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Don’t Kiss the Chef!
Back to May - June 2023
During a radio interview, blogger Geraldine DeRuiter described to me the worst meal of her life, at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Lecce, Italy. The 27-course meal featured a plaster cast of the owner’s mouth filled with citrus foam that had to be licked out, a mouth-to-mouth experience for diners paying hundreds of dollars each for the privilege.
Other courses included rancido (rancid) ricotta, two paper-thin fish crackers to serve two, meat-infused droplets, a teaspoon of olive ice cream, a cuttlefish-flavored marshmallow and a dish called “frozen air.” The only food of substance was a purely decorative orange served with a course that offered reconstituted orange slices—one per person.
Let us march to the culinary barricades and shout, “Abbiamo finito!” No more pretentious tasting menus, no more “sniff the baby vegetables,” no more essays on the provenance of the warm, sauced slice of deceased animal on your plate. And please, no more multimillion-dollar restaurant buildouts that look like a set from “The Seventh Seal” or a concrete bunker during the closing days of WWII. And whoever came up with a QR code menu ought to be sentenced to a lifetime of QR code holiday cards featuring an animated reindeer singing like Yoko Ono.
In response to DeRuiter’s viral blog post detailing the meal, the restaurant owner responded incoherently, demanding, “What is art? What is food? What is a chef? What is a client? What is good taste?” And, my favorite, “What is a man on a horse?”
Food is not art; it’s a craft, a notion that enhances rather than demeans its contribution to the human condition. Who would ask whether a surgeon is an artist or a craftsman? Most of us would prefer the latter; the medical student who went on to devote their life to practice, to knowledge, and to mastering the level of dexterity and patience needed to save lives. Artist? No thanks. Just heal me and hold the flourishes.
What about a great chef? Well, Paul Bocuse famously viewed himself as blue-collar, not white-collar, as a craftsman, not an artist. And would you have preferred a meal prepared by Bocuse or the “What is a man on a horse?” artist who demands that you lick foam?
Good food is bottom-up; it arises from the people. In Paris, one celebrates the crackle of a fresh baguette, the buttery layers of croissant, the bitter bite of frisée salad rich with lardons, an unctuous croque monsieur, or a deep dive into duck confit for Sunday lunch—all enjoyed by working men and women. Stop by the corner café for lunch, order the special and a glass of Beaujolais. Eat bread, have conversation, raise your glass, and enjoy your meal. And don’t forget to sniff the tomatoes and squeeze the melons when you shop or tell your butcher that you were disappointed with last week’s calf’s liver just to keep him honest.
Food on a plate is not abstract. It tells the story of the craftsmanship of the cook who put it there. Eat it, don’t discuss it. Enjoy it, don’t fiddle-faddle with thoughts of Rembrandt or Giuseppe Verdi. It’s your lunch, it’s your joy; it’s not the Metropolitan.
And for God’s sake, be grateful for a good cup of coffee, for a spoonful of marmalade served with a righteous Southern biscuit, for the men and women who devote their lives to the everyday craft of cooking, not to honor a culinary muse. Tear down culinary temples built to worship false idols. Eat and enjoy, eat and have conversation, eat to celebrate life, its scent, its taste, its plain-clothes magnificence.
To quote the restaurant owner from Lecce, “Many people are able to make good food. Your grandmother could do it. My wife does it great.” Yes, that’s the point. Remember when your grandmother cooked a pot of cannellini beans with escarole and said, with a heartfelt smile, “Buon appetito!”? Doesn’t that conjure a sweet memory or even a tear in the eye? It should. Oh, and hold the foam.