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Sep 19, 2008 06:11 PM

marco pierre white and bourdain vs. multicourse tasting menus

was loving the comments on this post from michael ruhlman and hoped i could hear some more from chow readers.

i have loved the multicourse tastings i have been lucky enough to enjoy, and see no end in sight for my desire to enjoy such meals (i'm hooked for life!).
however, i have learned my lesson on doing excessive wine pairings with them, as it's too much for me.
i'm sure there is such thing as too many courses to 'appreciate' them, but i have not yet seen it, and i certainly don't view multicourse dining as a 'trend' or some kind of aging concept that is nearly outdated, as bourdain and mpm seemed to imply.

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  1. I don't get that AB is coming down on the side of MPW and against Achatz, against elaborate multi-course tasting menus. He defends MPW's right to say what he feels at a Chef's conference, and does wonder if there is an ultimate limit: "WHERE is the point of diminishing returns? How much is too much?" Ultimately, though, in the comments, he says:

    "At a time when chefs like Adria and Andoni Adruiz are constantly expanding the realm of the possible, it would seem entirely appropriate and even necessary for chefs to ask themselves often:
    'Is it--at the end of the day--delicious?', and
    'Is it fun?'"

    Some chefs feel most creative with elaborate tasting menus, others don't. French Laundry is a different experience from sitting down for a cassoulet at Daniel. So? It's only worth arguing about if you're in the position to be making such differentiations critically - eating at all these places regularly and finding fault with overabundance. How many of us have that problem? Like an audience member said, they're spoiled. Like Ruhlman said, "If it were my house, I'd welcome all."

    4 Replies
    1. re: applehome

      well, i disagree that the only people entitled to opinions are the ones that eat at these spots regularly. though their opinions might be more informed, i think it is also possible, if not likely, that they are informed differently (as some other posters suggested) *because* they are constantly assaulted by chefs attempting to demonstrate virtuosity, and eat tastings frequently. while 10 courses every time you go out is awesome and i'm totally envious, alinea/french laundry are not kept in business by people that come every week---but by the people that come once in a blue moon.

      for the sake of those potential first-timers, or people that love to eat extremely well-prepared natural ingredients but are maybe hesitant about trying cutting-edge food/ experimenting with something a little more adventurous, i think it's a bit silly to criticize a different style best enjoyed in moderation.

      you did close it very well, though, with the ruhlman quote. its like poets mocking fiction writers. not really advancing creative writing by attempting to create a rift thats not really there

      1. re: kathleen rose

        You certainly got a lot more out of my post than I wrote. Since I never created a rift, you did yourself good in seeing one. I did think you were wrong in grouping AB in with MPW., but other than that, I never criticized anybody - people should enjoy all kinds of food, and chefs should enjoy making all kinds. I don't think that AB was saying anything different, either, even if he was questioning the tendency towards 35 and 50 course meals (and that was obviously a joke). He specifically said he loved being stuffed to the gill - once in a while. Me too.

        The silly thing is the argument itself, not one or the other opinion. Of course, Achatz took MPW's comments personally - he's being insulted about something he does (and does well) for a living. But my point is that the argument is not worth having for us mere mortals. We should just shut up and eat. I honestly don't see where you get anything else out of my post (Where did I criticize not eating in moderation?). But to each their own. Your mileage most certainly did vary.

        1. re: applehome

          I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to offend.

          1. re: applehome

            oh, and i wasnt saying *you* criticized not eating in moderation, i was saying thay -mpw/ab- "criticized a different style [tastings] best enjoyed in moderation" (e.g. they may have lost perspective since they overindulge/are forced to endure them even when they dont want to).

            on bourdain: i think some of the best criticisms are delivered in hyperbole/joke format, since they resound

      2. I think the question is ultimately: what are you trying to say with the tasting menu and how well are you saying it.

        It seems that the tasting menu has become ubiquitous because it is THE thing to do to show off, kind of like a statement by the chef as to how great a chef he is. I think people who have something to say, Achatz, Adria, Keller, will always make the tasting menu something fresh and new and a means to communicate the what they want to convey. The others, who seek to overwhelm with lots of dishes but not much new to say, will end up shooting themselves in the foot.

