A recent thread on Chowhound got us thinking about strategy.
The post in question is from a couple who’ll be visiting Chicago from Arizona, and the centerpiece of their trip is a dinner at Alinea. They’re wondering where else to eat while they’re here, which is a normal sort of Chowhound-esque question, but at first we thought they were asking something far more interesting: What should you eat to prepare for a major dinner?
Surprisingly, we’ve found that the best methods for dealing with double-digit course counts come to us via the crazy world of competitive eating. From the outside, it might seem that ordering the nine-course chef’s menu at French Laundry and participating in Nathan’s hot dog eating contest have more differences than similarities. But the goal is, ultimately, the same: Consume a truly massive quantity of food without giving up (or, for that matter, throwing up). For all that high-end chefs insist that the tasting menu is an easily scaled mountain, the multiplex of courses mitigated by tiny portion sizes and multi-hour seatings, it truly is a tremendous amount of food.
While we still occasionally find ourself politely declining desserts and mignardises, unable to swallow so much as another sip of water, we’ve gotten better at marathon gourmet consumption over the years. Taking into account our own experiences (and polling some friends and acquaintances), here’s the official MenuPages Guide to Making It Out Of A Tasting Menu Alive.
After the jump, the six easy steps…
One: Don’t take the long view. Don’t anticipate calorie overload five days ahead of time and puritanically restrict yourself to liquids and raw vegetables. By the time you sit down for your three-hour feast, you’ll be so used to eating small portions that you’ll flame out between the post-amuse and the appetizer.
Two: Preparation begins the night before. The day before your reservation, have a big dinner. And we mean big. This is common knowledge in the competitive eating world: stretch your stomach out the day before, and it’ll hold its size for the competition. If you’re a soda drinker, indulge! The carbonation helps expand your stomach.
Three: Don’t go in hungry. The last thing you want to do is show up ravenous at Restaurant Gary Danko and dive headfirst into the bread plate. Have a protein-rich breakfast and a light lunch, and snack if you’re hungry. The key to the tasting menu is pacing yourself, and that’s hard to do if you’re ready to gnaw off your own arm before you’ve even left the coat check.
Four: Speaking of bread… Yes, the breads are amazing. But no, they are not what you’re here for. Have a few bites, by all means, and enjoy the no doubt extraordinary butter made from no doubt extraordinarily pampered cows. If you’re forced to choose among a half-dozen irresistable bread choices (“Would madam like the anchovy brioche, the duck-fat sourdough, or the bacon rye?”), pick one or two awesome ones and politely ask your server if it would be possible to bring samples of the others home with you. Chances are good the answer is yes.
Five: Wine pairings are not for amateurs. We don’t mean amateur palates. We mean amateur livers. The supplemental wine pairings offered with most tasting menus will give you anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen glasses of wine. Depending on what sort of drunk you are, this means one of three things: You’ll get really full really quickly, you’ll eat it all but taste none of it, or you’ll pass out in the middle of the sweet/savory bridge course. Don’t be embarrassed to decline the wine pairing and ask the sommelier to recommend one or two glasses that can take you through the whole menu, or a bottle to split with your companions.
Six: Eat defensively. If you find yourself starting to feel full before the end’s in sight, slow down! Take some sips of water and spend a few minutes focused on conversation instead of eating. Get up to use the restroom, whether or not you actually need to — your grandpa was right, standing up and moving around aids digestion. The key is to stop the feeling of fullness before it starts — once you start hitting that straining-to-take-another-bite phase, it’s over.
Seven: It’s over when it’s over. Sometimes, all the techniques in the world can’t forestall the simple vanquishing of hunger. If you can’t bring yourself to take another bite — don’t. Going past your limit will just leave you feeling like crap and will, if you’ll excuse the cliche, ruin a perfectly good evening. Let your server know that you’re just completely, impossibly full, and it was because the food was so unbelievably delicious, and your most effusive compliments to the chef, but please for the love of god make it stop. And can they pack up some of those mignardises for you to bring home? Pretty please?