Being Avant-Garde Does Not Require Being a Pompous Ass

This review of a Michelin-starred restaurant in Lecce, Italy written by a dissatisfied diner has absolutely gone viral. And rightly so. The meal does seem to have been dreadful—substandard in every respect. 27 courses, some apparently no larger than a diminutive, paper-thin cracker in the shape of a fish or a splash of vinegar, with long waits between courses, an indifferent wait staff, and the usual pricey tab.

What followed was a 27-course meal (note that “course” and “meal” and “27” are being used liberally here) which spanned 4.5 hours and made me feel like I was a character in a Dickensian novel. Because – I cannot impart this enough – there was nothing even close to an actual meal served. Some “courses” were slivers of edible paper. Some shots were glasses of vinegar. Everything tasted like fish, even the non-fish courses. And nearly everything, including these noodles[pictured above], which was by far the most substantial dish we had, was served cold.

But what I want to focus on is the chef’s response to criticism which is even more clueless than the meal.

I should preface my remarks by saying that I’ve eaten in many Michelin-starred restaurants in the U.S. and Europe and I’ve never had a bad experience so I’m generally not critical of Michelin stars or the style of dining one finds there.

Here is how Chef Pellagrino describes what he’s doing.

“Contemporary artists are looking for new horizons all the time, instead. They discover the unknown, they doubt everything including themselves, they research every boundary, they even challenge the concept of “art” itself. What is art? What is a client? What is good taste? What looks beautiful?…

Contemporary art is not easy. The contemporary artist asks you to think about beauty, to doubt yourself, to trust his creative process, to follow his ideas. That is how revolutions are born. Here at Bros’ we strive everyday for avant-garde.”

Inflated sense of self worth is the second thought that comes to mind, immediately after horse’s ass.

He’s partly right about what some modern art was about in the early to mid-20th Century. It was about challenging assumptions and pushing boundaries. But, above all, modernist art was about form and composition. These dishes as far as I can tell displayed neither. Art audiences (and diners) expect your best work, not dabbling, experiments, or sketches which are apparently what the reviewer had on her plate. An ethereal cracker, a splash of foam, or swallow of vinegar may be interesting, but only as part of a dish, and a dish succeeds only as part of a meal. Even if one wants to take on board the modernist predilection for fragmentation, that fragmentation must have meaning and display a pattern. Utter chaos is neither endearing nor clever—it’s just unintelligible.

And the purpose of creative cuisine goes well beyond alleviating hunger. But a 4 hour dinner must be substantial enough to satisfy diners if you expect them to stay focused on the art. You can’t successfully challenge the idea that food is fuel by demonstrating to your diners that indeed food is fuel.

I vociferously defend the view that some cuisine (and some wines) are works of art. But not all works of art are good works of art. Pellagrino’s approach sounds like something you might get from a talented but naïve freshman art student high off his first visit to MOMA. Not something you would pay $300 to experience.

Michelin needs to have a chat with this fellow.

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