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The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Daily Gullet Staff

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<img align="left" src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1127711774/gallery_29805_1195_14949.jpg">Special to the Daily Gullet, by Steven Shaw

A few days before the closing of La Côte Basque, Steven Shaw discussed at length the future of dining with Jean-Jacques Rachou, its chef-owner; Georges Briguet, owner of Le Perigord; Bob Lape, the long-time restaurant critic for CBS radio and Crain’s New York Business magazine; and Shelley Clark, longtime publicist for, among others, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and an aficionado of historical restaurant properties. The scenario of this conversation was, as you’ve guessed, the dining room of La Côte Basque. We’re pleased to offer you an excerpt of the chapter “The Future of Dining”, from Steven Shaw’s book Turning the Tables, based on the discussion held that night at La Côte Basque.

The word came down from Jean-Jacques Rachou, the chef-owner: La Côte Basque was to close its doors forever in early 2004. This news was almost immediately followed by the announcement that Lutèce was to close, leaving the number of traditional French fine-dining restaurants in New York City at just three: La Grenouille, La Caravelle, and Le Perigord. In May of 2004, La Caravelle threw in the towel as well.

Such a turn of events would have been unimaginable to a New York restaurant consumer in the 1960s or 1970s. Bob Lape, the long-time restaurant critic for CBS radio, recalls “dozens” of formal French restaurants dotting the city during that era, and the former New York Times critic Bryan Miller reports that his research through old restaurant guidebooks and articles reveals at least twenty-five such restaurants operating in New York in 1975.

In the postwar era and into the 1970s it was a given that fine dining was all about classic French cuisine. “It wasn’t about creativity or inventiveness,” explains Lape. “It was about who could cook the classic repertoire of Escoffier the best. You could go to a restaurant and judge it based on the execution of classic dishes.” But all that started to change in the 1980s and 1990s, when American cuisine came into its own.

Though as a typical New Yorker I always assume my city is the center of the universe, the reality is that the earliest stages of the new American culinary movement came out of California, which was traditionally less captive to European cuisiniers. A generation of California chefs, most notably Alice Waters, developed a focus on ingredients, seasonality, and regionalism that today is the predominant way of thinking among the most popular chefs and food writers. This movement in California paralleled the movement toward lighter nouvelle cuisine in France, but it had a unique American spin, a sense of freedom and possibility. Rachou, Briguet, and their ilk, whose culinary roots go back to the era before nouvelle cuisine or California cuisine, were largely unaffected by the new aesthetic, though they did benefit from the increased availability of better ingredients.

To begin with, Rachou suggests, there was the education of great American cooks and the birth of great American chefs. Indeed, Clark comments, “In the 1960s and 1970s, almost nobody knew the names of any working restaurant chefs.” It’s difficult to imagine, in the era of Food TV, a time when chefs were largely anonymous, but a restaurant customer in the 1960s was more likely to know the name of the maitre d’ than the chef, and to focus on the front of the house as the driving force in a restaurant. The whole concept of the “chef-driven restaurant,” while the norm at the apex of dining today, is something very modern.

I consider, as I dine with the chef while eating his food, the role of the chef. Surely the romantic notion of the chef as an individual artist who personally cooks all your food cannot be sustained when he is right there at the table with you while waiters are bringing hot food out of the kitchen.

Yet many people nonetheless feel that chefs should be in their restaurants, should have only one restaurant, and should at least be involved in every meal service. Throughout the food media and my e-mail inbox, people can be heard decrying the “absentee chef.” To my way of thinking, however, all chefs are absentee chefs. The only variable I have been able to isolate is the extent of their absence.

At nearly any restaurant, the chef cooks a very small percentage of the food, if any. He is essentially absent from the cooking process, even if he is in the kitchen. As a supervisor, he can only see so many things happening at once. Likewise, in most restaurants, chefs have days off.

When a chef ascends to the level at which he has more than one restaurant, his level of absence increases. But it is simply an increase, not a fundamental shift in what he has been doing all along. The people who ran the kitchen on his days off now need to run the kitchen more often, and do more. The same cooks are cooking the food, however, and it is the same chef at the top of the organizational pyramid—the pyramid is simply larger. Some chefs can pull it off and some can’t. If a chef’s kitchen slips when he’s away from it for a couple of days, that is his personal failure as a chef.

The modern chef, who is likely to operate more than one restaurant in a corporate fashion as opposed to a standalone family business, is neither cook nor supervisor, but is rather an executive. Like any executive in any industry, the chef is judged in large part by his or her ability to make the big decisions and delegate the rest. Just as Escoffier brought the modern industrial concept of the assembly line into the world of the restaurant kitchen, chefs like Vongerichten, Matsuhisa, and, of course, Alain Ducasse have been the leaders in bringing modern management into haute cuisine restaurants.

To me, the test of a restaurant is not the presence or absence of its chef, but the quality of its food. And given all the effort, by so many people at so many stages of a beautifully elaborate process, that goes into making that food, I believe it deserves to be the focus.

Rachou continues our discussion of the evolution of American cuisine by pointing to the increased availability of high-quality domestic ingredients. “Forty years ago,” he says, “you couldn’t get nothing here!” “Besides high-quality meats and a few things in season,” recalls Lape, “back then even at the finest restaurants you ate worse produce than you can get at any supermarket today.”

