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Bourdain, Keller, And That French Place Where You Wash Clothes...

Watched Tony Bourdain "do" The French Laundry a couple of nights ago and found the program enchanting. It was fun watching Bourdain, who is usually only warmly enthusiastic (in my opinion) and sometimes leaning sharply in the direction of ennui (again, my opinion) get so damned little-boy excited about meeting, greeting, and eating with Thomas Keller. If they had edited out all except Bourdain and left only Bourdain, it would still have been a show well worth watching.

The second most fascinating thing about the show was the tasting meal Keller "whipped up" for the four chefs; Bourdain and his three “Great Chefs of America” guests. (Sorry. Didn't catch all of their names, but God, that French guy is sexy!) Obviously Keller is fully familiar with the long tradition in chefdom of sticking one's finger in the food or sauce to taste, and occasionally even double dipping before sharing with the world, so he quite ingeniously sent out four different dishes for each course and the chef/guests had a taste of whatever came to them first, then passed it on. Quadruple your pleasure, quadruple you fun!

But that got me thinking... If they had 15 courses, which is probably not far off, then each chef/guest tasted 60 different dishes! But did they? Indeed, could they? In the world of fine perfume, one is advised never to smell more than three aromas on a buying trip, to place a dot on a pulse point your nose can reach, do NOT smell it for at least half an hour so it has time to bloom. Oh, and yes, you can place three different perfumes on three pulse points all at the same time as long as you remember which is which. And if at the end of half an hour you are only in "like" with any of them, go home and come back tomorrow and try a different three when your sense of smell is no longer fatigued.

The question seems logical to me that if three perfumes put your sense of smell at the point of saturation, my god, what must 60 different tastings do! It must put this sort of food orgy in the category of hedonistic trauma. Hey, ain't nothing wrong with hedonism, if that's what turns you on, but I am beginning to have difficulty with the term, "tasting menu." It's beginning to clang like some sort of oxymoron in my brain...

So I started thinking about what sorts of things could be helpful in shaking at least some of the sense of satiety loose from diner's brains. The first thing that occurred to me was a relaxing mini-stroll in a lovely garden, then to a different table and ambiance to carry on with the feast. But... The garden stroll would be far less difficult than building an eatery with enough dining rooms to house an evening's guest list. And how to schedule the game of musical tables? And it wouldn't be very relaxing to have to stroll in a garden packed with other strollers. So that won't work.

Idea Number Two is to change the scenery in the room. That could be as simple as opening the shutters on a window or two and allowing in a lovely view. Change lighting level. Cover a picture on a wall with a stunning tapestry. Simpler still, a new and ever changing center piece. It was interesting watching the center of the table on the Bourdain show. A charming multi-flowered centerpiece in appetite stimulating hues appeared and disappeared as the meal progressed, switched out for elegant center-table foods. But as far as I could tell, it was always the same floral centerpiece that appeared and disappeared. Not exactly what I had in mind.

Then, last night it dawned on me. Much as I hate fusion for it's heavy handedness in pushing aside traditional foods (with flavors I love but can no longer find), in this case fusion may well be the answer. But not the food! In the progression of service and presentation!

In the very traditional Japanese chanoyu I experienced in my youth (when I was much nimbler of body!), the progression of the tea "ceremony" was well set out and accomplished all of the things I've considered above in the space of one small rustic tea house and one small but masterfully executed garden. I've only experienced one full four hour "chaji," in my lifetime, and it was some fifty years ago. The essence of the experience, if not the exact progression, is still strong in my mind. But that's okay because I don't think the discipline of true chanoyu would fly with today's "Americans."

