Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Chefs and winemakers can only be dictators by the will of the people

The current meme that chefs have become dictators started, far as I can tell, with an excellent Pete Wells column for the New York Times last October.* Wells said that a consumer of a tasting menu "may feel as much like a victim as a guest."

* (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
The wine parallel makes it easier to see. Yes, these restaurateurs are dictators, but their borders are wide open. If I don't want to pay $275 for an 8-hour meal at The French Laundry, I don't have to. Plenty of people will pile on and say that's too much time and money.

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
I'm glad restaurants like the ones Kummer names are there. If I'm ever in Chicago, I plan to try to eat at one of Achatz's restaurants, exactly the same as a tourist in New York will see a Broadway show. It's an evening's entertainment, and I know exactly what I'm getting into. Food is entertainment these days. I'm a huge baseball fan, but I'd rather eat at Alinea than sit in the Wrigley Field bleachers. One needs to keep "a form of torture" in perspective.

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.

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Larry Brooks said...

I was in Connecticut arguably the most pizza mad state in the county with a group of wine brokers, all of whom had eaten well all over the world. One of the guys there, the most passionate about pizza claimed that Una Pizza Napoletana had the best pizza not only in the country but in the world. He backed that up with travels to Italy specifically to eat pizza. Now hearing someone from New Haven claim that SF is the source of the best pie in the world is like hearing a Giants fan praise the Dodgers - rare to an absurd degree. Perhaps being a gastronomic fascist is a valid route to this sort of renown. having spent many decades with both chefs and winemakers, I don't see much overlap between the two. The presonality types that are drawn to these passionate professions are extremely different in my experience.

JT4 said...

Nick Lessins, of Great Lakes pizza in north Chicago is a definite tyrant. He serves what suits him. You can't create your own. Extraordinarily good

John M. Kelly said...

"Tyrant" is awfully judgmental, don't you think? And inaccurate, too. Tradesmen give you what you want. Artists do what they do for their own reasons and put it out there for you to enjoy, or not. No oppressive power is being exercised over the consumer. Arbitrary? If you choose to look at it that way. I could not care less.

Randy Fuller said...

Steve Martin didn't exactly call chefs tyrants in 1991's "L.A. Story," but the scene involving his character making a reservation at a trendy Los Angeles eatery comes close. "Is this part of the New Cruelty?" My wife and I still say that line at least once a month when dining out.

martysfo said...

As a former restauranteur, I tried to please my guests any way possible. I also believe that the marketplace is the ultimate judge. If these chef/winemakers can sell their product, God bless them. If they can't, they go out of business.