Jump to content

What menus Can Tell Us (but can't always do)


Recommended Posts

When I was studying communications research, the Dean of the school was a distinguished scholar in the field named George Gerbner. In his classes, he liked to say that to study television programs, movies, comic strips and just about anything else in the mass media, you needed whatever it was to be “grasped and retained”. This meant that all the things we like here such as restaurants, produce, wine, beer, etc. have to be discussed and analyzed indirectly, although there is certainly plenty available to study these areas for, to cite an example, historians of the Annales school who instead of studying civilizations from the usual perspective of wars, treaties, politics, governments, and historic figures, studied societies, peoples, and countries through the houses they lived in, personal letters, the clothes they wore, what they ate and drink, and so forth. Then, of course, there are the food historians who are essentially Annales people studying food through various disciplines such as sociology, biology, zoology, economics, and cooking itself by looking at old recipes and reading about famous chefs and gastronomes, Nonetheless, because only the senses of seeing and hearing allow us to grasp and retain art, music, literature, and so forth in mediated ways, the senses of taste and smell can only be described once-removed in words. So for example, when I call up my subscription to Vinous to look up the drinking window for a bottle of wine, I also read the accompanying tasting note usually written by Stephen Tanzer. I have to say that the guy really knows how to taste and pick his way through a glass of wine, but no matter how detailed his analyses are, there is no way you can experience the wine without drinking it yourself.

 

There is little doubt that if we could capture for posterity the fresh taste of a society’s or great chefs’ dishes, gastronomy would be a lot different than it is. While age-old classic dishes are still with us (and it’s nice to see the nascent renaissance of them), almost no dishes created today will be passed along to other chefs and restaurants and handed down in the future. All of this, then, gets me to my favorite tool for observing on at least a rudimentary level gastronomic change and some idea about a restaurant I haven’t yet visited, which is the menu. Despite their bare-bones-ness and dearth of text, menus communicate, and act as a road map to, all sorts of information about the food and the honesty and integrity of the chef or the restaurant. If you look at many restaurants menus over a short period of time, you can get a solid notion of the internationalization of a restaurant; how closely hewn the products and creations are to a restaurant’s location; the “luxe factor” of the ingredients; whether the chef takes chances or is conservative, or how well-conceived his dishes are ; often a sense if the chef has to achieve the dish by relying on the overuse of ingredients; and how generous or manipulative the chef is to the clientele. Admittedly, though, menus can also lead you to a wrong impression since more times than not the way we imagine a dish to be is not at all the way it actually is. In this particular exercise, I think the dictum “A picture is worth a thousand words” doesn’t hold true here, although I can’t discount how food publications, restaurant websites and client picture-taking for social media accounts have changes the almost-universal way food is prepared and arranged on the plate. Even though photos of a restaurant’s dishes are something important to try to gain an idea, to me menus reveal even more about the place in question and allow us to speculate in what we hope turns out to be correct.

 

To deal with the aspect of the menu as a depiction of the obvious and changing ways we dine since then (“then” in this case means about 30 years ago), I went to my small group of menus from the period and chose one (unpriced) from the restaurant we loved and visited the most, which was about 10 miles north-east of Lyon.

20160615_090037.jpg20160615_090439.jpg20160615_090509.jpg

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • Replies 78
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Top Posters In This Topic

Top Posters In This Topic

Popular Posts

Those aren't the kitchens I'm referring to. Nor the workers I'm referring to - I'm talking about the people who actually work.   But I get your point.

Yes on one.   I'm not sure if the latter is true. Maybe when the cuisine is static and your grunt labour is free so your labour costs are fixed at zip, but would kinch say the kids at Manresa caref

Kinchs "dirt" isn't made from dirt.   The idea that kinch is glomming on to cheap ingredients is parody.

I'll have the duck pie, please.

