The Tyranny of Choice

angry-chef I’ve spent much of my morning trying to find just the right word to describe Corby Kummer’s  scathing criticism of tasting menus in the February issue of Vanity Fair. I’ve narrowed it down to “reactionary”, “philistine”, and “obtuse”. Each describes a different dimension of this screed that, if acted upon, would set cooking back 50 years.

Entitled “Tyranny—It’s What’s for Dinner”, Kummer’s complaint is that tasting menus offered by the likes of Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, and René Redzepi are “elaborate, very long, take-what-I-give you meals”…“where the diner is essentially strapped into a chair and expected to be enraptured for a minimum of three and often four and five hours, and to consume dozens of dishes.”

He asks “How did the diner get demoted from honored guest whose wish was the waiter’s command to quivering hostage in thrall to the chef’s iron whim?”

When Kummer attends a concert does he stop the conductor to request that the tempo be slowed a bit? Does he ask Springsteen to shorten his set because he has an appointment in the morning? Perhaps he prefers an interactive art museum that allows him to adjust the line of a Picasso to better fit his taste.

Since when do we demand of artists that they conform to the wishes of an audience? We patronize the arts because we want to be gripped and transformed by the vision of someone else, especially when that vision is extraordinary. If the audience were to exert control over the artist if would undermine the point of art. We can’t be gripped by the vision of someone else if that vision expresses only our preferences.

That means, of course, that we are sometimes challenged, surprised, and fatigued by engagement with art. That comes with the territory. When food is treated as an art, it should be challenging as well. That is the point of it.

Kummer’s language is revealing. He pines for a future where “we could get back to the point where the paying customer picks what and how much she or he eats, guided by helpful but not overbearing suggestions as to what a diner might enjoy most.”

Customer? Yes, there is a commercial transaction that takes place but it is not merely a commercial transaction. Art patrons are not merely customers and neither are patrons of the culinary arts. They are there to experience the chef’s vision, not just to have dinner.

Kummer, a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, is a knowledgeable and experienced food writer, so his opinion carries some clout. Unfortunately, his attitude is indicative of the challenge that confronts acceptance of food as an art form.

I understand why some people are put off by the idea of food as an art. It imposes a level of attention that is burdensome if you merely seek a moment of pleasure while “filling up” or just want to spend quality time with friends. If that is all food is for Kummer there are countless restaurants that will supply it.

He should exercise his precious “choice” and have dinner elsewhere leaving the tasting menus for less narcissistic patrons who can appreciate them.


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