It's what was done with one small garden and one rustic tea house that is phenomenal and could add richness -- with a few modifications -- to today's most elite dining experiences. On arrival for chanoyu, the guests gather in an anteroom and are served a simple cup of the hot water that will be used in brewing both teas served later. In the way of Zen, it's a time to clear out the mind, get a hold on what's to come by familiarizing oneself with the "flavor" of the water, and a way to ritually cleanse the mouth and soul, the better to embrace the whole experience. Well, in today's world, I ain't gonna hold my breath for that to happen in this culture! But... I could see a quiet relaxing table in a quiet relaxing bar being served a quiet relaxing drink as a nice prelude to the evening to come. A transition time in which to relax and gather one's focus.

In the next chaji stage of chanoyu, guests are led into a small sector of the host's garden where there will be running water where each guest rinses their hands and mouth in preparation for the rest of the day. And the time of day everything begins is important. In old traditional chanoyu, the host either started things off very early in the morning or later in the day, the objective in either case being to take advantage of the change in light and to gain the colors of sunrise or sunset. Well, forget about dawn. Who needs a breakfast tasting of tiny Belgian waffles and stone ground oatmeal? Not me!

I need to say something about the gardens surrounding a tea house. "Masterpiece" springs to mind. The Japanese have spent centuries refining the art of garden design. Some teahouse gardens are, simply put, a masterpiece of trompe l'oeil. By carefully contouring the land, then selecting plants and trees by shape, color and size, the eye is fooled into believing that a small garden is very large. And then there is the aesthetic pleasure of a sand garden.

During the four hour experience, the guests will be returned to the garden several times, but always to a different place, so the view is always different. No sensory fatigue here! I think this is something that a French Laundry type of restaurant could handle without making major logistical changes to the place. And I think at least two "garden breaks" during the course of the meal would relax the diners and help push them back from the brink of satiety.

A traditional teahouse is designed with two major wall elements that are the focal points of decor and ambience. One is the tokonoma, or "alcove", the other is a shoji. The shoji doors are not used for entering and exiting the teahouse. That's accomplished through a small door that requires all who enter to bend over in order to get through. The purpose is to literally force recognition by everyone that all are equals in chanoyu. Well, let's face it. That ain't gonna fly in western society. But a French door could accomplish the same thing as the shojis: They are not left open all the time, but when they are opened the color of the sky -- a remarkable blue, a storm threatening gray, a dazzling sunset red -- is a rich stimulus to the visual sense, and truly fine dining is a full sensory experience.

The tokonoma is a small raised platform against the wall with wooden floor to ceiling pillars framing the front of it. In other words, it is a small stage. During the courses of food and tea (and breaks in the garden) two things are displayed in the tokonoma: calligraphy and ikebana. Well, "calligraphy" isn't quite a hard fast rule, since sometimes it will also contain an illustration or pillar painting and sometimes not. The calligraphy is always amazing to see. I once had a girlfriend who held citations from Emperor Hirohito for her calligraphy, and watching her work was very very special! The scroll painting or calligraphy hangs in the tokonoma at exactly the right height and placement that brings harmony and balance to the eye. Well, western art isn't as esoteric, but a really nice painting can certainly help diners relax and appreciate the food. Couldn't hurt! But I should also add that there is no room for a centerpiece on the table in chanoyu since there is no table! Just host and guests with iron knees.

When guests return from a specific "garden break", the host will have removed the pillar painting/calligraphy and the tokonoma will hold an ikebana flower arrangement. Or is it vice versa? I no longer recall the exact order, but there is one. "Ikebana" is a floral study in asymmetrical balance. And no. “Asymmetrical balance” is not an oxymoron. I won't go into the three points of heaven, earth, man in the arrangement, but just say that these are truly wonderful. In most fine dining tasting settings, the flower arrangements are usually satisfactory. But one arrangement per entire meal does not push back the mental fatigue of sensory overload through the taste buds. So what's wrong with flowers being traded out for a fruit arrangement or an amazing piece of porcelain? And I'm going to risk howls of "Philistine' here by suggesting that plain white china is not the most pleasing way to present course after course of fine food.

