Kojo explores the creative business strategies fueling America's boom in fast-casual dining - and why food has become one of the engines for innovation in the American economy.
In restaurants across the Washington region, innovative chefs use elaborate, multi-course tasting menus to highlight specific ingredients or techniques. While these unique dining experiences can generate buzz for top-flight restaurants, longtime food journalist Corby Kummer argues that they often end up embodying the worst of American “foodie” culture. Kummer joins Kojo to chat about the history of menus, and what restaurants can learn from paying more attention to those paying for meals.
- Corby Kummer Senior Editor, The Atlantic; Author, "The Joy of Coffee: The Essential Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying" (Houghton Mifflin, 1997)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world on Food Wednesday. You know, there are the adjectives that restaurants are happy to see associated with the eating experience that they provide. Delicious, dazzling, revelatory and then there are adjectives like tyrannical.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut if you asked the accomplished food writer, Corby Kummer, tyranny is what's on the menu at an alarming number of the most celebrated restaurants in the country. Places where the pleasure of the ordinary diner is taking a backseat to the artistic vision of the chef.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMany of the most decorated chefs in the world now rely on tasting menus to showcase their talents, fixed menus that feature dozens of courses that are served over the course of several hours. They're costly affairs that take up the time and money of customers and take very little of their preferences into account if any.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's true that many of these restaurants are so far out of the price ranges of average diners that they are only affecting the experiences of a miniscule number of privileged eaters. But Kummer says the trend towards the tasting menu reflects something troubling about our culture when it comes to food more broadly and how it relates to celebrity art and business.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe joins us in studio. Corby Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He's a food writer and the recipient of five James Beards awards for journalism. He's the author of several books including "The Joy of Coffee" and "The Pleasures of Slow Food." His article, "Tyranny, is what's for Dinner" was published in the February issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Corby Kummer, thank you for joining us.
MR. CORBY KUMMERThanks for having me.
NNAMDINot long ago you made a pilgrimage of sorts to Charlie Trotters, a famous restaurant in Chicago that eaters have flocked to from all over the world. A place that offers diners an epic tasting menu that featured a parade of dishes, but does not offer what you say, mercy for the eater.
NNAMDIYour experience there truly began when you almost did not make the meal at all because a freak thunderstorm trapped you on the runway at the airport. What was it about this experience that stuck with you so much and why did it compel you to ultimately write a piece about the tyranny of tasting menus?
KUMMERWell, I was fascinated by Trotters the phenomenon. He was the first celebrity chef in the country. Anthony Bourdain, the celebrated food writer and TV personality has called him that, I think admiringly, although you never know with Bourdain. And I knew from my years as a food writer that whenever Trotter would come into town he really wanted publicity.
KUMMERHe was excellent at glad handing and this kind of boisterous Rotarian way and always making sure that he was the certain of attention. But he did, so it's easy to make fun of him as this character but he got respect for chefs in a way that American chefs hadn't before.
KUMMERI think he came from a very business-minded established family and it was never a good thing for a kid to go into food or work at restaurant. You know, parents would say, I spent all this money to send you to college and you're going to go work at a restaurant? You know, are you kidding me? What do you think I worked my whole life for? You're supposed to be getting out of there.
KUMMERSo Trotter, I think, came from that kind of family. He made it respectable but at the same time you ate what he wanted you to eat or nothing, paid a lot of money for it, and I had never eaten there. But he's the one who made this famous and he announced he was closing for good for whatever reasons. He owned an expensive piece of real estate, maybe he wanted to capitalize on that. It was exhausting night after night.
KUMMERBut he supposedly had unlimited imagination, fantasy, dozens of courses and I wanted to try it before, I wanted to have this experience before they closed. I called them up, everybody wanted to go in the months before they closed. They gave me one date. I said, "I will plan a whole trip around this." And what a luxury and what a privilege to be able to get to go to this. And as it happened we sat on the runway in a thunderstorm for two hours in Chicago. We actually landed there.
NNAMDIBut because you had planned a trip around this you had friends in Chicago with whom you had previously arranged to meet you at the restaurant. So they were not caught in the freak thunderstorm that you were.
KUMMERNo, and I kept saying hold the table for us and they did but what they didn't tell us when we got to the restaurant was they had been made to eat the menu. They couldn’t wait having drinks or something. So when we got there the waiter said, "We can give you dessert. That's fine. But nothing else." It was dessert or nothing.
NNAMDIYou were too late, you missed the meal.
KUMMERYes, we missed the meal. And that's the way they ran things there. You got there on their time schedule, you ate their dinner or that was that.
NNAMDIBut you did finally persuade them to allow you to have some dinner but you had to eat in a rush hour kind of way.
