What if we said that wine pairing is nonsense, and tasting menu are for culinary parvenus?
Thesis: It is time we bring back the customer as a central piece of the restaurant architecture.
Corollary: let’s start killing the wine pairing first.
Let me put it very clearly: I hate, despise, loathe wine pairings. I find it preposterous and abominable that someone tells me what I should drink.
But then again, I always twitch a bit in revolt at tasting menus, as I would really prefer choosing. Just let me order whatever the hell I fancy on that day, will you?
Alas, not possible in this time and age.
Tasting menus are not only a way for the chef to boost their ego, but sadly are a way to contain costs in an increasingly expensive cost-structure.
But whilst I abide and feel curiosity for the Chef’s interpretation of What I Should Eat (aka a tasting menu) once or twice if ever, I always prefer to order à la carte; and if I am given the possibility, I find it very preposterous that a sommelier tells me what to drink when.
Sometimes I might be in an exploratory mood, all right. But most of the time, I just want to drink what I like. More: I don’t mind drinking my favorites over and over again.
And then THAT.
Because I say so.
No, thank you.
Whilst once upon a time the Sommeliers were having mad fun filling up their restaurant cellars with wines in tune with the restaurant, now they are asked to be creative and shape or form a wine list to pair with a food list.
Exposed to the whims of the chefs and asked to do something that probably only a handful of people on earth can really master: the art of knowing the best wine for the best plate at the best moment.
As if this was not cruel enough, we customers are asked to just take a sip of something and then move on to the next plate with the next wine.
If I can barely (and increasingly less) tolerate the mini portions of a tasting menu, I cannot tolerate the one-sip-glass of a wine pairing menu.
A wine that was bottled and harvested and pressed and aged in some estate far, far away. A wine that exists independently and in spite of any possible plate.
A wine that I for once would like to enjoy in full, from opening to the last drop.
I find this dictatorship of imposed pairings everything but elegant.
A wine pairing done right. Well, we chose two wines we liked,
from a very interesting cellar. Fortaleza do Guincho, July 2023.
Fine dining was not always like this.
If we go back and read that marvelous book of gastronomic gossip that is Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr (MFK Fisher's very own nephew) we read what the Childs, Olney, Beard and all elite were eating.
It was perfectly executed food like sole meunière.
Not child-like baby portions of tiny dots and dabs and reductions and perhaps one slice of something.
I can see where tasting menus were born.
Tasting menus for me are clearly an invention for when poor(er) people started fine-dining out.
The bite-sized everything that is presented at the table is a one-stop-shop to know a restaurant, its whole concept, menu, and way of working.
Cool idea in theory: in one visit I can get an idea of what the restaurant is, without having to pay multiple visits to discover the whole menu.
But this is not gastronomy.
I think tasting menus should be reserved for the press.
Like “Hey writer, have a taste of everything, for a fraction of the price, so that you can fully comprehend the place and write, and then goodbye”.
Because here it is also where the Instagram star collector is born (people that praise to have been to such and such many starred restaurants, which I find ridiculous, voyeuristic, nouveau-riche in the worst sense and, allow me this peak of snobbery, smelling of shanty town).
If we look back at the Grand Age of Gastronomy (that is not really now), we will see that people enjoyed the food.
Not whatever was around it, and in spite of it.
Could you imagine a Julia-Child-like type being constrained by the whims of a tasting menu?
The tasting menu is for all the people who are not frequent eaters.
Similarly, the wine pairing is for someone who doesn’t know how to drink wine. Or what.
Or, maybe, for someone who is curious about tasting some unknown wines especially when traveling abroad.
We all saw the infamous lineups of opened and empty bottles and they all, without any exception, scream parvenu.
It is all the fruit of a sudden excitement. Too often, is a show-off.
I rarely manage to remember any of the wines served in a pairing - except when producers are organizing a tasting. I always - always remember the one bottle opened and carefully chosen.
If we would take one step back and place again the customer at the centre of the gastronomic experience in a restaurant, instead of the ego of a chef, we would see all of a sudden most of these tasting menus disappear like snow in the sun.
They are a manifestation of the need for communication of a chef, they have nothing to do with the pleasure of the customer. And the wine pairings even more so, say a lot about the need for the sommeliers to feel credited as thinking, innovating, creative types.
Because let me tell you, some of these menus are crap.
What in the holy sake was this plate, I will never fathom. Straight in the top of the worst plates I’ve eaten in the past few years.
We recently dined at a new and innovative (aren’t they all?) chef in an alpine village not too distant from the new Niederkoefler.
The chef presented a “grilled aubergine with beetroot reduction and sour cream drops, with a side of panelle”.
What the fucking fuckery of a distasteful and terribly executed plate we got!
A beetroot infused aubergine that lost all of its charm as an aubergine and was simply dripping a horrid juice of beetroot molasses, hiding any other flavor, as any beetroot manages to do.
Terrible. I hope I’ll never see something like this again.
Because there’s a secret for you.
The real luxury is not the 18 courses menu served at some of the famous starred-and-50 restaurants.
Quite the opposite.
The real luxury these days is to have a taste of all the things we like, time after time, at our favorite restaurants.
The luxury is TIME.
The wine to go back to, and we go back to again, to taste the same plates, to taste the same preparations, because (surprise!) they bring us joy and pleasure.
It is the paying customer that should be honoured, not the ego of a chef.
The hedonism of the customer, not the one of the maker. Also my involuntary mentor
Albert Molins Renter talks this week about the (un)pleasure of going to eat at a restaurant.
We frequent eaters seem to agree.
If at all, we praise the kitchen brigade. The time of idolizing tenors and sopranos in the Opera is gone: when was the last time one went to the opera to hear THAT person?
The cuisine will hopefully go back to the centrality of the customer.
After all, it is the customer who pays the bill.
And no matter how many journalists and free-riding-posts-writers will tell, their payment in likes and visibility doesn’t feed the families of the kitchen staff, in the long run.
We NEED for the customer to be back at the centre. This is the only way, also, to rebalance the relationship of the kitchen with the service.
Bringing back the customer will also have the positive effect of placing back on stage the restaurateur: this now mythical figure of an entrepreneurial front of the house that directs like a Maestro the whole culinary, hospitality and cellar shebang.
Like in the Child’s and MFK Fisher’s time.
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