        1. Hmmmm... These guys are just figuring things out? For me, to plagiarize then paraphrase, "to degust or not to degust" has never been a question. "Tasting menus" have never made sense to me. If you've ever been the cook who prepared Thanksgiving dinner for everyone else to enjoy, you'll know what I mean. You taste and smell the food all day and come meal time, everything tastes like chalk, but you take solace in the knowledge that your taste buds will survive the sensory-knock out and fully recover in time for that 11:00pm turkey sandwich when everyone else is sprawled semi-conscious in front of the TV.

          Same thing happens to me when I go into one of those gourmet cheese shops where they offer you a bite of every cheese you look at. If I taste more than three or four, I end up going home with a very confused palate and a half pound of gruyere I didn’t want but bought out of guilt.

          Then there's the whole psychology of a meal. It starts with an appetizer that does just that: tickles your taste buds, lets your mouth warm-up its skills on how to taste things, allows your sense of smell to revel in its ability to do just that, and primes you for what's to come. The main course. With sides! Don't forget the sides. Doesn't matter what the main course is. It can be a stew, a casserole, a roast, a fish, a fowl, a steak, a chop, chateaubriand, or a hamburger. Ideally, a main course is where your olfactory glands and taste buds get a full tour de force work out. How does the roast beef taste alone? With the mashed potatoes? Without sauce? How about the turkey with a bite of dressing on it? With cranberry sauce or not? How does the after-taste of the venison work with a sip of wine? Adventure! And ultimately that un-glutted form of satiety called "satisfaction" sets in. And then you reward your tongue for work well done with a dessert. I've never seen a degustation course large enough to accomplish this.

          Which is not to say I don't enjoy a tapas bar. And I love sitting at an outdoor table of an afternoon in some charming Greek village grazing on mezes and sipping ouzo with friends. That's a whole different mind set, and making it a "meal" isn't the goal. But if it happens, hey, that's okay too. While tapas and mezes are almost always plated in an attractive manner, they are never fussed over with foams or dots of sauce or brush painted stains on the plate, and never mind flecks of gold leaf, or skewers of sage, all designed to dazzle the eye and make you breathe a prayer of gratitude for the wonderful chef who has spent his life studying the culinary arts just to bring this glorious moment to you. That's an awful lot of pressure for my poor taste buds to endure!

          Which brings me to another thought. Taste buds! Scientists and practitioners of sports medicine have made intense studies of athletes and their muscles. There are fast twitch muscles and slow twitch muscles. If you have fast twitch muscles, you'll be a good sprinter. Slow twitch means you're good at endurance, and a candidate to run marathons. But are there fast and slow twitch taste buds? I don't know. But I do enjoy the first long slow savoring of a great dish and letting it waltz with all of my taste senses. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami... How are they individually, and has the cook/chef combined them in such a way to strike a magic chord? How does the third bite compare with the first? Is it still a clear and exciting experience, or have my taste buds begun to fade? And what do I taste with tired taste buds I didn't taste with first bite? Again. a degustation course just doesn't afford this kind of experience.

          To me, a tasting menu must be something like working your way through a refrigerator crammed with great leftovers after the guests have departed from a three day holiday. You work your way through everything one spoonful at a time, but you only end up full, not satisfied. Rather like an upscale luxury buffet. I loved them for about three experiences. My approach (which may have been at fault) was always to go through the whole buffet placing tiny little "bites" on my plate, then go to our table and work my way through trying to decide what I wanted to have for dinner. Then I'd go get dinner! And by the time I got back to the table, put my napkin in my lap again and picked up the clean fork the waiter had replaced for me... Well, it tasted exactly like the chalk I had on my plate at Thanksgiving dinner after exhausting my sense of taste and smell by cooking the meal. To my way of thinking, degustations must do the same thing, except on a grander scale.