At the same time, traditionalists like Rachou and Briguet have never embraced the California-derived attitude that “the ingredients should speak for themselves.” Surely, ingredients should “speak,” but they believe, and I agree, that often what makes cuisine something special is the added human element. It is, after all, the job of the chef to do something with ingredients.

<img align="right" src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1121034075/gallery_29805_1195_11679.jpg">I particularly reject the notion that “fresh, seasonal, and local” ingredients are always best. Objectively, they are not. And rarely does a restaurant advertising the fresh-seasonal-local formula actually get all its ingredients locally. It is more likely that a few prominent elements of a few heavily advertised chef’s specialties will come from the local harvest, while the rest of the menu will be built on a base of trucked- and flown-in products. And if the majority of products on a menu are to be transported from afar, I think it makes sense not to live in denial but to embrace the wonders of modern shipping and to focus on acquiring whatever is best in and of itself, not whatever is simply being offered up by the nearby soil at a given time.

Ingredients alone, then, have not propelled American cuisine forward—there has also been a human element. In this respect, traditionalists like Rachou and Briguet have something in common with the most cutting-edge chefs in the fusion and avant-garde movements. They focus on human intervention in the flavor and texture of ingredients, rather than letting the ingredients speak for themselves.

Such a discussion involves a small subset of restaurants, but they are the restaurants that drive cuisine forward. As in any art, there is a vanguard of tastemakers whom the rest look to for inspiration. There are a few restaurants, perhaps a handful in every generation, that transcend mere dining and become a part of culinary history.

Listening to Briguet and Rachou, I marvel at how far we’ve come since those days of frozen vegetables and kitchens that all seek to emulate the same dishes. Yet there are many in the food world who are against change, or who take positions that effectively place them in opposition to culinary progress. Represented in part by the Slow Food movement, but also by mainstream food magazines like Saveur, they advocate traditional recipes above all others, oppose most internationalism in cuisine, and tend to scoff at the avant-garde. They advocate, to use the popular buzzword, “authenticity.” Despite allowances made for some evolution, authenticity as commonly understood refers to the preservation of “original” recipes, presented with some historical and cultural context. In the language of Merriam-Webster’s first definition, authentic means “conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features.”

While I’m all for preserving traditional recipes, the authenticity brigade has gone too far. Preserving tradition and allowing for progress are not mutually exclusive, and both are important to progress in the arts. Yet, in the food world, the authenticity police are everywhere these days. Have you ever dined in an Italian restaurant with friends who have just returned from Italy? “Oh, in Italy they never serve pasta as a main course,” they’ll inevitably say.

This attitude stands in stark contrast to the basic facts of human history: Italian cuisine did not spring into existence as a fully formed entity. There was no tomato sauce and there were no sun-dried tomatoes until centuries after the tomato first reached Europe from the New World, thanks to Christopher Columbus. When that beloved red fruit first appeared in Italy, did the local food cognoscenti protest, “We don’t use these things in authentic Italian cuisine”? If you dug really deep, you’d probably find that at some point in prehistory the very notion of cooking beasts over a fire instead of eating their bloody haunches raw was scorned for its inauthenticity, too.

Since everything in the world of food likely had some precursory experience, wouldn’t it be smarter for us to make allowances for what “authentic” really means? If you ask me, such tolerance is necessary when you dine out in America. Many of the top chefs seem to collectively scoff at the maintenance of traditional cuisines. Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kunz run roughshod over culinary borders with the audacity of international arms dealers. Nobu Matsuhisa blends Peruvian, Japanese, and even seemingly extraterrestrial flavors together. Wylie Dufresne of New York’s WD-50 presses oysters into paperlike sheets. Mario Batali cooks his pizzas on a griddle.

I believe these cooks demonstrate that authenticity isn’t a repetition of history. Real authenticity, to me, is grounded in being faithful to oneself. This is the last definition given by Merriam-Webster, but to me it is the most appropriate for cuisine: “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.” That’s why, despite their breaks with tradition, there’s nothing inauthentic about the cuisines of the fusion chefs or the avant-garde chefs. Change for its own sake is phony, but true originality is authentic. And what great chefs eschew in terms of historical fealty, they make up many times over in originality.

Will the twenty-first century be the American century for cuisine? It’s too early to tell, and it would be foolish to count the French out prematurely. France is still the dominant force in Western cuisine, with more of the world’s best restaurants than any other nation and with stronger representation in fine dining than any other nation worldwide. Though classic French restaurants are a dying breed, virtually all of the top restaurants in major American cities are still very much French-influenced, and most still have European-born chefs.

Still, one cannot help but think that if there is a future for fine dining it will have its epicenter in the New World rather than the Old. If the opening of the Time Warner Center in New York does not herald the dawn of the American century in cuisine, at the very least it represents one of the most significant moments in American restaurant history, a moment of critical mass. It is a changing of the guard, and a potential renaissance. The culture reinvents itself, in newer and, we hope, better ways.

Steven Shaw will be a panelist on the upcoming eG Spotlight Round Table on The Future of Dining, 26 to 30 September 2005

This is the last of five parts. Part one is here, part two here, part three is here, and part four is here.


Steven Shaw (aka <a href="http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showuser=1">Fat Guy</a>) is executive director of the eGullet Society. He has been known to do other things on occasion.

Copyright 2005 Steven A. Shaw. Reprinted by kind permission of the author and HarperCollins Publishers. Edited for eG Spotlight by Pedro Espinosa.

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