When Did Fine Dining Involve Chocolate-Sprayed Moss? - No. 182
Before it was elitist, fine dining’s roots were in the home. Plus Michel Guérard's tomato sauce to spoon over crusty bread, simmered white beans, or grilled chicken, to bring some life to winter.
THE FOOD MEDIA IS WEEPING over the closing of Noma, the haute, style-setting Copenhagen restaurant many of us may never visit. Chef Rene Redzepi will shutter Noma at the end of 2024 and transform it into Noma 3.0, a food lab.
In the context of our everyday lives—Covid, recession fears, plus a world that increasingly feels less friendly—what else is there to say about an elite $500 multi-course meal from the world’s ‘’best’’ restaurant other than this matters to me as much as Jeff Bezos launching into space.
(You can read about this on Substack from Alicia Kennedy, Aaron Ayscough, and Jason Wilson. Don’t miss this one from The Atlantic.)
As restaurants shuttered at the beginning of the pandemic and in their reopenings and recovery, so began talks of systematic changes within the food and beverage industry. The toxic culture—sexism and sexual harassment, free and underpaid labor, drugs and alcohol—have plagued the industry for decades. And this was the chance to address and change those problems. Many left the industry looking for more fulfilling, better-paid opportunities with boundaries.
Food media picked up these “talks” of new standards for the industry, but as soon as restaurants were out of lockdown and back to full swing, those voices softened. People didn’t want to read about that anymore.
The closure of Noma has brought those conversations back to the forefront, especially the unpaid internships called “stages,’’ essential to the model of high-profile fine dining establishments.
Stages have been around for centuries, but in terms of today’s labor laws and the way information spreads as fast as fire, it’s a real problem. A stage was the way a ‘’stagiaire’’ got a foot in the door, literally, to work without pay in the prestigious kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants.
Fine dining takes many hands. At Noma, three-hour meals consist of 20-course tasting menus of reindeer brain custard, pickled quail eggs, beet sashimi, and the like. And although I have yet to dine at Noma, I have been to other Michelin three-stars in France—Les Prés D’Eugénie (Michel Guérard), Alain Chapel in Mionnay, Paul Bocuse in Lyon, and L’Oustau de Baumaniere in Les Baux— where servers balanced plates covered in cloches, and all on cue, unveiled them magically as if choreographed.
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I recall cooking school at La Varenne in Paris in the mid-‘80s, and while I was not working toward a Grand Diplôme as some of my fellow students, I read the stress and exhilaration on their faces as they waited to be placed in a restaurant stage.
Surely these unpaid internships have helped restaurants at the tippy-top survive and train future chefs. They’ve been talked about, but only now are we paying attention. We’ve seen chef shows like Anthony Bourdain, The Menu, and The Bear, and we know of the ego and have read of the icky, toxic culture behind kitchen doors, and yet, people still want to work there for free.
To me, it’s not so sad that Noma is closing as it is we don’t give enough credit to that first step of a chef’s career—the home kitchen.
What if the home kitchen was where you staged? You showed up at your nana’s house willing to work each afternoon from 14 years on. You peeled potatoes together, picked greens from her garden, minced garlic while she spun a story, and learned her way of making pie crust by watching older hands that know what they are doing. She might slap your hand and bark an order, but you know it comes from a place of love.
Yet home cooks will never grab headlines even though they are the 24/7 creators of food that appeals to all, can be on the table by 6, and works within a budget. It doesn’t dazzle, but it digests. In short, home cooks will never be chefs, just miracle workers.
The idea that meatloaf could be “fine’’ dining or feed a copycat culture entranced by social media is farcical. And yet restaurant food is born in the home kitchen with profound memories wedged deep in the soul of chefs at Noma and elsewhere. Nothing can duplicate a meatloaf larded with love.
Fernand Point, the cinema of food, and calf brains with orange sauce
‘’Great cuisine must not wait for the guest; it is the guest who must wait for great cuisine.’’ - Fernand Point, Ma Gastronomie.
Fernand Point (1897-1955) was the legendary chef and father of modern French cuisine, who influenced Paul Bocuse and a long list who would go on to create nouvelle cuisine, cuisine minceur, and the fine food of today. Colman Andrews writes in The Daily Meal that Point’s father ran the local railway station buffet, then opened a small restaurant in Vienne, south of Lyon, near a Gallo-Roman pyramid, the town’s main attraction. (The structure is more like an obelisk supported by four arches, dating to the 2nd Century AD as Vienne was a Roman colony under the expansion led by Julius Caesar.) Point had left home and apprenticed in hotel kitchens in Paris and Cannes before returning to work with his father. And a year before his father died, Point was left the Vienne restaurant but didn’t want to run it the same way.
He wanted to organize the kitchen and place young chefs by more experienced ones so they might learn. (And possibly be harassed a bit, too.) He didn’t want to be doing all the cooking. He wanted to see people enjoy his food, so he walked out into the dining room and would become a celebrity.
In his cookbook, published 14 years after his death, Point shares a story of how a young traveler from Paris came to his small town to see the obelisk La Pyramide so he could tell his friends about it. Point told the traveler, ‘’you have not been to La Pyramide until you have dined at La Pyramide,’’ and he fed the young man a generous lunch.
In France and other countries, fine food has been a destination. Before cell phones and social media and even the internet, you made a reservation at a starred restaurant by picking up the home phone. And in your best French or German you placed a reservation for lunch or dinner on a specific day and time.
You knew it would be expensive. It cost then what a day at Disney does now, but it was your day. You dressed for it, gathered with friends for it, drank wine at lunch for it, and you enjoyed it.
