17 December 2009

SPECIAL POST: Images from Marcel Vigneron's "Modern Global Tastings" Menu, Hatchi Series @ Breadbar, 17 December 2009

Beginning of service. Among those huddled are chefs with whom Marcel Vigneron has worked at The Bazaar by Jose Andres ("My Last Bite" says he quit and now runs his own catering company, Modern Global Tastings). Those friendlies who introduced themselves to me: to the right of Marcel, Jarrid Massey, and to the far right, Cole Dickinson.

Coconut Margarita, on the Cocktail Menu designed by Devin Espinosa, Mixologist at The Tasting Kitchen, Venice, CA. A delightful and smooth, well balanced cocktail. Just right.

AMUSE BOUCHE: Pomegranate blueberry spherification.

More texturally complex than your typical spherification (Did I just say "typical spherification"?).

HAMACHI SASHIMI: espelette, momo chan, kumquat, iceplant.

One of my favorite flavor combinations. The momo chan--a revelation. This ingredient has appeared on the menu at Saam at The Bazaar.

DAYBOAT SCALLOP: cauliflower couscous, seaweed.

Most delightful are the candy-colored dollops. They play mind games. Are these different flavors or the same? The colors throw one off. Ha!

LANGOUSTINE RAVIOLI: thom khai, avocado wrapped mango, petite basil, coconut milk powder.

A partly Eurasian concept, I thought, as the raviolo tasted like Chinese har gow and the thom kai was reminiscent of both uni and truffles--at least to this jaded palate. Cool!

Detail of mango-filled avocado. More delights on the interior.

Detail of interior of langoustine raviolo. The source of "har gow"ness.

LYONAISE SALAD: frisee, "nesting" egg, bacon, sherry vinaigrette, endive.

The "nesting" egg was witty.

MISOHONEY BLACK COD: nasturtium textures, sesame oil powder, broth (before the pouring of broth).

Yummy miso basil taste. Not sure if this impression is an accurate reflection of ingredients. Am wondering if "misohoney" is supposed to be punny, or if I am reading too much in....

After the pouring of broth.

VADOUVAN LAMB: flavors of tzatziki, lavosh, pickled onion, sumac.

Wild. The lamb looks raw, but tastes fantastic, luscious lamby flavor. Marcel is wonderful also at what I call "plate landscaping." This is a style of plating whereby one gets the impression that, if one were miniturized enough to walk on one's plate, one would feel charmed and delighted, as if walking about a garden in the (English) picturesque mode. An excellent practitioner of this style is Grant Achatz of Alinea.

GRASS-FED "CORNED BEEF": sous vide short rib, textures of corn, Saul's pastrami, black trumpets.

More humor here. The beef gets its animal friendly grass feeding, while the corn used to stuff the less fortunate cattle gets its proper place as an accompaniment. Order has been restored.

Also here, more lusciously cooked meat. Outstanding, this one. And possibly the best plate landscaping of the night (but there is much competition). Note: This is not a view of the presentation side, but rather an attempt to show the most in the photo.

SOUFFLE: green chartreuse.

I could barely finish it, but this was delicious, too. Nice send off.

Copyright 2009 Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.

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07 December 2009


Photos by author from 2009 dinner at Saam inside The Bazaar, Los Angeles.
Top: Jose Andres's reinterpretation of a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich.
Center: Andres's homage to Chef Adria, the "Olives Ferran Adria."
Bottom: Andres's reinterpretation of a Buffalo Wing (boneless).

In The New Yorker's latest food issue (23 November 2009), Chef Heston Blumenthal contributed a piece about a taste memory from his childhood experiences of a certain duck a l'orange. He remembers having it when his parents, on rare occasions, took the family out to eat at a "pub-restaurant with flock wallpaper, mock-Regency furniture, and a menu full of exotic-sounding international classics...." Though by his own standards now, he admits, he would not consider the dish much good, he savored the memory of this duck because it was tied to strong feelings about the specialness of the family outings, and the theatricality of the food's presentation, at an impressionable age. He went on to address the phenomenon of taste memory more generally, stating, "I am convinced that the foods we find most delicious are the ones that trigger memories and associations."

Chef Blumenthal's musings about taste memories--those remembrances of things past triggered by particular foods like the Proustian madeleine--have plenty of company among the chefs associated with the cutting edge of so-called molecular cuisine. Ferran Adria, Jose Andres, Grant Achatz, Homaro Cantu, Wylie Dufresne, and Will Goldfarb have, to varying degrees, described certain of their dishes as designed, albeit through surprising new forms, to evoke deep-seated memories. Adria, Blumenthal, and Achatz have been the most explicit and in-depth in their discussions of their food in terms of conjuring aromas and flavors tied to significant memories and emotions.

These chefs are right on the mark in understanding that food is a powerful memory trigger. But, if a chef considers memory their culinary tool, they must be pressed further to examine what they're doing. On whose memories is one playing? One's own? The diners'? In interviews or in essays in their cookbooks, some chefs tend to conflate the two, eliding explanations of their own inspirations for particular dishes and suggestions that they are evoking similar memories in their diners. To what extent do chefs expect memories drawn from their own pasts to be shared by their diners?

