The Disconnect of Five Star Dining

Alone on the stage stands a violinist. It is dark, save one lone spotlight casting down upon the musician, which serves to cast them as the singular point of focus for the audience, as well as to create a subtle air of menace.

The violin in brought to the chin, the bow is raised, and Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major begins.

At this point, members of the audience will surreptitiously and unknowingly divide into several groups. Some will listen to the sum of the performance, ignoring the musician’s technique or skill and base their perceptions of the evening on whether they were in a good mood, , how pleasant or unpleasant the auditorium was, how the audience responded, or whether they knew the musician from previous performances. The music, if enjoyed, will be appreciated from a very personal perspective

Some will pay careful attention to the music, ensuring the musician does the piece justice. Questions such as “Does the performer have the requisite skills to perform the piece?”, “Are the performer’s fingers heard as they press upon the fingerboard?”, “Does their technique result in unintended noises?”, and “Do they understand the piece they are playing?” are all asked and answered as the piece progresses.

And still others will remain ignorant of the music or musician, unable or unwilling to understand the history of the music, nor will they be able to appreciate the skill and talent needed to perform the Concerto. The music will be heard the same way that some people hear foreign languages – unintelligible. Their response to the music will most likely be frustration or indifference, due in large part to their inability to understand what they are listening to.

Then there are those who were unable to get tickets to the concert.

* * * * * * * * * *

Some variation of the above is what goes through my mind every time I pick up an issue of Bon Appetit, read an article about Thomas Keller, or listen to someone talk about molecular gastronomy, nouvelle cuisine or any of the other genres of 5 star restaurants out there.

Over at, commenter Maura left the following note in response to Michael’s most recent post about Molecular Gastronomy:

The days of putting a piece of protein in a hot pan are almost over. Observent cooks will continue to incorporate tools and techniques from other professions into the cooking arena.
I’m not so sure about this. I hope it’s not true. And it leaves behind millions of people who are neither insiders nor attuned to trends in cooking. It leaves behind people who barely have enough food, or don’t have the resources to engage in these techniques. It leaves behind people who aren’t looking for an exisential experience. To suggest that this will be the only acceptable way to cook and eat is elitist.

For now, let’s leave aside the notion that “molecular gastronomy” can be defined in several ways (I see it as both a process/philosophy and separately as a ‘cuisine’). Instead, let’s focus on the larger question of whether 5 star restaurant culture affects the more general food culture.

Quick quiz – when in the kitchen, do you use any techniques made popular by Haute Cuisine? Do you intentionally seek to combine foods and techniques from two or more cultures in order to create a single meal? Is presentation equally important as taste?

My guess is that a handful of you answered yes to some of the above, less than a handful answered yes to all of the above, and a fair majority answered no to all of the above, with the caveat being that some of you didn’t know what the heck haute cuisine was, nor that presentation is actually a big deal.

Of course my quiz was full of generalizations that disregarded the many subtleties that may have affected the way some of you cook. But my general belief is that 5 star dining affects regular everyday cooks very little, if even at all.

The reason is basic economics. Can an average person afford to acquire the tools, product and skills necessary to produce meals equivalent to those found in 5 star restaurants? Unless they have a high income, a fair amount of free time, and the resources required to take care of other responsibilities (such as cleaning the house, raising the kids), then the short answer is “no”.

If these tools, products, and skills are unable to make it into the core repertoire of home cooks, then it’s unlikely to have a major effect upon the larger food culture.

So then why the big deal surrounding Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller, et al? Jumping back to the violinist, those who have spent a great deal of time understanding cooking techniques and studying tastes and cuisines have found these guys to be exceptionally talented and innovative when compared to others in the restaurant industry. Their influence can and will be felt throughout the restaurant industry, especially in regard to upscale dining.

However, their effect upon the food culture as a whole will be minimal. Those of us are unable (or unwilling) to hear the violinist and the music they are playing are unlikely to be moved by it. Anyone who claims otherwise speaks primarily from hubris.

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