          Does that mean I would decline an invitation to a degustation with Anthony Bourdain, or any other famous chef/connoisseur? Hell no! Get my picture on TV? Enjoy a witty and/or surly conversation? Get a buzz on? Choke on his cigarette smoke? (My muse is laughing.) My 20 seconds of fame at last! But would I enjoy the food? I don’t think so. I'm sure I would get more out of sitting at home watching glorious slides of food porn on my 120" screen with a nice relaxing cup of espresso at my side. And the best part of that? Not one lousy calorie would migrate to my hips! '-)

          15 Replies
          1. re: Caroline1

            Yeah - but you never came to one of our Thanksgivings when my Mom ruled the roost. Roll-your own sushi, beef wellington, chicken gallantine, chahan and cream puffs - of course, there always was a Turkey and dressing - but they were almost afterthoughts. When my brothers and I started cooking we would bring our own things - from grilled cherry tomatoes in shiso and bacon to smoked mussels and duck. And then we would have different stuffings, from my wife's cornbread to my mom's standard wild rice and oyster.

            So now that mom's gone, we get together at our Uncle's once a year and he basically provides the Turkey - the entire extended family brings everything else, from lobster bisque to gravlax to que. We also get additional turkeys - including fried. And now, my brother stops by his good friend, the Itamae-san and brings along several large, round enameled trays full of the most imaginative and wonderful, huge, futomaki - just filled with the most incredible neta.

            I don't know if it's so much a tasting menu as a downright orgy of food. I'm not saying you want this to happen every day, but I'm not terribly concerned that the chef(s) couldn't get their point across or that anything tasted like chalk. Just eat a piece of gari and rinse down with a shot of shochu - or maybe a sip of wine.

            1. re: applehome

              But is anyone at your family's annual gathering regimented into the order and amount of each dish they can have? I think not! '-)

              1. re: applehome

                applehome, where is the feast this year? What kind of wine do you all prefer? And hen should I show up?

                1. re: Phaedrus

                  Hey! They can set extra places for both of us and I'll bring my very own original recipe set-your-taste-buds-dancing sweet potato souffle...! What time should be arrive, applehome?

                  1. re: Caroline1


                    There is regimentation, indeed. Eat! Eat! Do you want all this to go to waste?! Of course, there's no chef's master plan - I'm not sure anyone even actually thinks in terms of there being a turkey and trimmings in there somewhere, so build your food around that theme. No different from potlucks, but no green bean casseroles and absolutely no jello (somebody always manages to make home-made cranberry sauce - but that's ok - it's as traditional as the turkey).

                    The only truly unAmerican thing here is that it seems like nobody in the family is a football fan - although we have a slew of Baseball fans in the Boston-NYC corridor. So no football on TV afterwards, no massive triptophan induced naps in front of the game. (Then again, given the quantities of everything but Turkey involved, there's probably not a whole lot of triptophan going on.)

                    But that's a legit question - what happens at some of these 4-hour, 35-dish, 20 wine, tasting affairs? I mean - is it de rigueur to open up the belt a notch? How about falling face down in your 30th course and snoring? Do they have a backroom full of divans for customers who absolutely have to have a siesta?

                    1. re: applehome

                      All I can say about any family that doesn't navigate between ANY football games on Thanksgiving is.... YAAAAAAY!!!!!! You're MY kind of people!

                      Now as for your last paragraph... what makes you think there is enough food on 35 degustation plates to need to ease your belt a notch? Oh well, nothing wrong with raw unbridled optimism I guess. '-)

              2. re: Caroline1

                I am just curious at which restaurants you tried tasting menues so far. I have pretty much have the opposite opinions about tasting menues. For me tasting menues (especially those were you don't get stuff from the regular menue) are the best way to evaluate a restaurant and the creativity of the chef.

                1. re: honkman

                  I have had no degustation dinners at any restaurant but I do read a lot and I have seen Bourdain's trips to French Laundry and... Rats! Can't think of the name of it right now, but that place in Spain. I just don't know if it's a French Laundry clone, or if FL is a clone of it.

                  I base my judgement of "tasting menus" on experience. The human olfactory glands (a very critical part of taste) and taste buds start to fade after relatively few tastings. When shopping for perfumes, professionals recommend you set your limit at three when shopping for a new scent and come back another day to try more. Most someliers I've known in my life talk about five wines being a realistic limit for a tasting. And when it comes to how many dishes you can fully appreciate at one sitting, the cook's Thanksgiving experience probably serves as well as any other to illustrate "taster's fatigue."

