It was the serving suggestion that repulsed the world. In December last year, midway through a meal at Lecce’s Michelin-starred restaurant Bros’, American author Geraldine DeRuiter – who blogs about food and travel as The Everywhereist – was presented with a citrus foam. So far, so 2010. But it didn’t arrive in a cup or fancy canapé spoon; instead, in an episode that DeRuiter was pretty sure was ‘stolen from an Eastern European horror film’, it came in a plaster cast of head chef Floriano Pellegrino’s mouth. And in the absence of any further utensils, DeRuiter and co were instructed to lick the foam directly from it. DeRuiter’s post went viral, and then more viral still as Pellegrino penned a gloriously self-satisfied response that read exactly like the sort of thing someone who makes plaster casts of their mouth would write. (‘What is a chef? What is a client? What is good taste?’) As such online flare-ups often are, it was a source of rich amusement and various takes and counter-takes for a week or so, and then – as such online flare-ups often do – it faded from view.
But buried in the back-and-forth of the fracas was another, less evanescent debate. As DeRuiter detailed this four-and-ahalf- hour endurance test of a dinner, in which 27 courses came and went with ‘nothing even close to an actual meal served’ (a dining experience experienced as ‘a persistent and sustained sort of agony, like slowly peeling off a Band-Aid,’ wrote DeRuiter), a question emerged. Are we finally, finally done with tasting menus?
For almost as long as there have been tasting menus, there have been tasting-menu naysayers. When Paul Bocuse and the rest of the nouvelle cuisine wave were popularising the menu dégustation in the 1970s – borrowing from Japanese kaiseki tradition as they did so – none other than Julia Child was on hand to decry ‘a certain sameness of menu in the new-cuisine offerings, and that is probably inevitable, since not every chef is a creator, and those who cannot create will copy those who can.’ For Child in 1977, read Josh Ozersky in 2010, lamenting exactly the same tendency among lesser chefs to mimic the techniques of those at the vanguard of world gastronomy – which at this point in history, came via an obsession with microscopically detailed presentation across a succession of tiny courses that could only be achieved with laboratory-grade equipment.
But the backlash really reached its height midway through the last decade, as the number of courses served ballooned. El Bulli, the Catalan chef Ferran Adrià’s temple to modernist cuisine (and tweezer food), signed off in 2011 with a 49-course last supper. Throughout the 2010s, a series of Adrià acolytes, from Noma’s René Redzepi to Alinea’s Grant Achatz, would present diners with their own version of multi-multicourse degustation menus. As early as 2012, The New York Times’s Pete Wells was raising a warning flag, in a piece aptly titled ‘Nibbled to Death’. As longer menus started to proliferate, Wells cautioned that experiences like this can make a diner feel like a ‘cog in an invisible machine’, ‘as much like a victim as a guest’; he noted, too, how dining rooms were beginning to shift, as a new breed of diner took over, equal parts big-game hunter and earnest foodie.
A chef presenting a diner with a ceramic replica of their own mouth and asking them to lick food from it might be in possession of something of an ego
In retrospect, it almost seems quaint. Instagram was acquired by Facebook in 2012, the same year Wells wrote his cautionary screed; the 2010s’ tasting menu was to be consumed as much via social media as in the dining room. As Pellegrino’s now infamous mouthpiece illustrates, the only limit on presentation in the Instagram era is the chef’s own imagination; as DeRuiter’s response to it indicates, this may not be an entirely positive thing. But aside from the valid, knotty questions the Bros’ imbroglio raises about art and artistry – What is a chef? What is a client? What is good taste? – the most salient thing about it is the timing. Yes, we are once again litigating the future of the tasting menu. But now, we’re doing it in a cultural context that allows us to frame the discussion with a little more clarity – in light of the Covid pandemic and some of the issues it has laid bare.
