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To choose or not to choose? Isaac McHale and Fay Maschler go head to head on no-choice menus.
Nothing symbolises the ‘tyranny of the chef’ more than tasting menus – at least that’s what the naysayers think – and the tirades generally come thick and fast: ‘How dare he choose what I eat’; ‘I know what I want and don’t need to be told by some ill-educated, pasty-faced egomaniac’. We’ve heard it all.
We all love eating out, being cooked for and soaking up the sensory pleasures of something new, so why the big fuss about no-choice menus? What is so wrong with someone choosing for us? We go to no-choice concerts and watch no-choice films, we watch no-choice TV programmes and buy no-choice albums.
People choose to go to no-choice restaurants such as Septime in Paris for the all-round experience, in the same way that someone might buy a ticket for a Kendrick Lamar gig or a Fleetwood Mac reunion. You can’t request that your favourite songs are played or dictate the line-up, but you’re still happy to pay your money.
If you go to a restaurant with an à la carte menu, you have the illusion of choice, but only a choice between a few dishes that the chef has decided to make. Your options are actually rather limited, despite the number of items on offer.
I have sat through hours and hours of overly pompous 17-course tasting menus, featuring tiny portions of over-tweezed ingredients, and they can be awful. But they can also be amazing, brilliant and thought-provoking too, and they shouldn’t all be tarred with the same brush.
As our restaurant scene continues to draw tourists to Britain, we should celebrate skill and creativity in the kitchen, as well as its benefit to the economy: just look what happened when René Redzepi single-handedly put Copenhagen on the world foodie map. We should be encouraging young chefs, not lambasting them for daring to try something different.
I love tasting menus. I’ve had some terrible ones, too. If you want to go to a restaurant that serves them, that’s fine. If they aren’t your thing, vive la différence, there are plenty more places out there to enjoy, and they can happily live alongside each other. I don’t know what all the fuss is about.
These days every conscientious invitation to a public meal asks, ‘Do you have any dietary requirements?’ The inference is that a lot of people say ‘yes’, whether for reasons of religion, health, perversity, new-age whim or batty slimming regime. Restaurants that offer no-choice menus have no such qualms. They presumably rely on customers being a self-selected group who will eat anything – the odder and more recherché the better. Visiting is like going to a dinner party but having to pay – whether you like the food or not.
Show me someone who thinks choice is not a diverting, delightful and more or less fundamental element in a restaurant meal and I will show you a chef with a mad gleam in the eye, tunnel vision and no sense of humour. Of course, this doesn’t preclude culinary ‘jokes’, mischievous foodie parodies or humiliating activities such as sucking from a baby’s bottle. You, my dear, are just a punter; this is the chef’s show.
An entire dining room eating the same menu offers a chef useful economies in terms of ordering, preparation and managing waste, yet these financial benefits are rarely, if ever, shared with the customer. The current interest in foraging, the play with pieces of animals that Waitrose calls ‘forgotten cuts’ and affection for homely ingredients also ameliorate food costs, but these attenuated no-choice, set-price menus are never cheap.
The lack of variety on what is often a longer-than-conventional menu means that a lot of it must inevitably be pre-prepared and plated. What’s being sold as a flight of fancy is anything but, and the pleasure of comparing, contrasting and – let’s face it – competing with others over what you’re eating is removed at a stroke. At one restaurant with a fixed menu, the waitress handing round canapés barked at us ‘two each!’ Hospitality should be more nuanced and more munificent.
Unless a no-choice restaurant changes its menu almost in its entirety every day, where is the impetus to return? Although that’s probably better than turning up at your next dinner party only to find your chum is offering pig’s blood cracker and raw milk curd.
Fay Maschler is restaurant critic for the London Evening Standard.