The Narcissism of High End Dining

What starts out being a puff piece about Chef Christopher Lee (who had led the kitchen at Michelin-rated Gilt) , instead became an interesting piece on one chef’s insight into the current world of high-end dining and the food media that swirls around it. A bit from it:

You were pretty burned out with the business of fine dining when you left Aureole. Correct?
Pretty much. A dedication to the work is just not there anymore. The work ethic of the young chefs has diminished. The younger chef doesn’t understand what it means to work a full day. They go into it for all the wrong reasons.

And those reasons?
To make $100,000 a year. They don’t go into it for the love. Fine dining requires so much effort, which eats at you. It drove me out of it.

He also has little patience for the likes of eater.com, and even the types of people who go out searching for the latest and greatest thing in dining experiences.

I think I’ve been pretty clear where I sit in relation to many of these issues. But I’ve gathered them as an intentional outsider. It’s interesting to me that someone with the resume of Chef Lee is pissed off enough to voice his concerns. From what it sounds like, the passion for the food is gone, and now the majority of people, both in the kitchen and at the tables, are there for reasons beyond the simple joy of creating or eating a fine dish. High end dining has become little more than the culinary version of the world-according-to-TMZ.com.

Which is both odd and sad to me. Because if you remove all other pretenses about dining, in the end the customers should be looking for a pleasant evening outside of the house. This shouldn’t be work. It should be fun and pleasurable. Not every nuance of a restaurant needs to be judged, not every meal needs to be rated, and not every restaurant needs to be reviewed on Yelp. Yes, sure, obsession can be a good thing. But when obsession (whether individual or collective) starts to interfere with pleasure, then what’s the point? If we’re, collectively, at the point where our obsession to be famous, or our obsession to have our opinion heard is so great that it interferes with the simple pleasure of having a meal with friends or finding the prefect recipe for Beef Wellington, then we have forgotten the purpose of the restaurant.

In the end, dining, high-end or no, isn’t about you the individual. It’s about a moment, or, more specifically, an experience of that moment. Everyone has their role to play, from the chef, to the host or hostess, to the person who ends up paying the check. If your mind is on some future dream to get on the next season of Hell’s Kitchen, or if your nose is buried on Yelp, then you are separate from that moment.

Personally? If you’re the type of person who is separate from that moment, I would prefer to not eat in your restaurant, or sit at your table. Because in the end, the dining experience isn’t about you.