KUMMERYes, it was kind of begging and it turned out that that rushed forced march pace was a mercy because we were out of in like under three hours, which a lot of people aren't when they go to these restaurants.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. As an eater where do you think you should fit in when you dine out at a restaurant? Should the experience be about you getting what you want to eat or about you submitting yourself to the creativity and talent of the chef? 800-433-8850.
KUMMERCorby, a lot of people never get the chance to experience a meal like this either because they cannot afford the restaurant's hefty price tag or they just flat out can't get a reservation. So before we go farther, what does the actual meal at a place like Trotters consist of?
KUMMERThese are all good points you're making. So what it consists of is what the chef has decided best displays his or her talents. They want to dazzle you and delight you and often you aren't dazzled and delighted by delicious food, to use all of your "D" words that you started with.
KUMMERThat can be very much a part of this but what they're doing is a very controlled experience and they want you to see their virtuosity. And I guess depending on the chef, it can be, there's a virtuoso performance and showoff display of that virtuosity or it can be something that seduces, provokes, enlightens you.
KUMMERThat is, I think, what it does at its best. So I really sympathize and understand with, and understand the chefs who want to do this. But on the other end of the equation I'll be fascinated to hear what your callers think. I think that you become so incidental to this, you're an audience member. You either are dazzled or nothing and you're going to pay the same bill and it is expensive at the end of the meal.
KUMMERSo is that something that you want to put with and want to sign up for when you go to a restaurant or not? And people have been deeply divided on this.
NNAMDIAnd we'd like to hear from you, 800-433-8850. do you approve of restaurants that have tasting menus that do not offer you a wide selection in which you simply have to, I guess, not only be able to afford but be able to access simply what the chef has decided to prepare?
KUMMERKnuckle under and pay up.
NNAMDIAs a customer, where do you feel you fit in at a place like Trotters as the eater?
KUMMERSo are you saying me as a critic and writer as the eater or somebody who has a pretty open credit card and can just decided on the best of restaurants?
KUMMEROkay. So if you were able to afford and there, a lot of people decided that a night at a restaurant is their version of theatre. And, in fact, they can either go to the kind of live theater your previous guests so admirably killed themselves to keep offering, I thought what a great show. I'm so glad that you had them on because I support live theatre in my town of Boston.
NNAMDIOr you go to a theatre for your go restaurant for your entertainment. It has become a form of entertainment. Reality TV shows, The Food Network and chef shows have made it a kind of a spectacle. And one of the things that Trotter was famous for in his kitchen were red-faced temper tantrums. Throwing things at cooks, literally driving them out of the kitchen by practically chasing them with knives.
KUMMERI don't think he actually chased them with knives but throwing pots, throwing tantrums. That became, you look at Gordon Ramsey on television and this has become a very popular gladiator form of sport where you watch people ritually humiliated. And really that has spilled over into the dining room where the guests, you know, you either get it or you don't get it.
NNAMDIThe "Soup Nazi" has become ubiquitous.
KUMMER"Soup Nazi" there's a blast from the past. Right, the "Soup Nazi," you eat what I give you or nothing. And I'm being unfair to a lot of chefs who really want to share their artistry and their enthusiasm and their discoveries with the diner. And that's the best of what you sign for when you go to these restaurants.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, in what ways do you consider chefs to be like artists. When you go to eat a meal, do you expect an experience like the performance you take in at a concert as Corby Kummer just described? Or just good food? 800-433-8850. When you were at Trotters you were intrigued by some of the menus hanging on the wall as decorations.
NNAMDIMenus from mostly French restaurants famous for sourcing local and seasonal ingredients and serving modest tasting menus to diners from the foods available to them. How does that traditional kind of tasting menu compare to what you see at a place like Trotters? You say that this idea really starts from an honorable place.
KUMMERIt's very honorable because it's a way of offering what's most seasonal. You know, what the farmer brings in as the chef Dan Barber at Blue Hill who partly has a kind of experimental farm at Stone Barns, this fabulous Rockefeller estate in Westchester County 40 minutes outside of New York. You know, that's another very expensive place but he's completely tailoring his menu to what the farmers give him.
KUMMERThat's literal, there are farmers right on the property. Now, in French restaurants and other places that would offer these menus, it was what they found at the market that day. So offering what gives you the best deal on the most seasonal food, that's terrific. And chefs would have the option of offering what they best knew how to cook, what best displayed their talents and also showed off what's at the market.
KUMMERI think that's a wonderful way to eat and that's something I'm enormously sympathetic to and always seize on if it's, say four to six courses. But now it's more like 12, 15, 18, 27, 34, 40 and Trotter, it was as if he took a tire pump to this and, you know, in Motor City he's, you know, near Detroit in Chicago, this was, he was just, you know, grossly inflating it.
