When was your last tasting menu experience?
Well that was far too long ago!
I said to a friend once “I wish I could go to a tasting menu once a week” she said that she didn’t have the same wish. She has experienced a good number in her time but for her it was not the same as it was for me. I do have a devoted love for the tasting menu and chef prepared food.
What inspired to me write this was that I was recently at a tasting menu and it struck me solidly the fineness not just of the food but the ambience, service, comfort, wine and total touch was very meaningful to me. The waiter was a quintessential professional–it was a party of ten and he worked to make the meal the resounding success and it was. I am not sure if all diners appreciate the hard work to making a meal a success–I am fully aware because I notice detail and I love detail.
I think that ‘at the heart of matter’ of culinary excellence is to showcase the chef’s vision and aptness. I think to be a chef is to love food and by that extension hospitality. Hospitality is a word that we may know immediately but the many nuances are both fascinating and elusive. Hospitality and the tasting menu are synonymous with having each guest feel special and have the heart touched. I am not sure all chefs would agree but the chef who views their work as a vocation is the chef who conveys that excellence to the meal participant.
I have been to both tasting menu-only restaurants and those who have a mix of regular menu and tasting menu – singular selection and those with several per course. I always order tasting menu if offered at a restaurant offering both. It can be hard when you are with a group or even just two people often 99% of the time all people need to order the tasting menu. I get it. It is hard to time the meal and the experience can leave one diner feeling left out.
I remember one tasting menu experience that almost wasn’t–it was with wine writers and one person wanted to order off the menu but the requirement was all or nothing for the tasting menu. Each member of the table lobbied and eventually convinced that one person. I cannot imagine having to be convinced!
Now when I am asked about food allergies or those food items I don’t prefer–eggs by themselves for me. I am one of a dozen people on the planet that doesn’t like eggs. But I forget to mention eggs…now my standard line is eggs by themselves or lamb are something I prefer not to eat. I am not allergic they just are too intense for me. Eggs are too intensely scented as well as texture issue. And lamb is a texture issue and the gameness. Do I use eggs to bake yes absolutely. For years, I had not eaten cheese–but just in the past decade have been eating some cheeses, some of the time–still the strong cheese I cannot eat. So perhaps I can eat an egg or lamb in the future? Who knows stranger things have happened.
Food is the total senses experience and when thoughtful and expertly executed–it is a spiritual journey. One of my favourite programmes is Netflix’s Chef Table and like chef prepared food the programme highlights beautiful photography, editing, narration, story, direction, lighting and music and much more. The intent is getting into the head of each chef to talk about their vision, their drives. Their connection to ingredient and their love to share that with each person who goes to their restaurant.
The food documentary is the heart of the matter. Season 3 Chef’s Table highlight Virgilio Martinez’s Central in Lima and his quest for the excelsior tasting menu is truly unique. Martinez core vigil is to raise Peru’s most obvious as well as unique ingredients in his seemingly coterie of dishes on his tasting menu. The programme didn’t necessarily talk about spirituality but that was the net result of watching it–that for Virgilio Martinez–it is a spiritual quest to find and create food that feds body and soul.
The food documentary called ‘For Grace’ about Chef Curtis Duffy explored his brutal upbringing that might have stuttered someone’s life but his core being is not about just surviving but fermented ideas, aspirations in food and in life. Fermenting ideas to become lyrical food that is graceful—he left the restaurant Grace in 2016. And as I understand it he and business partner are looking to create a new restaurant.
I do appreciate the well-known chef as well as a chef that is not known. I am quizzical about what a great chef does (again known and not) and their choices, aspirations, visions and the beauty of their art on the plate. I think of one chef here in San Francisco who for years is more known for his bars and lunch counters–which is one of the best, high quality, casual meals you will have at the sandwich-salad level in the City. I was inspired by Chef Dennis Leary’s Canteen restaurant (now closed) on Sutter Street–seating no more than a dozen people–was an intimate, accessible and wondrous space. And even a personal side of Leary was on display–his favourite books within easy reach of most diners who were seated in the booths in his teeny, tiny intimate restaurant. I think Dashiell Hammett would have dined here–it just had the vibe. I would love Chef Leary to have a tasting menu restaurant–I think he is under-rated.
Some beautiful plates at a various restaurants as evidence of some great tasting menu experiences from Reims, Paris, and San Francisco:
So what are you waiting for?
When I know I am going to a tasting menu either if I book the reservation I immediately let them for tasting menu preferences/allergies. I often order the wine supplement–I want a variation but you could conceivably order by the bottle as well. In general, I find tasting menu pricing and especially with wine much more expensive in the US than say in Paris.
Enjoy your time–ask questions of server and ask of things you want to increase your enjoyment.
These are my future bucket list tasting menus:
Alinea – Chicago
Central – Lima
Osteria Francescana – Modena
James the Wine Guy
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