Way too late to try to make this short, but I do think that diners would benefit greatly from a few breaks to stimulate the other senses, give the body a chance to assume (and enjoy) a non-sitting position, and the opportunity to let the stomach shake down and the taste buds relax. In other words, forget about the bouche for the moment and bring on the amuse!

What do you think?

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  1. If I am not mistaken, that was part of his initial FN show, A Cook's tour, and is a few years old. A great show nonetheless.

    3 Replies
    1. re: maisonbistro

      The French Laundry shoiw is a few years old? hmmm,,, I wish they'd give a date! Thanks for the info!

        1. re: MplsM ary

          Thanks, and what's really interesting is that in some of the older shows, you really know it's an older show because he looks so young. I didn't notice that in this one. Still in all, a fun show if only to watch him be so awe struck!

    2. Two of the other three are Michael Ruhlman and Eric Ripert. Pretty hefty company.

      I was thinking kind of the same way as you Caroline1, except not in as much depth. OK, like microns in depth compared to you.

      The dish with the crush Marlboro was kind of disgusting though, so I don't think anyone but Bourdain tasted it.

      On a pure gluttony level, and you can see it in their eyes, these guys were saying: "give me more". Which is what my initial reaction would be. But as the dishes piled up and as the wines piled up, I would think that taste bud fatigue would set in. Which is your point.

      In China, the emperor's feast became the show off event for businessmen a few years back. This entailed exotic ingredient done in a very showy way, and the people who have participated said that the end couldn't come fast enough because they were so numbed by the experience that they couldn't enjoy the last dishes at all.

      13 Replies
      1. re: Phaedrus

        On the Marlboro -- A tasting menu based dinner in we had in Italy about 5 years ago included tobacco gelato - not all disgusting. Discriptors were peppery, leather, and of course tobacco. It was not bad but not something I would ask Ciao Bella to add to their repetoire.


        1. re: Phaedrus

          Missed that episode, but saw a rather-recent one of No Reservations where Tony goes back to NYC. He and Ripert and two or three other chefs go out to late dinner.

          So where do chefs go to eat? One of Bourdain and Ripert's fav places is Prune owned by chef Gabrielle Hamilton. Talk about gluttony ... she poured it on for them (apparently something she is very used to doing for fellow chefs).

          Now that really makes me want to taste her food!!

          And, cool thing, she's going to up against Bobby Flay on ICA July 20th. Can't wait!

          1. re: HarryK

            If I remember correctly, that was where they had the roasted bone marrow. I was so jealous. Love that stuff.

            1. re: Phaedrus

              Yep, Phaedrus, that was the place!

              Never had roasted bone marrow, myself, but boy the chefs sure did love that!

              1. re: HarryK

                The only way I've had "roasted" bone marrow is when it has been cooked in the middle of a very large piece of beef. And WOW, is that ever good! But I also love poached marrow. To me, it has a gentler yet richer flavor, and makes an absolutely magnificent spread on gently toasted French (non-sourdough) bread. Top it with a few grains of perfect sea salt and you've got heaven! I find it one of those extremely rare dishes that makes me resent being served anything else to eat for at least an hour afterward. Unfortunately, it's often served as a starter... <sigh> I would prefer it as a savory dessert.

                1. re: Caroline1

                  Caroline, Thanks a lot for the description. Its made my oatmeal this morning that much less bearable. :P

                  1. re: Phaedrus

                    Ooooh, sorry 'bout that! I find breakfast too exciting to waste on oatmeal. I usually avoid it until late in the day, often at bedtime. Tamales, or potstickers, or even thick layers of unsalted butter and braunschweiger on pumpernickel are a better way to start my day! Oh. And I NEVER discuss what I eat for breakfast with a doctor. '-)

            2. re: HarryK

              Oh I think I saw that one.... it that where they ate the sheep's eyes... or something similar? I had to excuse myself after that......

              1. re: Gio

                Seriously don't think *that* was the same place.

                Might have been the same episode though.

                Wasn't the sheep eyes in the basement Japanese joint with the two chefs from Tokyo?

