Let’s Fight the Taming of the Chew
by André Gayot
Four hour dinners; endless degustation menus encompassing 40 dishes; tyrannical chefs leaving no choice to clients who are expected to behave docilely; cooks parading and fishing for our admiration, sporting their names everywhere; all of this crowned by astronomical bills; that is the vision of a good portion of the contemporary fine dining experience depicted by our colleague Corby Kummer in his recent Vanity Fair article. While deploring in detail this regrettable spread of theatrical ego and auto-satisfaction, he humorously wishes modest and reasonable chefs like Alain Passard (L’Arpège in Paris) and Jacques Pépin lead a hungry crowd with forks and knives against the above described tyranny.
It won’t harm anyone to be equitable and admit a large portion of responsibility on our part, food writers, beginning with us. When we launched the magazine Le Nouveau Guide GaultMillau in March of 1969, we revealed to the public the names, faces and talents of 50 unknown new young chefs who became the centurions of the Nouvelle Cuisine. Guess what happened: their descendants are now every other day on the NBCs and CNNs of the world presenting their latest concoctions. They want to be famous with their names in capital letters beginning with their own establishment(s).
How did this happen? In the past, most restaurants were named for their location (Restaurant de la Gare — Restaurant at the train station) or a local or national hero (Restaurant le Louis XV), but almost never after the chef and rarely after the owner. The public in quest of novelty liked the lightness and inventiveness of Nouvelle Cuisine and associated with it the names of the new generation of chefs who produced it. Their pictures spread in the media and many of them gained celebrity. They marched with or without aprons out of their kitchens and appeared on the front stage. Peter Mayle in his best-selling book “A Year in Provence” explains: “The Michelin is invaluable, and nobody should travel through France without it, but it is confined to the bare bones of prices and grades and specialities. Gault-Millau gives you the flesh as well.” With the stories and portraits of chefs and cooks, the restaurants were a living scene and some sort of a show with real characters, an encounter with an exciting confluence of discoveries (in produce, tools, cooking methods, ingredients, techniques, etc.) where we could foresee the image of a new era of nutrition and the renewed pleasure it could convey to us.
Should we criticize the chefs who want their name highlighting their establishment’s façade? Maybe it’s just a disclaimer, a message saying in short, “You know who I am, you know what I do, please come in if you like it. And if my bill is in your budget.” Maybe it’s good marketing and self-promotion. After all, they are not the only ones to want their names big. Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger sign their polo shirts, tee shirts, and underwear while customers are proud to wear them and show that they can afford the expensive label.
All the better if it works. Modesty is not a confirmed effective tool for marketing.
PS: Between you and me, I am considering joining the L.F.T.M.C. (Liberation Front Against the Tyranny of the Mega Chefs) and will keep you posted on the progress of our crusade against the taming of the chew.