                  Which is not to say there aren't occasions when it's a lot of fun for everyone involved to have a huge trencherman's banquet! There was a time in my life when for four years running, my Christmas dinner consisted of oysters Rockerfeller, standing ribs of beef with Yorkshire pudding, roast goose with chestnut grand Marnier stuffing, roast suckling pig with sage dressing, pureed potatoes, sweet potato souffle, brown sugar honey glazed carrots, roast beets, lavendered Brussels sprouts, cranberry orange relish, from-scratch yeast rolls, assorted relish trays, flaming plumb pudding bombe, mince pie, eclaires, coffee, tea, several wines and champagnes, coffee, cheese, nuts, and cigars with cognac. And yes, dammit! I had a cigar too! But NO ONE said, "a bite and a half of this and now the next dish."

                  And that's my objection to a degustation. Maybe my tastebuds are slow twitch, but I've tried a bite and a half of something, then move on to the same amount of something else.... It's exactly like when I was a kid and my mother would ask if I wanted "a stick of gum?" And I would always say yes. And she'd take a stick of gum out of her purse, tear off one quarter of it and hand it to me. And that's all I got!

                  No thanks. Not my scene. Which is not to say you shouldn't enjoy it if that's your thing. To each his own.

                  1. re: Caroline1

                    I agree to each his own but I have some problems if somebody dismisses something without ever trying it. Or would you take somebody serious who has never tasted a lemon but just read about it and claims lemons are horrible. Your comparion to some christmas dinners is also like comparing apples to oranges - one part of the "art" of a tasting menu, which not every chef has, is to have each course at the right time of the whole process (not only the taste is important but also the temperature etc.). Comparing this to just eating large amounts of many different dishes has absolutely nothing to do with a tasting menu. In addition, going back to the biology of taste buds it is not correct that they fade after relatively few tastings in general. (Or our body would be in serious trouble if chemoreceptors (or any kind of receptor) would automatically start to fade/stop working when hit a few times with the chemical signal). It depends on what you "feed" the chemoreceptors to have any long lasting effect which brings us back to the "art" to serve a tasting menu in the right order. (And there is a good reasons why good tasting menues have one or several palate cleansers at the right time).
                    I think you are comparing apples to oranges and missing something really interesting. You should try it :)

                    1. re: honkman

                      The concept of a fully planned and executed tasting menu is wonderful - what Adria and Achatz are known for is much like a true Japanese traditional omakase - where the chef has planned out the entire series of servings as a dinner. But that's not what you get at these wannabe places in Boston (maybe also NY). You get a mini-series of what's on the menu. I see no difference (in terms of your taste buds) between a pot luck dinner and an unplanned sequence of menu items - and yes, to the palate cleansers - thank goodness most of them recognize that something ought to be served between the salmon and the braised lamb shank. But even with some thought put into the sequence, the very act of pulling items only from the menu is limiting.

                      I have never been to the FL, but what I saw of Bourdain's show, they weren't skimping on the portions, and the meal lasted hours. I didn't get that anybody would walk away from that hungry. I believe that this is what Tony refers to in his comments as the "long form". On the other hand, there's his trip to Au Pied du Cochon... not the tasting menu, but the actual, full dish - every single item on that menu full of foie and every other part of the duck. Degustation, huh?

                      Isn't it like MG? The originators and the ones that have truly learned to do it right serve some very wonderful foods, while the imitators and wannabes serve junk because they don't understand everything they should. Whatever form you select to become a master in, you actually have to master. And the masterful ones are worth trying - the others, not so much.

                      1. re: applehome

                        I fully agree that not every tasting menu is great (as there are many restaurant itself are not great) but for that you have enough blogs, CH and other sides to get a good first idea if something is worth trying out.

                        1. re: applehome

                          Well, maybe it's just me. For example, I never never never go on "guided tours" of other countries. If I can't stay in a place two weeks or more, I don't want to bother with more than the inside of the airport. I would never ever go to the L'ouvre for a day and stroll through five or six galleries, but if I had a couple of weeks in Paris, I would make time to go to the Louvre for at least two hours to spend with Mona Lisa, and probably spend at least ten minutes of that wondering what she would look like with Frida Kahlo's eyebrows. '-).

