Is ‘Satisfying the Diner’ Actually Creeping Back into Restaurants’ Job Descriptions?
A hopeful sign that the pretentious era of chef as ego-monster may have peaked.
I have not been shy about calling out the high-end restaurant industry for increasingly catering to the egos in their kitchens over the paying customers in their dining rooms. One sees examples of this all over the place, whenever there’s no way for a diner to season her food at the table or courses come out in no sensible order—that sort of thing.
Lately I’m getting some backup.
In October, The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells characterized the multi-course tasting menu as a near-hostile act—when its courses number into the dozens and it registers more as a barrage than a meal.
“The reservation is hard won, the night is exhausting, the food is cold, the interruptions are frequent,” Wells writes. “The courses blur, the palate flags and the check stings.” The result of such a marathon? “I walked out dazed when I could have been dazzled.”
In February’s Vanity Fair, Boston Magazine restaurant critic Corby Kummer goes Wells one better, chastising the overall culture of the highest-end temples of haute cuisine, including but by no means limited to Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York and Grant Achatz’s Alinea and Next in Chicago.
Kummer identifies Charlie Trotter of the eponymous Chicago restaurant as the first celeb chef in the States, and the one perhaps most responsible for unleashing “a generation of chefs no longer willing to take orders.”
For these chefs, the “diner’s pleasure is secondary; subjugation to the will of the creative genius comes first, followed, eventually, by stultified stupefaction. The animating force radiates outward from the kitchen, with no real chance of countervailing force from the table. The chef sets the rules; the diner (together with the cowed serving staff) obeys.”
Wait, you’re thinking, no Seattle chef could possibly be guilty of that. Subjugation to the will? Cowed serving staff? Well okay, these qualities aren't exactly native to the local habitat.
But consider the Seattle version: setting up a restaurant according to the proprietor’s ease and pleasure—shared tables, no reservations, set seatings, cramped quarters, maybe even the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy the guys in the kitchen a beer—then calling it a whole new way of dining out.
Matthew Dillon, the James Beard Award Winning chef and proprietor of Sitka and Spruce, Bar Ferd'nand, The Corson Building, and the new Bar Sajor, was early in his solo career a proponent of an emerging “Kill the Restaurant” ethos, where what he saw as hierarchical categories of “server” and “diner” blended into a more communitarian ideal of food lovers enjoying food together. He envisioned the original Sitka as a kind of a “food salon,” big on happy community, not so big on standard models of service.
And indeed: the original Sitka became an interminable line to get limited service in uncomfortable quarters.
Fast forward to his latest, Bar Sajor, and it’s clear that Mr. Food Salon has evolved. Here’s Dillon, from a recent interview with my colleague, Allecia Vermillion: “At Bar Sajor I want to be really attentive to everyone’s needs. It’s a little bit more adult than Sitka is. Sitka is more of what has been the trend over the last six or seven years: chef-focused and kitchen-driven. Restaurants have used kitchen-driven as an excuse to not focus on service. I’ve been guilty of that as well.”
Looks like a step in the right direction.