People Who Insist That Cuisine Needs to Be Representative Should Get Over it Already
Over the past few years, I have found myself in the midst of more than one argument about whether cuisine needs to be representative in order to have any value. Putting that it in simple terms, does food have to actually taste good in order to be considered good cuisine? It's a question that my friend Gary Allen Fine often asks. But then again, he's a sociologist so he is prone to asking those types of questions. But the truth is it's a valid question. Since the standard used by most food writers use is conclusory, meaning they base their review on the final taste of a dish, there is little room in their analysis for deconstructing a dish into its various parts in order to offer a more nuanced analysis. But this is not the case in other forms of criticism. How often do you see a review of a film where the writer lauds a single aspect of a film like the plot or the cinematography in the context of giving a film a mediocre, or even a bad review?
A dish that has the potential to inspire this debate in cuisine is Wylie Dufresne's foie gras knots. It's a simple enough concept. You take foie gras and add an enzyme that allows it to become flexible so you can cut it into long strands and tie it into knots. Those who insist on viewing cuisine though a lens of tradition would quickly dismiss the dish because the focus isn't on the quality of the ingredients, but on the effect caused by what has been added to the ingredient. And while I understand why people lodge that particular complaint (In fact I've offered it myself,) it's also wrongheaded to dismiss on that basis alone as the does make an aesthetic statement. In fact, my friend Gary and the other sociologists who are reading this post would say that the fact that Dufresne's dish has in part caused this discussion, is proof in and of itself of its aesthetic value.
This dynamic might be new to cuisine, but it has been going on in other arts and crafts for the past 150 years. For some reason that I will never understand, when the concept of abstraction or deconstruction is introduced into an art or craft, there is always a group of people who not only refuse to accept it as valid, but who also feel the need to deride it. For example, can you imagine Picasso derided? Or how about Charlie Parker? It's hard to imagine but there were times when they were both subjected to this type of criticism. And what binds all of these instances together is that in almost every instance where this happened, those who offered this type of criticism were deaf to the arguments made by the groups of people who claimed these advancements had value. And in fact, derided those people for holding those opinions.
An excellent example of how this debate is playing out in cuisine can be found in a recent post about the restaurant L'Esguard on Chez Pim titled L'Esguard, Possibly the Worst Meal of My Life. For those of you who aren't familiar with the restaurant, Miguel Sanchez Romero, the chef and owner, is a brain surgeon turned chef. In fact I believe he still splits his week between the operating room and the kitchen. But more importantly, Romero is the creator of Micri, an enzyme based additive that is popular with modern chefs. And it seems that like a surgeon, who always looks to solve problems by cutting, he brought some of his surgical habits to cooking and Romero has never known a dish where adding Micri didn't sound like a good idea.
Unfortunately I have never been to the restaurant so I can't offer a first hand opinion of my own, but I do have the benefit of running a dining survey and I know what others have to say about the restaurant. Looking over the results, 75% of the people who rated the restaurant were able to recommend it, and it has a current rating of 96 points making it a top local choice in the region. Granted the sample size was small, but the panel that rated the restaurant had an overall higher experience rating than the panels that rated restaurants like Alinea and Manresa, albeit less experience than those that rated Arpege and Pierre Gagnaire. But just to show you disparate opinions can be, I have had private correspondence with Tom Collicchio about the restaurant. One day last spring, Tom was taking a trip to the Catalan Coast and he asked me to recommend some restaurants. A few days later an email arrives saying, "you know where I had a good dinner last night? L'Esguard." Shows you how much he values my advice because it wasn't even on the list I gave him.
I don't offer these examples in order to claim that one set of opinions is right and the other wrong, but to imply that there is clearly more than one way to look at Sanchez's cuisine. In the instance of the review in question, is the cuisine as flawed as it was claimed to be or is the problem that the reviewer assessed it using the wrong set of standards? I do not have the answer to this question and indeed the review might be accurate. But the other opinions I put forth do allow us to draw a clear inference that the review might be also be misguided. Clearly, when three quarters of the people queried about the subject have an opinion that is diametrically opposed to this particular conclusion, it's certainly a fair question to ask and it puts a spotlight on the overall issue of what standard should be used to assess non-representative? But where I will take a position is on the derision. Because if history tell us one thing, it is that when it comes to the arts, history tells us that those who have derided what is a changing paradigm, eventually become as obsolete as the standards they insist on.