                          I just checked out my recording of Bourdain's trip to French Laundry, and reaffirmed my disinterest in it. Admittedly, he took three premiere chefs with him, and undoubtedly received Thomas Keller's most preferential treatment from his restaurant the specializes in preferential treatment. Nevertheless the four chefs were served TWENTY courses each, and each chef had an entirely different tasting menu which they then shared with each other for a total of EIGHTY tastings each!

                          I cannot speak for others, but I can absolutely speak for myself with great confidence. MY taste buds are simply not up to that task. Even if I only had twenty small plates, I could only possibly taste the first five (depending on their flavors) before my taste buds start sliding down the slippery slope. Somewhere around course 9 to 12, it's chalk!

                          BUT...! If someone comes up with a three day tasting weekend held in some drop dead gorgeous scenic location, with sensory splendidness at every turn, from impeccably tasteful but lavish interiors to string quartets tucked in a corner of a rose garden and a sexy jazz trio in a mid-century modern salon overlooking the sea, with a three or four course tasting menu served every two to three hours throughout the weekend.... Hey, Baby, I'm there! But twenty to eighty tastings at one sensory overload gorging? Pass....!

                          1. re: Caroline1

                            i understand where you are coming from, i hate being overwhelmed with something i love. however, when a tasting is done well it is spread over at least an hour and a half or two hours, you can eat at your own pace/pass on courses you don't adore, and to describe the courses at grant achatz's restaurant 'alinea' as courses is only for the sake of having a descriptor.

                            my mother actually insisted she would never want to eat a multi-course menu for some of the same reasons your described. she knows what she likes, she found the idea of being overloaded unappealing, too much (more like too many flavors she wouldn't like). for my parent's 25th anniversary though, i treated them to a visit to the peninsula hotel in chicago, and a dinner in their avenues restaurant, under graham elliot bowles. they ate for 3 hours (more realistically ate for 5 minutes, then took 10 or fifteen minutes break between each course) and she adored it, though she was stuffed. nothing that couldn't be resolved by a nice walk around the city.
                            i believe 'exhausted tasted buds' is typically less of a problem than excessive alcohol consumption in terms of not appreciating courses.

                            really though, even at home sometimes i wipe out several types of leftovers from the refrigerator at once. sophistocated chefs send lighter cleansing courses, and smart servers always give guests plenty of time to break between courses. twenty to eighty is hardly average.
                            i only know chicago, since that is where i was most recently, but charlie trotter (famous for tastings) does nine, alinea offers a smaller menu of around 10, and at avenues graham elliot bowles offered 5, 10, or 15.

                            i suggest you skip right to the top and pay premium for tastings though. i tried a tasting menu for valentines day at the trump restaurant, where the chef frank brunacci served us 9 that were loaded with fancy ingredients (lots of lobster, even foie) but just didn't resound, or seem continuous.
                            sorry i have written forever, but after seeing my mother completely converted i can't help but wonder if many of the people that love multicourse meals weren't naysayers before they tried them...i probably was myself. one good one might change your mind. i would bet there are many more alinea guests/per se &FL visitors that proved themselves wrong about what they would and wouldn't like than proved themselves right.

                            another dimension of psychology: typically, even in simple experiments, subjects err frequently in predicting what will make them happy.

                          2. re: applehome

                            I am of two minds on tasting menus. I love limited tasting menus -- say an amuse bouche, a starter, a palate cleanser, a modified sized entree, a small dessert, and a few surprises after.

                            I don't like tasting menus that go on, and on, and on. I say this for omakase, too. I had a gorgeous meal at a ryokan in Gora, Japan, in the Hakone region. I don't remember a particular dish, only how pretty it looked. I do remember that when I got to the inn, they greeted me with tea and the most delicious plum mochi I've ever eaten.

                            It works when it's edited. Otherwise, it's just theater.

                          3. re: honkman

                            I think you're comparing lemons and apples! Why do you think I'm "dismissing" the concept? Life is an accrual of experience that enables you to make informed decisions about whether entering into "new" or "expanded" similar events is likely to meet with success of disappointment. For ME, a degustation is rank with disappointment so why subject myself to it?