 

Seriously, the range of techniques implied among the appetizers is surely out of the range of any kitchen in NYC post-ADNY. Unless maybe Boulud is cooking you personally.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Pecaud at L'Ambroisie until rather recently offered a duck pie. Our old pal Vedat Milor had him make it for a small group of us in the private dining room at the restaurant. Unfortunately it came out soggy. Not that long ago the New Yorker had Daniel Boulud make an old "en croute" Lyonnais dish that just looked sensational. It made me realize how phony- boloney this universal plate arrangement is with its stood-up chives and chops, etc. It doesn't make anything look appetizing, especially compared to what you see in Larousse or Curnonsky. For something more accessible, the movie "Haute Cuisine" about the woman who was Mitterand's private chef has some gorgeous, elaborate, technically-challenging French dishes. In any case, it's a film worth seeing.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Pacaud still offers the duck pie (I had a conversation with the waiter about how I have to come back for it next summer).

 

Wilfrid, why do you make that statement re: techniques? A single menu at per se or emp offers a huge range of techniques (a different set of techniques, sure) but I don't think range of techniques is an issue with the modern North American high end restaurant.

Link to post
Share on other sites

That's odd: I don't see any sauteeing going on with the appetizers, apart from the wild mushrooms. (ETA: Ah, you thought I was referring to the mains and desserts as well--no.)

 

Yes, I missed the "appetizers" in your earlier post.

 

Soups are all made ahead, as are pâtés, terrines, gelées, possibly the "lasagne" or at least its elements, which can then be assembled. Of course, salads are assembled and dressed at service, what special skills are needed? But I still don't see a lot of techniques needed on the line.

 

What techniques do you see that have to be applied à la minute? What besides turning a bouillon into a capuccino? Because, again: if it's made ahead, of course the techniques used can be complicated, but won't hold up service.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Because I believe it to be true?

 

I don't recall being stunned by the range of techniques at Per Se; I admit I don't know what EMP is up to these days.

I think it's more a question of how you feel about the techniques - i.e. Does the poached foie terrine with a malodextrine crumble, an agar gel and compressed (i.e. Sousvide but not cooked) melon with a house made brioche tickle you? How about when it's preceded by a variety of lightly cured or ages fish each with a different condiment (a miso variant, a stabilized purée, etc)

 

if anything, much of post-Adria/modernista fine dining is excessively technical (like isn't a big emp critique that it's 150 courses of technical pyrotechnics without much sense [smoked a la minute! Asparagus en vessie!]?).*

 

*which isn't a statement that classical French haute cuisine isn't obsessively technical because it is.

Link to post
Share on other sites

 

That's odd: I don't see any sauteeing going on with the appetizers, apart from the wild mushrooms. (ETA: Ah, you thought I was referring to the mains and desserts as well--no.)

 

Yes, I missed the "appetizers" in your earlier post.

 

Soups are all made ahead, as are pâtés, terrines, gelées, possibly the "lasagne" or at least its elements, which can then be assembled. Of course, salads are assembled and dressed at service, what special skills are needed? But I still don't see a lot of techniques needed on the line.

 

What techniques do you see that have to be applied à la minute? What besides turning a bouillon into a capuccino? Because, again: if it's made ahead, of course the techniques used can be complicated, but won't hold up service.

 

 

Anyone who thinks that many fancy restaurant kitchens today don't work as hard as they "used to" simply because there's a sous vide set up, doesn't, in my opinion, know a heck of a lot about cooking in a restaurant.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I know some stuff about cooking in a restaurant and kitchens today don't work nearly as hard as they used to. Some of this is due to better technology, but mostly laziness and lowered expectations. (same as in any other area)

Link to post
Share on other sites

Kids these days? I hear the same thing in law (which is strangely something that never holds up when you actually see billable hour reports from prior eras or read the literature). Now, whether the kids I know who work 15 hour days at mugaritz or per se for free or the kids back in the day who worked 15 hour days at au crocodile worked harder, I don't know.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...

×
×
  • Create New...