In a world where the concept of the ‘key worker’ has exposed urgent questions about labour relations at every level of society, a hospitality model predicated on moneyed guests benefiting from the toil of un(der)paid stagiaires starts to look questionable at best, if not downright exploitative, especially once the wincingly high sticker price of the finished product is taken into account. Similarly, a dining experience that relies on innumerable tableside interactions between front of house staff and customers – as many as 54, if each course of a 27-course menu Bite-size dishes such as those from Noma and Bros’ are increasingly passé must be brought to and cleared from the table; compared to just six for a three-course à la carte meal – feels, to put it lightly, not exactly Covid-safe. Even as the pandemic finally recedes, are people (whether staff or customers) really going to be comfortable getting so up in each other’s business, so frequently?
Then again, at its worst extremes, the tasting menu was never about the comfort of guests or staff. Shall we take a wild guess that a chef presenting a diner with a ceramic replica of their own mouth and asking them to lick food from it might be in possession of something of an ego? As the number of courses started to spiral in the tasting-menu arms race of the 2010s, it became clear that something else was at stake: a stereotypically male desire to have the longest one in the business. When Time magazine launched its infamous ‘Gods of Food’ issue in 2013, all three cover stars were male; as the decade went on, scrutiny slowly came to bear on how disproportionately fine dining (in which tasting menus were endemic) was dominated by men, most of them white. Pete Wells was right about the homogenising effect of tasting menus – although it took place not just in the dining room, but in the kitchen too.
There is something profoundly surreal, if artistic, about the tasting menu: the elongation of an act that could take seconds into one that takes hours
Wells began his piece with a minor but meaningful anecdote, detailing how at one restaurant he’d put down the menu and been asked, ‘What shall we cook for you this evening?’ It was in marked contrast to his introduction to dinner at another venue, where he confirmed he would be going all-in on the 12-course degustation menu only to be greeted with the grim pronouncement, ‘Okay, I’ll go get that started for you.’ No one wants to feel part of a process; no one wants to feel like they have lost their agency. In the wrong kind of hushed dining room, free will, spontaneity, fun are the first casualties.
Ultimately, it is for this reason that the tasting menu feels in a more precarious state than at any other point in its history. If the thought of being confined to a specific location for an indeterminate period of time brings back memories of being locked down for large swathes of the past two years, it is unlikely to be a sensation people actively seek out as they return to restaurants; sitting in near-silence over a succession of tiny plates simply does not sound like a good time for a population that has been reminded how important joyful human connection actually is.
Those closest to the front line are noticing the change. Aiste Miseviciute travels the world of haute cuisine for her international culinary hub Luxeat, and she has gained tens of thousands of followers on Instagram in the process, all of them looking for a privileged glimpse of life at the top table of global gastronomy. She observes that the tasting menu is losing its importance. ‘With the pandemic, many diners have realised that often these tasting menus are too long – exhausting – and people want something real: good quality, good ingredients.’ There is, on reflection, something profoundly surreal about the tasting menu: the elongation of an act that could take seconds into one that takes hours; the fragmentation of few courses into many; the sheer manpower required to pull the thing off. There is something artistic about it, even if the artistry involved is more based in studious rehearsal than the sort of creative spontaneity, or genius, lionised in all of those chef profiles from the past few decades. If, as Miseviciute observes, the past two years have instilled in people a need to enjoy something tangible, down-to-earth, real, then perhaps what we will see is a further increase in the disconnect between haves and have-nots that existed before Covid-19. Tasting menu-only restaurants will continue to cater to the small but wealthy cadre of customers who enjoy the pomp, the ceremony, the theatrical absurdity of it all; everyone else can just get on with their lives.
Increasingly, though, a third way is becoming more common. Some of the best meals I ate in London last year came in restaurants that had shifted for economic reasons from à la carte to a prix-fixe model: a certain number of courses – more than three, fewer than 27 – for a set price (usually around the £50 mark). For anyone looking for an experience a little more ‘special’ than the norm, it felt like the perfect win-win for both restaurant and diner: the restaurant gets to manage wastage and guarantees a certain spend per head, without having to employ a staff of hundreds; the diner gets the thrill of something a little more ornate and theatrical without the attendant price tag, waiting time and feeling of almost existential grossness that accompanies 20-plus courses of haute cuisine. All that, and not a ceramic mouthpiece in sight.