To Taste Or Not To Taste
Ferran Adrià, chef and owner of the restaurant El Bulli (famous for its 34-course tasting menu and its waiting list of a million customers), has closed the place down. He wants to spend more time in his food laboratory.
Good riddance! El Bulli wasn't a proper restaurant anyway - it was an eating disorder. And it's been spreading.
Although the flavours may be earth-shattering, these tasting menus aren't really meals at all; they're just the chef showing off. Like going to a concert where a composer of prize-winning advertising music plays you his 30-second jingles - one after another till you go stark raving mad. About ten minutes, I should think.
Serving thirty-four tiny dishes, however delicious, has nothing to do with what restaurants are about. Each of these morsels, once well chewed, would be best spat into a bucket like a wine tasting. Then afterwards everyone could go out for a decent dinner with good conversation and proper gaps between the waiter's interventions.
It's those damned interventions that spoil these tasting menus. If they could just put all 34 dishes down in front of you and let you get on with it like a Chinese feast, that would be fine. But no - there you are at dinner with a friend you haven't seen for ages, or someone you want to do business with, or flirt with, and every time the conversation gets going the waiter arrives with another dish and another annoying explanation of what it is, sometimes even telling you the right way to eat it. Restaurants are for enjoying good food in relaxed surroundings, not for waiters to turn up every three minutes with a new set of eating instructions.
A while back, my friend Hass K and I went to Sketch, another restaurant suffering from El Bullimia, where we were talked into trying the tasting menu.
Hass had just come back from holiday
'How was it?' I asked.
'Great, especially the day we drove over to...'
We were interrupted by the waiter arriving with a tray of saucers - tiny starter courses, each just a mouthful.
'Gentlemen - your sushi of sauerkraut and white beans with liquorice and tomato concasse, the cod mousse with coulis of cucumber, the foie gras with chestnut tuille, the......'
'Great - thank-you,' I told him, and scoffed the cod mousse.
'Where was it you drove to?' I asked Hass.
'Excuse me sir. You're re eating them in the wrong order. You're meant to start with the foie gras and eat in a clockwise direction.'
You see - it can drive you mad. This is not what restaurants are meant to be about.
A good restaurant is about the pleasure of arriving, of walking in, of surveying the room - the décor, the buzz, the waiters, the clientele, the tables, the cutlery, the glasses, the menu, the expectation. It's about relaxing with food and wine and good talk. About watching people come in and leave; observing the shifting scene; enjoying the pleasure of simply being there.
A tasting menu destroys much of that. Instead of a finely prepared plate of food, to be eaten slowly, melding with the wine and improving over successive mouthfuls, you're presented with a tray of the chef's best conjuring tricks - clever cocktail snacks that burst in your mouth destroying the harmony between food and wine, and served by intrusive waiters who spoil the flow of conversation.
If Ferran Adrià really cared for restaurants he would never consider closing down El Bulli. Instead, he would take his 34 miraculous cocktail snacks, and all the other flavours and textures he has devised, and weave them into a normal menu which people could choose from and dine on at their leisure.
A top chef has to love more than just food. He has to love restaurants.