KUMMERSo if six courses were good why not eight and why not make it a dozen? That's what Trotter brought to this, this kind of culture celebrity and this kind of inflation of what is, you know, a very honorable and artistic impulse.
NNAMDIDon your headphones please, Corby, because here comes Laura from McLean, Va. Laura, you're on the air and Corby can now hear you, Corby can now hear you, go ahead please.
LAURAI just wanted to say that for me, I live here locally, and I just think it's the best of both for me. I mean, some place might call me where I've dined twice and had just mind blowing meals where the ingredients were brought to life to me in a way that never otherwise would've been and not in a way like a Gordon Ramsey.
LAURAI mean, Johnny Monis is not -- I mean it's a very welcoming warm place or at least that's the experience we had. And then some nights my husband and I will say, you know what this is the food we want and we're going to go to a place where we know we're going to order off the menu and I have a craving for, you know, I think, I think here we've gotten to a point where we have such a wide variety that people can pick and choose.
LAURAI mean, some nights you're open for it and some nights you're not. I don't know if maybe other people feel that way.
KUMMERI think they do, I think that's a terrific point. I'm really glad you mentioned Johnny Monis and Komi because that was one of the three or four examples I came and wanted to make sure I mentioned. Because he's somebody who's brought this to the foreign Washington and people love it. So you go and you decide I want this artistic experience. I want to be surprised and dazzled.
KUMMERAnd also I think from somebody -- it doesn't just bring the ingredients to life. It brings the ingredients to your consciousness. You may never have heard of them. You might never know them. You might decide, I want to cook with this after I come to this place. The best and most immediate reaction was from my friend, and somebody I deeply admire named -- named -- everybody know Jose Andres and his restaurants in Washington, who has minibar, which is fantastically hand crafted. And I think we'll probably find a way to talk about it later in the program.
KUMMERBut what he said is a version of what you just said. I don't put a gun to your head to come to this restaurant. You sign up for it. You reserve when you want to eat that way. So it sounds like you're a very sophisticated eater who knows what you like.
NNAMDILaura, would you like to hear what Jose Andre said?
LAURAI would love to hear what Jose Andre said. I've actually heard him speak and I love his approach to food. And I think the ideas that he has and people -- somebody like Alice Waters is going to be the future of changing hopefully the way our society at large thinks about food.
NNAMDIWell, I can't mimic Jose's voice and the way that he mimics mine, but here's what he had to say. Are these people nuts? What's the problem? We are 0.0001 percent of the restaurants, number one. Number two, you only come if you want to pick up the phone and call us and come. We don't put a gun in your brain and say come. And number three, if you want to come to the place and only have one dish, that's not what I'm doing.
NNAMDIGo to my other restaurants. And if you want that, buy the restaurant. Pay the $5 million and I will make one dish a day just for you. Don't complain. If you go see Lincoln you don't say, shoot -- and he didn't say shoot of course, but a word sounding a lot like it -- shoot, I don't want Lincoln to be killed. No, sorry, that's the movie. You like the movie, you don't. It wins an Oscar, it doesn't but you are free to feel whatever you want.
KUMMERHe's fantastic. That was so good.
NNAMDIIt sounds like Jose to me. Laura, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation with Corby Kummer about his article "Tyranny: It's What's for Dinner." 800-433-8850 is the number to call. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Food Wednesday conversation about tasting menus with Corby Kummer. He wrote the article "Tyranny: It's What's for Dinner" was published in the February issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Corby Kummer is a senior editor at the Atlantic food writer and the recipient of five James Beard awards for journalism, author of several books including "The Joy of Coffee" and "The Pleasures of Slow Food."
NNAMDICorby, you write that it wasn't so long ago that chefs here in the United States were among the rather invisible employees in their restaurants, people who did not even put their names on the door. How was that different from what you'd see in other countries? And why did that change?
KUMMERWell, I think the model that we've taken from is the French mom and pop where a chef who had started training usually at the age of 14 and dedicated his life to the kind of backbreaking 18-hour-a-day labor would finally raise enough money to -- after apprenticing in many restaurants and being kind of abused or very much worked hard and mentored and taught, would raise enough money to put his name on the door.
KUMMEROften he would run it with his wife, so these mom and pop's wife would be in the front. She would keep the books. And the famous stories, when you read about these restaurants is they could never get divorced because the wife knew where all the money actually was. So they were joined forever, you know, no matter what happened. This was a business partnership. I'm sure many of the marriages were happy. But there are legends of lots of unhappy partnerships that had to stay.