                1. re: HarryK

                  I'm not sure now. Were there other chefs there with him, and wasn't the dish prepared by a female chef??

                  I remember the Japanese show but the two Japanese men were showmen of some kind.... singers??

                  CRS is a total waste!

                  1. re: Gio

                    No, same show talking about. The NYC one. Started out with Ripert and a couple guys. Later Tony was with some Japanese chefs. Later on, other people still.


            3. re: Phaedrus

              Oh..and the 4th guy was the chef from Veritas in NYC...Scott Bryan.

            4. my solution to FL satiety is a nice walk in the garden halfway through the meal. 15 courses would not be at all unusual there and i've had meals that ran to 25. of course, they are keller's famous 3-bite specials. it can be quite extraordinary. i've had 3-course meals that have left me feeling fuller than one of those 20-plus meals.

              1. I'm with you on the "place where you wash clothes", and the gradual but subtle change of scenery. In 30 years, I have advanced from "washboard abs" to "washing machine abs"

                1. Its a few years old. Look at the hair...not that grey. But a fun show to watch none the less. Veritas has changed hands since.

                  1. I ate in a fine dining place in oussera in morrocco (the name escapes me, it was 8 years ago). There were several rooms all surrounding and looking onto a courtyard with a fountain with rose petals floating in it. You started in one room, had a plate, then moved to the next room, had a plate, and so on for four rooms, then finally you sat at a dining room and had five more courses. It was odd, but I liked it. I would have liked to go back into room rotation for dessert as well.

                    1 Reply
                    1. That was a great show, seeing Bourdain and Ripert so enjoying Keller's food I immediately went out and bought the French Laundry Cookbook.

                      Thanks for the educational discussion of the tea ceremony, something I've always been curious about

                      1. I have the ability to cook for three hours but I don't think I have the attention span (not to mention gullet size), for more than a two hour meal in a restaurant. If thirty minutes or more were drinks and hors d'oeuvres then I might could go longer. Moving around and standing some would help. I really like water views and seeing activity on the water.
                        I remember the last, extended, two-plus hour meal where service and some of the food was not up to the task. Breaks occured unnaturally from flagging service. I started to lose attention and was not so fascinated with continuing into dessert.
                        Your ideas remind me of an informal, yet orchestrated, small dinner party where you start in the livingroom, progress to the kitchen for appetizers and sampling various things (standing), then go to the diningroom for the main entrees and finish with dessert on the deck. I've come pretty close to that before, except I'm usually busy in the kitchen and it's hard to keep people from congregating there.

                        7 Replies
                        1. re: Scargod

                          Ain't nothing wrong with guests in the kitchen! Within reason. Years ago, I taught a few cooking classes (primarily for "newly single" men who didn't have a clue about whether to fry an egg in or out of the shell), and it was a lot of fun, but I kept wishing I had a kitchen big enough to teach at home where there was no danger of forgetting to bring something important. Now I have a kitchen big enough, and perfect for that function, but I'm no longer interested in teaching anyone (except my grandson) how to cook!

                          But I am kind of crotchety in the kitchen. My lifelong rule is, "I don't want you to help me prep or help me cook or clear the table or wash the dishes simply because I don't want to do any of that at YOUR house...!" I hate it when guests insist on "washing up," then put things away in places it takes me two weeks to find! '-)

                          The thing I found truly mind boggling about that show is being served 60 things to taste in one sitting. My best guess is that there were 60. I figure about 15 each, shared four ways. 60. And totally numb taste buds by about course 5? It's gotta be like when I cook Thanksgiving dinner for dining at five. I have to wait until midnight or later for my wonderfully flavorful turkey sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise and sliced cranberry jelly with a leaf of lettuce before I can taste anything! Actual Thanksgiving dinner for me is a plateful of sawdust. Totally dead olfactory and taste buds!

                          Ever been part of a truly "progressive dinner?" Each course at a different house? Love that! And you absolutely do refresh all of your senses and are ready for the next course by the time you get there!