Aaron Ayscough writes in his Substack newsletter, Not Drinking Poison, about going to Noma for lunch at the insistence of his editor of a book he was writing on natural wine. He was able to get a lunch reservation with the help of a sommelier friend who encouraged him to just enjoy the food and not take so many photos.
Nearly 40 years ago, I traveled to the south of France to the three-star L’Oustau de Baumaniere.
I had met the chef Jean-Andre Charial in Atlanta where he was giving cooking classes as the guest of travel agent and cooking teacher Diane Wilkinson. I made a note to self to dine there one day. Set at the foot of the Provençal village of Les Baux, the restaurant was founded by Raymond Thuilier, the chef’s grandfather, in 1946 in a region known for its olives, seafood, tomatoes, herbs, and history.
I knew enough of the menu ahead of time that I wanted to taste the local fish, the lamb, and all the flavors of Provence. Other than that, pre-internet, there was no telling what the chef’s offerings might be. But once I arrived and was greeted warmly, I was told the chef was preparing a special menu for me, one that other guests would not be allowed to savor.
It was a menu of offal. Innards. And I won’t go so far as to say it was awful, just unexpected. It began with seared foie gras, and I remember vividly the calf’s brains with an orange beurre blanc the color of a Dreamsicle. My hopes of tasting just a spoonful of monkfish or bouillabaisse were dashed. And that day has never left my mind.
The chefs who birthed fine dining cared deeply about fresh and local ingredients and pushed farm to table. But when did custards of reindeer brains become delicious? When did chefs believe they were more clever than we are, the diners, the people paying for the meal? And like the pretentious chef played by Ralph Fiennes in The Menu work to push boundaries for the very survival of the craft?
‘’As far as cuisine is concerned, one must read everything, see everything, hear everything, try everything, observe everything, in order to retain in the end, just a little bit.’’ - Fernand Point. Ma Gastronomie.
What this has to do with home cooking
Just as in the restaurant kitchen, fine cooking at home improves with experience and exposure. The more you cook, the better you get. The more you stretch yourself, try a new ingredient, method, or presentation, the more your cooking —and you—evolve.
Fine dining is one way to get better at home cooking because it inspires us. If Covid taught us anything it’s that we can cook an amazing meal at home, even if it’s picking up steaks from a local butcher and searing them in a cast-iron skillet.
Without the crisp linens and sparkling crystal, a whole new generation of chefs might be percolating at this very moment helping with the home garden, separating eggs for the souffle, and juicing lemons.
And when they unveil their new chapter of fine cooking, I hope these future chefs remember pastry, which has seen some extremes. It’s been dumbed down on American restaurant menus to bread pudding and panna cotta while talented and trained pastry chefs are working for bakeries and creating pop-ups because there aren’t the restaurant jobs there once were. Unlike cooks, pastry people are early risers, prefer to work alone, and need to pick up children after school and help them with their homework at night…they are mostly women.
And even in the starred restaurants, pastry has been pushed to the ridiculous, such as spraying moss with chocolate at Noma.
Today Glenn Viel, a native of Brittany, is the head chef of L’Oustau de Baumaniere where he experiments not so much in molecular cuisine as drying tomatoes from the garden ‘’in specially designed wooden dryers,’’ according to the website. I can only imagine the intense flavor of those tomatoes of southern France.
Home cooks will never stop being inspired by what comes out of restaurant kitchens. And chefs and critics will never stop being inspired by what came out of their own home kitchens, whether in Brittany or Birmingham. If you don’t believe me, rewatch the sweet flashback scene of food critic Anton Ego in the Disney film Ratatouille.
It’s a symbiotic relationship. We’re all in it for the good food, right? And some cinema, and not washing dishes or shopping for ingredients, and being poured wine, and being amused by desserts. Yes, dining, whether at home or in a restaurant, is a fine and lovely thing.
Today I share a fresh tomato sauce from France’s Michel Guérard. Brighten it with lemon and enhance it with ground coriander before you spoon it over crusty bread, white beans, or grilled chicken. Coming Thursday for paid subscribers is his mother’s flourless chocolate cake (below). So good…
Have a great week!
Michel Guérard's Tomato Sauce Vierge
I adapted this recipe from one shared by Food52. No chef in his right mind would make a fresh tomato sauce in January, but with the brown Kumato tomatoes today, it’s possible! Or by using nice sweet cherry tomatoes. You need a pound and a half of tomatoes, and then the seasoning is up to you. Let this sit at room temperature for at least 1 hour, then spoon over crusty bread or a bowl of beans. It is a blast of summer in the middle of a dreary winter. And to translate, ‘’vierge’’ means virgin. So French, I know. Enjoy!
Makes about 1 1/2 cups, enough for 6 to 8 servings
Prep: 20 to 25 minutes
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs such as basil, thyme, parsley, or cilantro
1/3 cup, or to taste, good extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Pinch of ground coriander or red pepper flakes, if desired.
Peel and core the tomatoes, or if peeling is not on your schedule, just core them. Chop and place in a medium bowl, and with a potato masher or mallet press down on the tomatoes to help them give up some juice. Season with salt and pepper. Add the garlic and herbs. Drizzle in the olive oil while stirring. Stir in the lemon juice, and add the coriander or red pepper, if desired. Season with more salt and pepper if needed. Let rest at least 1 hour at room temperature.
Spoon over toasted French bread or on top of simmered white beans. Serve alongside grilled fish and chicken.
If there's a James Beard Award for feature article writing, I submit this issue of BTL!
Haute cuisine doesn't do it for me. Too over the top and too expensive. Full agreement here about women in the home kitchen. Went out to lunch last week and ordered a braised duck dish with grand Marnier. My comment to my husband, "My duck is so much better". He agreed. It set us back $47. What that meal confirmed to me is that taking the time to cook it at home is worth the effort. Thanks for the great post.