The Exquisite Torture of Tasting Menus


If you think chefs are going too far with their rigid tasting menus and impossible reservation systems, you’ll love Corby Kummer’s description in February’s Vanity Fair of ambitious young chefs as “an army of fresh-faced Stalins” torturing us with their too-long, expensive tasting menus.

I’ve endured some terrible tastings. Boring, repetitive food, passive-aggressive servers, mind-numbing gaps between courses. Mistakes of any kind tend to be amplified because the restaurant is showing us more food, and over a longer period of time.

But I’ve also been delighted. Paying a skilled, thoughtful chef to cook whatever she likes for you is one of the finest legal ways for a human to relax.

In his provocative piece, Kummer points out that when it comes to extraordinarily long tastings, “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.”

But hey, when the restaurant actually knows what it’s doing, is that really so terrible? Fine tastings can interrupt the tedium of the everyday, just for a few hours, turning diners into pleasure receptacles.

And while a few are getting a bit absurd and unwieldy, not all tastings are sprawling, expensive things — you’ll find George Mendes serves a fine tasting at Aldea for $85; Aska’s new tasting is $65.

Lucky for us, many chefs aren’t obsessed with celebrity, but with cooking. Their tastings may reveal years of work, studied traditions and techniques, broken rules, a sense of humor, an eagerness to please us, and even, sometimes, a reasonable expectation of our attention spans and appetites.

Those tasting menus remind me that the form is still exciting. In fact, I’ve made it a New Year’s resolution to cover them here a bit more than I did in 2012. We’ll see what we can find (fingers crossed, it’s not Stalin).