Nausea and Restaurant Reviews

atelier crennIn doing some research on Atelier Crenn, the restaurant featuring the visually compelling, poetically-rendered cuisine that I blogged about last week, I came across this review of the restaurant by food critic Jonathan Kauffman of San Francisco Weekly. As he reports, many of the dishes were spectacular, visually and on the palate, but there were long waits between courses and problems of execution marred some of the dishes. To sum up his less than enthusiastic impressions he writes:

But I think, for Atelier Crenn to succeed artistically, the chef will have to resolve how to balance her food-as-art intentions with the food-as-meal expectations of patrons.

My first response to the review was the thought that perhaps he should seek out a Denny’s or Appleby’s if he wanted a meal. Atelier Crenn is not about serving meals but creates cutting edge, original works of edible art. Sometimes it takes longer than expected to produce a finished work, and sometimes it will fail—art is like that because it involves taking risks. The review seemed to assume that Atelier Crenn should be judged using the same criteria as any other fine dining establishment. But it shouldn’t be so judged. It is not just a place where the well-dressed eat fussy food at a premium price. One goes there to have the imagination provoked and the intellect stimulated.

But my second thought was that even a restaurant consciously striving to create art must nevertheless get the timing and execution right—there is an element of performance art in great cuisine, and practical considerations of delivering meals cannot be entirely pushed aside.

The predicament of chefs creating culinary art is similar to the problems faced by an architect striving for aesthetic impact. Form cannot be entirely divorced from function. A lovely building that crumbles to the ground is not art; just a pile of rubble.

building falling A beautiful plate of food served after one’s attention has waned and the passage of time feels like a glimpse of eternity has become just another course having lost the aura of expectation on which it depends

So the review had a point. A work of culinary art that cannot function as a meal cannot succeed as art.

Nevertheless the language of the review was inappropriate. Cuisine like this cannot be reduced to the pursuit of a meal. The reviewer begins by expressing discomfort with the question of food as art:

Here’s a question I hesitate to type, for fear of its nausea-inducing effect: What makes food art, and not just a meal?

A little pre-meal nausea is not the best condition under which to write a review of a restaurant.

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