KUMMERSo wife in the front, chef in the back, name on the door. You went for this person. Then in the '70s Paul Bocuse began kind of acting like a fashion designer and franchising his name to other products and consulting for other restaurants. Chefs became entrepreneurs and international business people. That is the model that many of them aspire today. The chief tool is television and TV shows to get a reputation that doesn't make them a fortune, doesn't make them much money at all. The publicity is invaluable.
KUMMERAnd they use that for books for lines of products and for deals to open restaurants and get good rents and make their own money. So chefs have become business people and that's the model that young cooks want to emulate.
NNAMDIWe talked about Jose Andres earlier. He learned many of the tools of his trait from Ferran Adria, Spaniard behind the menu on the wall at Charlie Trotter's, that disturbed you the most. A menu from Adria's restaurant El Bulli, north of Barcelona, Adria is famous for pioneering molecular gastronomy and serving dishes that dazzle and sometimes disorient eaters. But you say he also tugged the power at restaurants from the diners back to the chef. How so?
KUMMERIt wasn't even back to the chef. It was kind of a power grab in a way that it had seldom been done. Now it started with the idea that he's a restlessly creative artist genius. I think he would be very comfortable with that description of himself. I heard him speak at Harvard once for a course in molecular gastronomy. He gave the opening lecture and he's a visiting lecturer there now. I took a lot of inspiration from him in the breakthroughs that he has really made in which he said, the news of this course will be in international headlines all over the world tomorrow. This is world changing news.
KUMMERSo he really believes that about himself. But what he did was he created a kind of style that has influenced the entire world. It greatly influenced Jose Andres who worked from him from the time he was a teenager. Jose has seen every side of Ferran -- everyone calls him Ferran -- of his multifaceted talent, which is he knows his native Catalonian cooking. He loves the absolutely fresh and local ingredients with the same kind of fierce love that any Brooklyn hipster feels right now trying to go to a farm and, you know, make a contract with somebody in Long Island or Westchester.
KUMMERSo he's absolutely locally oriented. But then he wanted to break the boundaries. He wanted to push through cuisine and bring it into the modern world with all kinds of industrial processes and products that we have thought of as yuck processed food. But he thought, if I apply my artistry and local ingredients I can make new tastes, new world, new sensory experiences.
KUMMERThat led to unleashing this whole wave of strange experimentation that was in the name of somebody who was I think probably an artist and a genius. There aren't that many people who are artistic and geniuses. So when you see it third and fourth hand removes it can be a lot less entertaining and inspirational.
NNAMDIHow much of this is about the way we look at food and now look at chefs? How significant is it when we look at food as art and the chef behind it as an artist?
KUMMERI think it's very significant and I think it's a view that we should encourage but restrain. So we should honor the idea of a chef's artistry as long as we are insisting on rigorous graft. I have to say, it is what Julia Child would always say, oh, she has good -- I don't even do my Julia imitation...
NNAMDICome on, come on.
KUMMER...everybody has a Julia imitation -- no. I once made the mistake of imitating her to her face at my own table. This was a terrible error. She didn't take to it, but she would always -- her highest words of admiration for a chef were, she or he has good technique. Technique was it. So if you had that base as somebody like Ferran has, as goodness knows Jose has, you know, incomparable discipline and technique, then you can build on that.
KUMMERAnd someone like Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago who trained with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry. These are very famous names in the food world. They're not going off on a tangent. They're not wildly experimenting without having really learned the basics and fundamentals of cuisine. They know it cold. So when they are -- they're going off on their artistic experiments I sit up, watch, listen and learn. I don't always feel that way from chefs who have taught themselves or read books. It's often strange, irritating and borders on the inedible.
NNAMDIWell, before I go back to the telephones, if indeed some people can compare a great meal with a great concert, it's not like it's acceptable to expect that the New York Philharmonic is going to take requests from the crowd when they perform something by Beethoven or Mozart, for example. Similarly why should a chef be?
KUMMERYeah, this is so true. And this is something that Trotter and Ferran Adria have kind of encouraged. You know, I'm the artist. You pay for a concert, you don't tell the rock musician usually what songs to sing. You know, it's their set. You're eating my set. That's kind -- you paid for it and now -- at Grant Achatz's second restaurant called Next. They change the theme every three or four months. It's this very interesting menu. It's a course tasting only. You eat what they want. It's a whole different theme. It's something as suggestive as childhood. One was a tribute to Ferran and El Bulli after it closed. The one that we ate was Sicily, was, you know, fascinating.
KUMMERBut you're going for a performance in a very carefully constructed sequence. And, you know, diners like your first caller, they like that. They're up for it. I think that when you go to restaurants though, you'd better know -- and sometimes you're taken by unhappy surprise.
NNAMDIHere is Lorraine in Flint Hill, Va. Lorraine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Oh, Lorraine dropped off. So we will then move on to Melissa in Alexandria, Va. Melissa, your turn.
