The C Word
Tanya Gold has a piece in Harper's at the moment, called 'A Goose in a Dress'. In it, she visits four of "New York's most fashionable eateries". Things do not go well. For one thing, the article closes by characterising Masa (and, by extension, the other three restaurants) as somewhere designed to "service a clientele so immune to joy that they seek, rather, sadism and an overwrought, miniaturized cuisine". This is probably one of the more positive things she has to say. Per Se produces a literally emetic response - "half of $798.06" vomited back up in the comfort of her hotel. Eleven Madison Park offers "food not to feed yourself but to thwart other people". Of the third place she visits: "if you want an experience like the one on offer at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, then put a dead fish on your kitchen table and punch yourself repeatedly in the face, then write yourself a bill for $425.29 (including wine)". Masa is little more than "a fake shed with a toilet-cave and a narcissistic airport lounge on the fourth floor of a shopping mall".
To be honest, I don't really have an issue with this. Full disclosure: I have not been to any of these restaurants. But I have been to ones like them (on paper, at least): to Osteria Francescana, in Modena; to Azurmendi, near Bilbao; to Arzak, also in the Basque Country; to the Fat Duck, closer to home. I can understand why people have an issue with spending money in them. There is a lot wrong with "fine dining", however nebulous that concept may be. For one thing - and perhaps most obviously - there is something inherently risible about a restaurant (sloppy definition: somewhere you go to eat food) charging nearly 200 quid a head before wine or service that serves you things that don't look like food - for overwrought miniatures. At Arzak, a selection of chocolates that arrives late in the meal appears under the title Ferreteria Arzak, each shaped like pieces of iron-work and dusted with cocoa powder to add some rusty verisimilitude. At Osteria Francescana, the foie gras course takes the form of a mini-Magnum lolly, complete with crunchy nut exterior. At Azurmendi, you take your canapes in their garden - in summer you are even encouraged to go looking for them, attached to vines and surrounded by hummocks of earth - and are presented with the world's tiniest picnic hamper before you go and take your seats. You'll doubtless have heard of 'The Sound of the Sea', The Fat Duck's iPod-enhanced homage to the seaside. So far, so infantile.
But do you know what's also infantile? Andy Warhol copying and pasting cans of soup. Marcel Duchamp putting a latrine in an art gallery. Damien Hirst covering a skull in diamonds. Approach any of those with a determinedly dickish mindset and - wonders never cease - you can find something to be dickish about.
Helen Rosner has compiled a pretty exhaustive list of the many factual errors in Gold's piece here. But to me the biggest issue isn't the hilariously outmoded premise (pretty sure Per Se and Masa haven't been among New York's "most fashionable eateries" for, like, a decade, Tans), or the errors, or the sheer incompetence of a journalist who is paid money to write accidentally scrubbing her notes from her iPhone. Or rather, it's all of them and none of them. The real issue is that Gold is fundamentally a terrible critic.
Surely a critic's most fundamental quality is an ability to contextualise themselves in relation to the work of art they're critiquing. You can't judge a Titian like a Henry Moore; you can't listen to Beethoven like you listen to Sonic Youth; you can't appraise your niece's performance in the pre-school panto like you would Tony Sher at the Globe. With food - I will readily acknowledge - this act is harder, more complicated. No one will die if they don't see another Rembrandt - we will all die unless we get a decent caloric intake, and pronto. Food is not a work of art - or rather, it is not just a work of art. Our bodies have not evolved to actively reject colour combinations we find unsightly; on the other hand digust and dislike are pretty powerful critical faculties when we're putting food in our mouths. All this I get. Food is one of the most deceptively difficult things to write about. On one hand, it's a simple binary - did this taste good or not? But it's also more than that - might this taste good to you? Might you enjoy this experience? People have their own taste. That's probably why critics are expressing such a range of views on Taberna Do Mercado at the moment; that's probably why I enjoyed the lunch the day after Osteria Francescana infinitely more than the dinner there. You can't win them all. But I'd still recommend Osteria Francescana to anyone interested in food, and innovation, and creativity; if I were paid money to be a critic, I imagine I'd be able to find something to say that wasn't just "I didn't like the taste of the eel". Massimo Bottura is a genius - I simply wasn't buying what he was selling that night - and doing your job properly as a critic involves thinking bigger picture than just "I don't like it". Otherwise we could just replace AA and Giles and Marina and the rest of them with picky seven year-olds and have done with it.
