Welcome to Platt Chat, a new column where New York critic Adam Platt will talk with Grub editor Alan Sytsma to discuss the dining world’s most pressing issues. This week: the rise of the so-called "egotarian" chef.
Alan Sytsma: I’m sure you saw Alan Richman’s GQ piece on "egotarian" chefs, which calls out a lot of the tenets of modern restaurants and managed to get a lot of attention this week.
Adam Platt: Yes. We critics are kind of a cranky group. I wrote a mildly petulant screed the other week on how desserts are terrible, and on Twitter this week, I saw Pete Wells responding to a piece that asked why restaurant critics don’t write more about wine and cocktails in their reviews. Wells said, essentially, that 90 percent of specialty cocktails are more or less undrinkable. I happily seconded that, since the cocktail world has rapidly gone from this reformation period — doing away with all the artificial elements and trying to make perfect versions of classics — to this overly Baroque period where all the drinks are spiked with homemade bitters and strange fruit extracts. And now Richman comes out and basically says, by the way, Everything’s horrible. It’s all a big mess.
Well, not everything. Just a certain type of restaurant.
As a critic, what you’re doing is making an argument. I understand what Richman is saying. On the one hand, decent restaurants have never been more plentiful across the country. On the other hand, it’s very easy to argue that the portion of the restaurant scene that’s supposed to be the most cutting edge, ergo the most interesting, ergo the most satisfying, has become this wasteland of bewhiskered, egomaniac chefs that are serving unintelligible dishes made of egg yolks and beetroot.
Isn’t the point of the cutting edge to push new ideas forward instead of presenting familiar experiences? We tend to celebrate restaurants like Aska and Luksus — both places that Richman mentions — on Grub exactly because they don’t necessarily conform to what other restaurants are doing. If the trade-off is that everything isn’t 100 percent as delicious as what you’d have somewhere like Minetta Tavern, it still seems worth it to me to encounter something that you’ve never really seen before.
If you look back, the ‘90s was a period where superstar chefs were doing flowery, fireworklike meals, but now the economy has changed drastically, and we’re in a very chaste dining environment. So the irony is that chefs trying to offer fancier experiences make the food simpler and more obtuse. And it’s the product of a couple things. First, there’s the general move towards reductive simplicity in restaurants, as well as a move away from giant à la carte menus in favor of tasting menus, which are simpler for chefs to do but which also make diners feel like they have no choice. Then you have the whole locavore movement, which isn’t just about food but is also a statement about how people should live their lives. You have all of these elements clashing together at restaurants, and when you’re out on the edges of experimentation, you’re going to see strange things. It’s not always going to be appetizing, but hopefully it’s interesting.
Is that what you’re trying to find? An interesting experience? You gave Aska and Luksus favorable reviews.
I liked Aska well enough. I liked Luksus. I find them interesting, but I don’t think they’re necessarily mind-blowing. Of course, we’ve said many times that the old Michelin-style system for establishing which restaurants are "great" is, if not obsolete, certainly challenged. In fact, I’ve talked to Richman about this. In New York, there are a lot of good restaurants, but the places that are opening are all traditional two-star restaurants. Nobody’s opening Le Bernardin anymore; it’s not happening. Part of our job as critics is to always search for the new thing, and If you’ve got the feedbag on and you’re staggering around town looking for restaurants to review, those are the kinds of restaurants that catch your eye. My complaint about desserts came from a critic’s standpoint. If you’re going out night after night after night and you’re seeing the same apple pies and pots de crème, you’re going to notice that sameness. And as you travel around, you see all these barlike restaurants serving compilations of strange foods. After a while, it’s going to wear you down.
The single great change over the last 10 to 15 years is the chef coming to dominate all of the proceedings. I’m sure Richman’s aware of this, and he’s written about it, but the waitstaff has disappeared, pretty much. There’s no more pageantry, no more theater. To the extent that there is any theater, it’s based (thank you, Mr. Chang) around the classic chef’s choice omakase model. You eat what the chefs want you to eat, you watch them cook; they’re actors on their own stage. They’re playing their music, literally. You either like it or you leave. That’s the ego that I think Richman is talking about.
But if you’re a younger diner, and you don’t necessarily remember all the great pageantry and dining-room theatrics, you aren’t going to miss them. I know that when I go out to a restaurant, I’m looking for the chef’s perspective. Whether I agree with it or not, I want a restaurant to have a clear point of view.
Right. And that’s what a younger generation of diner wants. They share the values of the kitchen. If you’re looking for the old markers of the "gourmet" experience, this brave new world can feel puzzling and overpriced, and sometimes it doesn’t taste very good. But the thing is that there are plenty of other places to go. You can still go to Le Bernardin or Del Posto and have grand meals. But on the cutting edge, out there on the wild frontier, things are a little murkier and more unsettled.