MELISSAHi. I -- thanks for taking my call. I love your show. We've done tasting menus and I agree with the earlier caller that it's an adventure and that, you know, you're getting to kind of take this journey with the chef. But I also can look at see how trust comes into play. Because, you know, if these chefs have more of an identity and, you know, whether it be celebrity chefs or however they want to market themselves or the publicity of an identity behind the chef, it does give you an idea of, you know, somewhere to start in formulating your opinion.
MELISSABut ultimately it's got to come down to trust. Do you trust this individual to make food that you're going to enjoy or to host you in an environment that you're going to find enjoyable? And that's different than going in -- I mean, I guess every time you go and eat somewhere you're trusting that it's going to be edible food. But I think it's a bigger experience that you trust that the person is going to, you know, provide you with -- and then you have more of a relationship, that you have an identity that you're expecting something, you know, from a particular chef.
MELISSAAnd I wondered, you know, what you think of the issue of trust and how this plays into all of this.
KUMMERWell, that's a...
NNAMDIYes, Corby. She trusts you to tell her about this.
KUMMER...terrifically loaded question and that word that you use. The James Beard Foundation convened a whole two-day fascinating conference around the word trust, the concept of will chefs give you, say, food because it's the most primeval relationship. The mother to child, you know, literally suckling a child. You have to trust that this is safe food. It isn't always. What is rending the food industry right now apart?
KUMMERThere's Food Safety News that I hope a lot of people look at, Bill Marler's website with terrific writers like Helena Bottemiller. I have to get these people that I so admire out. They're giving you reason not to trust them. So I think that the two things you're talking about are both trust and confidence. You're confident that you're going to enjoy this experience. It's also funny that you mentioned trust because it's something that Adria was accused or said to play with in a way that could be very disturbing.
KUMMERFor example -- and I hope nobody's having their lunch as they're eating (sic) this show. I hope it's past people's lunchtime in Washington.
NNAMDIWell, we did mention disorienting, but go ahead.
KUMMERYes, disorienting. So he would serve rabbit, say, which already makes some people queasy. I mean, I love rabbit. You know, food people have to proudly love rabbit. But he would also serve what looked like cold blood and entrails. And in fact it wasn't. It was some kind of artfully constructed food that made you look that -- look like they were these things. And it was partly kind of for extreme eating. The way people would go to habanera chili extreme heat nights. And it grossed a lot of people out.
KUMMERAnd there were ways in suvi cooking, which is sort of vacuum packed and very slow cooking, in which chicken can be tenderer and softer than it is. It's actually safe but it looks white and clear and transparent and translucent and yellowish and gross. And it looks like it's not safe. So trust is this very important concept. And when chefs play with it, this whole S & M dynamic invades from what can invade a chef apprentice relationship into chef diner. So it's a fascinating subject, trust.
NNAMDIMelissa, thank you very much for your call. You wanted to talk about tasting menus at restaurants in New York.
KUMMERRight, because it really took over -- the whole idea of a very, very long tasting menu in New York is already an anomaly because everybody's in a rush in New York. They don't have time for anything, including you when you're facing them at a restaurant and they're looking at their email, you know, in the most naked overt way. This is how people dine in New York and lots of, you know, busy cities.
KUMMERSo the idea of a three-to-five-hour tasting menu, which these are, is already kind of this fascinating who does that in New York? And what I found -- and, you know, I have to have this huge caveat -- I had an expense budget. I couldn't afford these things on my own. I have the incredible luxury of having someone else pay for me to go to Per Se and the 11 Madison Park where fantastically talented chefs have designed these really long menus. And I was able to taste them. You know, what a tough job. What a tough life this is, as many commenters have not failed to point out.
KUMMERBut it was out-of-towners. This is something you often do on a special night out or on vacation, which is why I think Thomas Keller made such an international success with his restaurant in New York -- sorry, Northern California, French Laundry, because you're on your honeymoon. You're on a special trip. You're in Northern California. You're there to relax and have this fabulous memorable experience. In New York you're thinking about your meetings the next day, your medical bills and your emails.
KUMMERAnd, you know, it's very odd to sit for five hours, as I did at 11 Madison Park, a spectacular sumptuous space on 23rd Street overlooking actual Madison Park. And that lasted almost six hours.
NNAMDIWhoa. Well, speaking of new York I'd like to go to Aniki who is in New York calling from New York. Aniki, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANIKIHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a longtime listener, first time caller back when you used to (unintelligible).
NNAMDIOh my, yeah, that's a long time.
ANIKISo I (unintelligible) New York City and...
NNAMDIOh, you're breaking up on us. Stay closer to your phone, Aniki...
