* (Thanks to early reader Elin McCoy for pointing out that Frank Bruni wrote about chefs as dictators 6 years ago.)
This week, Corby Kummer got some attention for Vanity Fair with a lengthier article on the same topic titled "Tyranny -- It's What's For Dinner."
Kummer is a good writer, but it's a long whine by a privileged guy who eats for a living about the assignments he has to take.
I nearly published a blog post last year about a dictatorial San Francisco pizza chef. Una Pizza Napoletana owner Anthony Mangieri refuses to take reservations or sell side dishes. He just did an interview with the Chronicle's Paolo Lucchesi in which he said that even though many people have asked him to start selling salads, "I'm not doing it, because it's not the right thing."
Mangieri is a dictator. His restaurant is his kingdom, the same as the chefs Kummer complains about. Charlie Trotter won't start dinners two hours after the reservation. Thomas Keller wants you to stay and eat great food all night. Grant Achatz sells prepaid seatings at his restaurant like theater tickets. Yes, they're all tyrants.
It's easy to see a parallel to certain winemakers, who make you sit on a waiting list and buy wines you don't want in order to eventually get some that you do.
There's also a sort of tyranny in extreme "natural" winemaking: this wine is going to be ungainly because that's what came out of the barrel, and he's not going to fix it, so you'll just have to love it as it is. Winemakers who insist that "organic wines" must be made without sulfites are tyrants.
Tyranny is a good headline word, and I could have been ahead of the curve. So why did I write up a blog post about Mangieri's pizza dictatorship, and not publish it?
|Deconstructed Caesar salad started my last tasting menu at Coi|
So don't go.
Kummer has to go; it's his job. But he has lost perspective. It's one thing to criticize a restaurant for poor performance. Kummer and Wells don't like Daniel Humm's work at Eleven Madison Park. That's what critics are supposed to do; tell us good places to eat and bad places to avoid.
But it's unseemly to bitch to the public about privileged aspects of our jobs as food and wine journalists. Do you want to hear about my long wait in the airport lounge on my last free trip to Europe? Didn't think so.
On my own dime, I don't visit no-choice tasting menu restaurants often because -- Wells is right -- few chefs do them well. (Daniel Patterson at Coi is an exception; I'll eat there anytime.) It's funny that nobody ever picks on Chez Panisse for this, because Saint Alice Waters is as much a dictator as any chef. I don't like the atmosphere there, so I don't go. And I'm not sure if I'll spend the money to eat at The French Laundry again, where Kummer calls the long tasting menu "a form of torture." But I did have two of the best meals of my life there, and when I left at 1:30 a.m., it was in a state of exhausted bliss.
|Allium (lardo, breadcrumbs, spring flowers), Coi|
Think about it: is there any winemaker in the world who has the power to make you drink his wine? Don't want no-sulfite wines, high-alcohol wines, overoaked wines, whatever-you-hate wines? Don't buy them.
I won't go back soon to Una Pizza Napoletana. That's my choice. The pizzas are pretty good, but to me they're not worth the effort to consume them. Kummer feels that way about Per Se, and maybe I would agree. But critical disapproval is a different issue. As long as these restaurants attract repeat clients -- and they do -- then the tyrants can keep dictating.