking advantage of smaller dishes now available to serve these and it would only be natural to expect the dishes to have a wide variety of uses--so now a little 4" by 7" flat white rectangular plate can hold 2 spoons of diver scallop amuse, be used for a course of the degustation--say one little lamb chop, then used for the first of three desserts or for a presentation of chocolates after the meal.

My sense is that any trend can be mis-used and mis-applied--so you are prescient in saying to all diners--watch out.  But all of these plates are expensive--and when a meal requires so many little plates in sequence per diner I wonder just how much cost control is involved and if it might not be more expensive to serve food like this even if portions are somehow reduced in the process.  Other factors: it is labor cost that goes up in service like this--you have to have more runners to serve this stuff and as a chef I can tell you it is much harder to do small elegant things well--and these small plates scream "pay attention to me--I am elegant."

If these small dishes help change the way diners assess food--so instead of being concerned primarily with size and volume we become more concerned with how something tastes and stimulates and provokes--I see that as a good thing.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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And I agree with you lizziee, even if Steve seems to be taking lessons from Martha Stewart, but in this case ... that's a good thing.

:biggrin:

The traditional dining experience is certainly being altered by the great restaurants. Sometimes I miss the loss of some things, sometimes I'm amused, but those times that I'm thriled are more than just compensation. Sometimes the amuses bouches, petits fours and mignardises are what makes the meal and the evening. The reason plates are getting smaller is that courses are getting more numerous. This is an expensive proposition for the restaurant. In France it invovles the extra skills and man hours in the kitchen. In America, it may cost the restaurant a turn of the tables. It seems not all that long ago when canapes at top NYC restaurants were reserved for visiting dignitaries, now it's common to see a tray presented to every table. Even more informal restaurants feel compelled to offer a small taste apart from the menu.

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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and I think it might be a good time to interject that this is only happening at chef-driven higher-end restaurants that are competing against each other and vying with whatever the media standards are at the current moment.  Restaurants and chefs trying to get an edge. The vast majority of diners and dining experiences will remain appetizer/salad (with salad before the meal not after) followed by a big entree on a big plate, skip dessert (because it's not good anyway), and then coffee (not espresso) for some time to come.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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