And this refusal to think bigger picture is one of the most frustrating things about Gold's piece. She has lumped four restaurants together under the tag "expensive". And she has refused to consider what each of them is actually trying to achieve as a restaurant in itself (I would say "per se", but Gold thinks that means "through itself", so go figure). Closer to home, it's like taking Gymkhana, St John, and Chez Bruce, and reviewing them on exactly the same terms, because they all have a Michelin star and they're all a good way to spend a spare hundred quid. Every restaurant in the world is trying to say something in its own vernacular. In the vast majority of places - like, 99% - all the restaurant is saying is "come in - I will feed you and you will have a good time". But some restaurants - of the four that Gold considers, Eleven Madison Park in particular - are trying to say something more. Usually it's about a cuisine's evolution through history, or the primacy and quality of the local food economy, or how a particular chef has charted their personal evolution. It's rarely rocket science, and you don't have to take the conversational bait, but it's good manners to at least consider engaging.
Good manners seem something Gold is depressingly short on. So puffed up is her sense of self-worth, in fact, that she actively resists the attempts to make dinner about anything more than stuffing food down her occasionally troubled gullet. At Eleven Madison Park, whose animus she quotes (a focus on "the extraordinary agricultural bounty of New York and on the centuries-old culinary traditions that have taken root here"), she is offended by a "ragingly tasteless" dish of salmon, black rye, and pickled cucumber which, her server claims, is "based on the immigrant experience". Her issue is that placing such a clear homage to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants in the context of a meal costing $640 is cause for "appalled laughter" or "a burp of shame" (more intestinal difficulties?). But her refusal to play ball means she misses the point. Just as you cannot write a history of New York without acknowledging the pivotal roles of immigrants, you cannot present a menu that engages with the "centuries-old culinary traditions" of the city without recognising how immigrants helped shape its culinary history. It seems absurd to me (but would doubtless seem axiomatic to Gold) that chain supermarkets can offer a molten chocolate cake (copyright Michel Bras, like 30+ years ago) but that fine-dining should not be allowed to acknowledge the historical roots of food that has evolved over centuries.
The nadir of a piece chock-full of low points is the experience at Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare, where - offended by not being treated as the vitally important person she no doubt believes herself to be - Gold responds by behaving (and there's really no other way to put this) like a child throwing a tantrum. She asks facetious questions, sniggers, makes boorish comments about Islamic State attacking the restaurant, goes outside to smoke cigarettes between courses. In her version of the story, she is the heroine, but imagine being the waiter on close to minimum wage, the manager being belittled, the other diners having to wait for Tanya to get her smoke on before they can receive the next course. It is - again - rude.
Another definition that the OED gives for rude is "lacking sophistication". Far be it from me to be an arbiter of appropriate behaviour in restaurants, but my hot take on it is that if your byline calls you a restaurant critic, you should act like one. Act with the appropriate level of sophistication; review with the appropriate level of nuance. Appreciate that not all restaurants are alike, that somewhere like Eleven Madison Park might be straining beyond mere feeding of people and therefore that highlighting the "weirdly capitalized" title of a dish there is, on one level, as fundamentally moronic as asking why it's 'The Waste Land' and not 'The Wasteland' (people are allowed to call things they have made what they want - deal with it!). Bare minimum - act like you're familiar with some of the fundamentals of cooking. Traditionally, it is chickens that are cooked en vessie - that is, in a pig's bladder; in the highest-end French places, these chickens arepoulets de Bresse, the Rolls-Royce of poultry with a price tag to match. Instead of touching on what the chef might be trying to say by replacing the chicken with celery root (as Humm does at Eleven Madison Park), Gold goes for the comedy jugular: "look, a bladder, see how much urine a pig can store in itself!".
The generous explanation that Gold is just a moron. To bundle four such different restaurants together and present a weird semi-explanation for their existence ("For when you can go anywhere, as the crew of the Flying Dutchman knew, everywhere looks the same; and so the quest for innovation goes on") as though that is the point; to ignore the context behind each restaurant; to make basic factual errors; to - I'll say this again - accidentally delete your notes - all are kind of unforgivable, but if you allow that Gold is just comically bad at her job, understandable. On the other hand, the more sinister alternative is that she is doing this on purpose - that she has gone to New York, on expenses, expressly to rubbish these places, that she is wilfully blind to what each of them is about, that she doesn't care about her fellow-diners, or the people being paid a pittance to cook for her, or the people being paid a pittance to serve her. And if that's the case, she's not being critic at all.
She's being a c**t.