ANIKIOh, I'm sorry. Can you hear me any better now?
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you work at a restaurant in New York that offers a tasting menu. So go ahead, please.
ANIKIYes, I do. Ours isn't one of those super long ones. It's only seven courses but my issue is -- we also order -- we also offer ala carte so people do have a choice. People will come in and we are a very seafood-centric restaurant and they'll go to the tasting menu. And then they say we don't eat seafood. It's like, okay. So now we have to create a special menu for you, even though you have a choice (unintelligible) .
ANIKISo as much as I am so sorry that (unintelligible) Charlie Trotter's and I did (unintelligible) year and years ago and it was 21 courses. It was grand and lavish, but it was also a very pleasant experience. And I wish he had (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIOh, go ahead, you're breaking up on us. Let's see if we can get the last part of your statement. Uh-oh, I think we lost Aniki completely, but she said they do offer a la carte.
KUMMERLet me try to finish her statement. She's offering an actual choice. I think there's nothing -- you know, it's fine, it's great if you have a choice of a tasting menu and an ala carte. I really like that because you get a chance of here's my selection of what shows me at my best and what came from the market at its best, and then here if you are, as many people have told me, a boring, unadventurous, old-fashioned eater, here's the tedium I will allow you to settle for.
KUMMEROf course they don't say it that way, but I mean, that's part of the implication. So yes. Going in -- but what she's raising is, not only kind of the oddness of you want the tasting menu but you don't want seafood, or you don't want vegetables, which happens. At 11 Madison Park, which is 18 courses officially, and then many more with various giveaways, we ask, so what did people say, because they -- right at the beginning of the meal they say, and I think they've also said it when you've made your reservation, do we need to know about something you can't eat, which is a standard practice among restaurants right now.
KUMMERSo one of my guests said no meat, is that fine? That was all fine, it was all prepared. But she had the wit to ask, what are some of the other things people ask for? And I said well, recently we had somebody who said that he wouldn't eat anything but fruit and nuts. So it had to be in an entire 18-course menu of fruit and nuts, and then somebody else said meat but no vegetables. These can be real challenges. In fact, I think it's fascinating that a restaurant is that well-equipped that they can come up with these things.
KUMMERBut also, she implies a main point, of what could be driving chefs to offer these tasting menus, which are the increasingly inflexible demands of diners who say, not just I won't have gluten, which is extremely common, but I'm on a high protein, low carb, or I only want low-fat carbs. It drives chefs crazy, and they don't want you to come in and tell them -- if you had all these restrictions, go to your own house. Go to a restaurant that will cater to those, but don't come to me when I've worked very hard to master these dishes. I've worked them out, I've spent a lot of time on it. I want you to enjoy them. So it's a very tough place that chefs are in now with increasingly demanding diners.
NNAMDIAniki, thank you very much for your call. We've got to take a short break. If you've already called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. If the lines are busy, shoot us an email at email@example.com, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org., ask a question or make a comment to Corby Kummer there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Corby Kummer. He's a senior editor at the Atlantic, food writer, and the recipient of five James Beard awards for journalism, author of several books, including "The Joy of Coffee," and "The Pleasures of Slow Food." His article, "Tyranny, It's What for Dinner," was published in the February of Vanity Fair magazine. Corby, the wild success of food programs on television has elevated many chefs from the U.S. and from around the world to new degrees of celebrity. How would you relate the rise of food celebrities to the booming popularity of tasting menus?
KUMMERI think they go hand in hand in that television makes personalities of chefs. It exaggerates in this kind of cartoonish way if somebody is nervous, excitable, angry, a slacker type, a tattooed motorcycle, you know, tattooed biker, so it sort of types them. And then when you go to their restaurant you want this kind of stream cuisine of this sort of precious cup cakey cuisine. You know, it depends on what they have been -- the shtick that has gotten them on TV in the first place and made them popular.
KUMMERSo it kind of leads to a lampoon and exaggerated way. But it also leads to the idea that they are personalities and you are there to participate in their celebrity and the personality that has brought them attention in the first place. So, of course it gives them license to give you tasting menus.
NNAMDIWhat effect do you think reality television, or the reality television culture is having on the food itself?
KUMMERI think it's so much less about taste, and about what goes into the preparation of it, the ability to make a meal under very difficult duress, and having mean people like me cast a skeptical eye on it and say entertainingly abusive things. It's a very odd kind of way of trying to do something, you know, modest, that's supposed to be fun and pleasing and surprising. So it leads people to have exaggerated expectations of the theatricality of what a dining experience should be.
NNAMDIHere's Robert in Washington DC. Robert, your turn.
ROBERTHi. Thanks, Kojo. I love the fact that you gave us a tasting menu of our wonderful theater scene, and our wonderful restaurant scene. A good idea.