                          Keller seems to be an extremely aware and bright guy. I would be surprised if he doesn't do something to address the sensory fatigue that was edited out of this show. His comments about food/memory links, how lucky he and his staff are to work in such a kitchen, his hope that some in Bourdain's party would someday experience something that evoked the thought, "This reminds me of the French Laundry." A very insightful guy. I would just love to know how he addresses sensory overload! There are absolutey moments in life where you go someplace only once, sometimes very briefly, that burn a memory so sharp you own it forever while a place you go to or see every day are faded badly over time. I call them, "Yours to keep memories." I've got some goodies! '-)

                          1. re: Caroline1

                            I've been enjoying this thread. One thing just popped into my head: after my 3 hour lunch at the French Laundry, I realized that the food had had no scent. Unless I'm crazy and just forgot... But really that's what I remember. Looking at the food, tasting the food, but never smelling the food.

                            1. re: Glencora

                              That is strange! I would have demanded a 50% discount since smell is at least 50% of taste!

                              Thanks for sharing that. Short of a cold in your nose (which I strongly presume was not the case!), I'm wondering if the complexity of all of the procedures just flayed the odor out of everything? Interesting.

                              I do doubt that you forgot. The sense of smell is man's sharpest memory, and one that is famous for triggering associated memories. Ever smelled something and suddently had a flash of another time another place, the same smell? I doubt very much that you've forgotten the aromas. More probable they just weren't there.

                            2. re: Caroline1

                              I think I can relate to what you are saying. I would love to have a bite (or two, or go whole-hog; zeroing in on something that was incredible), if I could. Occasionally I have been able to do that...
                              I see the sensory overload as not that of too much variety of food, but the numbing from drink. It is nearly inescapable, and oh, so enjoyable. I sometimes don't know when to stop when I am enjoying the evening. From what I have read many (including Ruth Reichel, many chefs and just ordinary Chowhounds) are in this boat, too.

                              1. re: Scargod

                                I think some food/booze "pairings" (don't know why that word bugs me) have such a strong affinity for each other, once you have the first bite/sip, it's a downward spiral from there. You just can't stop.

                                The sense of taste/smell and its perception by the brain is really interesting to study. Have you ever tasted something, and the first mouthful was so exquisite that every subsequent bite afterward was just not as good? But you end up eating the whole thing because you can't believe the next bite won't be as good (or better) than the first? Yet so very few people have the capacity to quit after that first exquisite bit.

                                But a critical factor that plays into taking the next bite is that the more usual experience is to require several bites to get the full flavor, roll the subtleties of taste all across the tongue, enjoy and savor the aftertaste. This is by far the more common experience than the electrifying first bite that is never again equalled. And this is also the factor that makes me distrust tasting menus. Will the portion be large enough to truly experience the dish? And while I do appreciate a chef's generosity by sending out an amuse bouche, I also resent it because it distracts my tastebuds from the food I ordered that I really want to taste.

                                As for booze, I have a medication conflict so don't drink that much any more, but I always had a built-in "inhibitor." When I was getting close to "enough," the tip of my nose would go to sleep and my front teeth would feel all itchy. At that point, I just couldn't swallow any more! LOL! See? I told you I'm weird! I always liked wines and liqueurs more than liquor. Well, with one exception. There was a time when I looooved gin and tonic. But I don't think it was either the gin nor the tonic... My first husband and I had a favorite haunt that had a lot of ultra violet light, and tonic water glows! In today's world, if I didn't have the medication conflict, I would have to invent something. I was browsing a wine website the other day, and wines that I used to drink two or three times a week are now hundreds of dollars a bottle...! Sheesh. Who needs Alcoholics Anonymous?

                                1. re: Caroline1

                                  Your front teeth get....itchy?

                                  OK, thats a first for me.

                                  1. re: Phaedrus

                                    What! You mean that doesn't happen to everyone..??? '-)