NNAMDISo does Corby, yes.
ROBERTI think the idea of a tasting menu is a fabulous way to hone in on what a chef really can do, and I believe that elevating them to the role of artist is exactly right. Several years ago we found ourselves in Napa Valley, and my wife mentioned well, you know, I don't any restaurants here, but I heard about something called the French Laundry, can we stop there tonight? And I thought you've got to be kidding, knowing that this was a reservation that was never possible.
ROBERTBut anyway, it turned out that there was a rainstorm and we got a cancellation, and I had a tasting menu. Twelve courses alternating between black and white truffles for everything. It was just the amazing -- the most amazing wonderful experience that I have ever had in a restaurant and Keller just did a spectacular job. So I think that while there are down sides possibly to tasting menus, restaurant week we into a couple of really wonder of the restaurants, but they gave us a sort of prefix menu that did not stand up to the idea of a tasting menu.
ROBERTBut tasting menus, and I love the fact that you're guess has given us a wonderful insight into how they have grown in this country, and I think that they're a great way of really elevating the eating experience to something superb.
NNAMDIRobert, thank you very much for your call. Before you respond to Robert, I'd like you to get another point of view of whether chefs are artists from Tim in Frederick, Md. Tim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TIMHi, Kojo. Thank you very much. I just wanted to let you know I've been listening to your show for years now, and Corby, I wanted to say thank you. I'm a former chef. I'm also a classically trained butcher, and so I'm not speaking from an outsider's point of view on this. I wanted to thank you for saying that, you know, basically chefs are not necessarily artists. I think presentation can involve art, but I think it's basically like you said, essentially a craft.
TIMNow, you can elevate that craft to astronomical heights as we've Keller do, we've seen Charlie Trotter, we've seen lots of -- and the famous people that you've mentioned to. I think also chefs are also more educators than they are artists, and they have a responsibility, myself included, to educate people on ingredients, techniques, sources inspiration and other things. And I'd also like, you know, to say that it's -- coming from a chef, I think it's more of a compliment to be referred to by one of my peers as a great cook, as opposed to a chef, because nowadays in modern society, it's kind of a double edged sword, the name chef. So thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us Tim. What do you say Corby?
KUMMERI think any -- any chef would like to be considered a really good cook. You know, there's no higher praise. So thanks for that call. The first caller brought up something to sort of break the frame and get into an underlying sociological issue, and that's class. When you say, I went to a 12-course tasting meal that alternated between black and white truffles, and it was the most amazing experience, you're getting into what Jose Andres said is the .001 percent of people who can afford this and chefs who can do it.
KUMMERWhich is why it's been hard for a lot of people to take this article seriously, because it is referring to so few people, and I think that the chefs who have brought this to a kind of attenuated unbelievably exaggerated extreme, I think they're worth making fun of. But what's not worth making fun of is the idea of young people what want to learn to cook because they love food and want to bring that love to food to people in an affordable way, which I think is the great majority of young people who want to go into food. And I hope that they will keep thinking about how to make this affordable and accessible to others.
NNAMDIWe should point out, and thank you very much for your call, Tim. We should point out that your piece was not exactly an assault on all tasting menus which you've made obvious during the course of the past hour, you were very excited by the experience you had at a restaurant called Noma in Copenhagen. What were they doing right that made it such a positive experience for you?
KUMMEROkay. So I'm embarrassed and ashamed to admit that I loved Noma in Copenhagen. Why am I embarrassed and ashamed? Because it has become so fashionable to say this is the best restaurant in the world as a questionable survey in England has named it, and it matters to a lot of chefs where they are in this international ranking out of England. But what it did was made me think anew about ingredients I thought I knew like lobster tail there. It's an elitist ingredient.
KUMMERBut also like parsnips and carrots and stuff that doesn't take a fortune either to buy or to bury in charcoal they did for 24 hours and it comes looking like this revolting piece of carbon you shouldn't have anything to do with, and then you bite into it and it's got this unbelievable soft, creamy custardy texture, this intense flavor, you know, completely affordable to anyone, and fascinating.
KUMMERThey have some trickery in the kind of industrial food -- molecular gastronomy. Modernist cuisine is politically correct term these days, bag of tricks. For example, they'll make edible soil that's malt and nuts and various things that, you know, it literally looks like dirt, it tastes wonderful. And they'll, you know, mock berry small baby vegetables in it with the greens and you eat the greens. And in fact, Dan Barber and lots of other chefs are taking lots of techniques from Noma because it's fun, it's whimsical without being too precious, and it brings you back into contact with thinking, okay, this is where this food grew and this is what the root and the leaves of it taste like.
KUMMERAnd even if I talk about it, it sounds precious, like my love of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. When something has become so written about, it's inevitably derided as precious. And then when you go, you can really be stunned by it, like your caller with the alternative black and white truffles. I'm sure it was stunning. Just to talk about it, it's like hard.
NNAMDIJuanita in Rockville, Md. You're on the air, Juanita. Go ahead, please.
JUANITAHi. Thanks for taking my call. I wanted to know, with the analogy you made to theater, how someone could educate themselves about the tasting menu experience before going, considering that a lot of people can't afford it, like a lot of people can't always afford to go to see plays or musicals, and they might read the play ahead of time, or they might listen to the music of a musical or an opera. How can they educate themselves before going if they now that may only experience this once or twice in a lifetime?
JUANITAI did a tasting menu years ago with my husband, and we spent a lot of money and, frankly, we left hungry and we were kind of disappointed, and we didn't really know how justify the cost.
KUMMERSo could I interrupt, because I love, love, love this question. And I have this suggestion that's going to make lots of chefs mad, but I put it to you. Find a restaurant that you can afford to go to, whose chef or cook or, you know, woman, whoever, interests you, and go in and say, in a couple of weeks, in a couple of months, when you are able, could you make me a tasting menu that shows yourself off for this amount of money, because it's all I can afford.
KUMMERMy hunch, and this could get me in a lot of trouble, is that a lot of cooks would absolutely welcome this, especially if you'll come in on a very slow night when they don't have to pump out a lot of food to make their nut, and their ordinary expenses. And I think you could be educating the chef and educating yourself. I don't think that you have to sign up for something that's outside of your income range. I think you should be challenging cooks who've opened restaurants to help work with you in your own comfortable income range.
NNAMDIAnd, you know, Juanita, you should also know that the comparison to performances goes even farther because some of these places actually sell tickets, correct? Yeah.
KUMMERYeah, they do. It's use it or lose it. You don't show up, you have paid for it anyway, and they've already covered their expenses for the night, which is another thing I should say about tasting menus. It's passing on bargain. You know, bulk buying and the most seasonal which often the cheapest.
NNAMDIAnd Juanita, thank you very much for your call. Good luck to you.
NNAMDIFrom a pure business standpoint, the tasting menu does seem to make a decent bit of sense. The kitchen wastes far less food when it's making the same meal for every diner that steps inside. How much of this model do you feel is about controlling costs for the business behind the restaurant?
KUMMERI assumed it was all about controlling costs, because they know -- especially the theatrical model, when you're buying tickets in advance, you know, there it's all set, and it sounded like a dream come true, and I think it is for chefs. But on the other hand, there are many arguments against it. For example, Jose would say -- Jose Andres would say with his Minibar, my staff to guest ratio is so unaffordably high that I'm practically losing money on this. It's such a thin margin. I'm doing it I think as a laboratory of taste for his own cooks and for himself.
KUMMERYou know, it's a labor of love. It's a labor of artistry, and it's not able to make money even though it's terrifically expensive and it's a very hard reservation to get. Another chef said to me, if you have carefully planned your menu, and you know what guests will offer, and you've been in business a couple of years, you can predict and control your costs, even with no-shows, in a way that isn't that much -- will leave you much worse off from a chef who is charging this in advance.
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left, but I wanted Neal to share about 30 seconds of that with us, because he's had an insider's experience. Neal, go ahead, please.
NEALThank you so much. I'll make this as fast as possible. I worked for Charlie Trotter for a couple years and now work in the DC region in restaurants, and went I read your article, Mr. Kummer, I was saddened to hear that you didn't have the experience that so many prior to you did at Trotters, and to kind of make him the pariah of the tasting menu world is understandable from his vantage of celebrity, but for those of us that worked there, and for many guests that experienced tasting menus with him, we went to untold lengths to do other things beyond the tasting menu for guests.
NEALWe constantly would send chefs running down the road through the alleyway to another restaurant to get shrimp to make shrimp cocktail. I witnessed people in the kitchen making...
NEAL...brioche on the fly.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's about all the time we had, but that was not your experience, Corby Kummer.
KUMMERI would call him the pioneering crusader.
NNAMDICorby Kummer is a senior editor at the Atlantic, food writer, and the recipient of five James Beard awards for journalism. Corby, once again, thank you joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi
Most Recent Shows
With D.C., Virginia and Maryland passing new rules to begin to regulate the popular ride-sharing company, we explore Uber's growth in our region.
With both local legislatures now in session, we explore the laws likely to come out the Maryland and Virginia General Assemblies in the coming months.
Kojo talks with one of the reporters behind a recent Washington Post series on black wealth in Prince George's County and examines the lingering impact of the housing crisis in the Washington suburbs.