I am becoming convinced, as I read The Fat Duck Cookbook, that much of Chef Blumenthal's inspiration from the dime-store candies of his British childhood might be lost on this American diner. And I would like to ask him: would it matter? How important, really, is the conjuring of that taste memory in the diner to his culinary artistry? If chefs are indeed serious about using memory as their tool, then greater consideration of the cultural backgrounds of their diners would be in order. But would such consideration even be feasible, or desirable, after all? Must cuisine be turned into an inexact branch of social science?

If, on the other hand, it is not important for chefs to evoke particular memories in their diners, then perhaps the discourse on taste memory should be clarified. The talk of taste memory functions best as an autobiographical account of the chef's own creative inspiration, but is, frankly, hit-or-miss as culinary communication with diners. For every diner brought to tears by the aroma of charred chestnuts, there are hundreds enjoying the same dish for other reasons.

Chefs, what are your intentions concerning taste memory? Unless we diners share your cultural experiences--your regions' native olives, your grandmothers' pot roast, that gussied-up duck a l'orange--we can't eat your pasts.

Copyright Alison Pearlman 2009. All rights reserved.

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01 November 2009


Photo above: from ideasinfood.typepad.com on 1 November 2009. Photo below: a detail of Elizabeth Falkner's entry in the Food Network Challenge, "Haunted Gingerbread Houses," aired 31 October 2009, from yidio.com/show/food-network-challenge.

Every year, the holiday season is stuffed with "Food Network Challenge" TV shows featuring pastry- and sugar-sculpture battles. Right on cue, the Network launched this Halloween what will inevitably be a cascade of confectionary monument competitions revolving around holiday themes. Because these shows mostly annoy me, I find them aesthetically clarifying. They remind me where I stand in judgments of the good and bad in art.

Consistently, the pastry and sugar monuments are judged, and therefore produced, according to criteria that, when worshipped for their own sake, I believe are alien to good art: difficulty of technique and adherence to rules that have no artistic relevance outside of the artificial world of the contest. While difficulty of technique can make me swoon, it does so only when the craftsmanship has a worthy end. I would go further. To move me, the worthy end has to seem greater than the difficulty of technique used to get there. Good art, I believe, involves economy of means relative to ends. Some ends require labor-intensive and precise, hard-to-master, technique. Some do not.

But Food TV's confectionary sculpture competitions distort the purpose of artistic means. The criteria of difficulty and observance of arbitrary rules hold the one other criterion in these competitions, the one legitimate one--interpretation of theme--hostage. In a different scenario, calls to interpret a theme might encourage imaginative solutions. But, in these contests, they are a beacon to technical virtuoso for its own sake and clever fulfillments of game artifice. Often, the contests require height minimums and specify, among other things, how many parts can be made before the day of the contest. Such rules exist not because they make any aesthetic or conceptual sense, but because they help television drama. They create suspense when contestants have to carry barely finished, structurally questionable monuments to the display tables--gasp!--without shattering shards of sugar.

The contest criteria favor a narrow spectrum of labor-intensive naturalism, rather than aesthetically economical yet conceptually sound works. Examples of the former usually win.

Enter Elizabeth Falkner, the renowned pastry chef and founder of Citizen Cake in San Francisco. I am convinced that she came to the Halloween Food Network Challenge featuring "Haunted Gingerbread Houses" with entirely different goals from those of the other equally renowned contestants. Without her explicitly saying so, it became clear from her gingerbread anti-monument that her challenge was not to the other contestants but to the Food Network Challenge itself, to its artistically fallacious criteria.

Her creation (a detail of which is pictured above) was, in every sense, punk. It wasn't just punky in style, though it was. It did what punk perennially does. It challenged the contest's fetish for technique for its own sake. It offered something that looked sloppy and awkward by the others' standards--but for valid conceptual reasons. Her haunted gingerbread house really was the scariest--and not in the faux Halloweeny sense. Creating a series of barricaded spaces that resembled homeless shelters required the viewer to get up close to the spaces. Metaphorically, they had to cross a "scary" class barrier that I have never seen addressed in the bourgeois context of Food Network shows. You had to get up close also to reap the rewards of color and interest inside the various crevices. This structure reversed and therefore challenged the contest sculptures' norms of point of view and viewer-to-work relationships. To glimpse inside the crevices were cornucopically colorful "stalactites" and "stalagmites" and other intriguing post-apocalyptic goodies. Falkner's work displayed conceptually purposeful use of aesthetics. Her piece showed wit and innovation.

From start to finish, the judges didn't know what to do with it. They kept circling her work station and making snide comments. They were only occasionally honest about their confusion. Where was the skill displayed in her punky pastry smears, her gang-graffiti-esque signs, her irregular stalactites? Falkner must have known the judges couldn't evaluate her work using their criteria. Surely, she was making a statement about the creative limitations of their pastry game.

What is fascinating is that it never occurred to the judges--or couldn't have, given the pressures of television shows--that she was challenging them. But how could a pastry chef as accomplished as she not have been purposefully stomping on the grounds of their judgment? The consistency with which she deployed techniques that had conceptual rigor--and aesthetic economy--but would not be considered technically difficult was a dead giveaway!

Perhaps for many people watching this episode, it was just a blip on the TV screen, a slight disturbance to the otherwise undisturbed Food Network Challenge criteria, which march on in sweet oblivion. For me, Falkner's intervention represents the kind of epic moment that often gets swept aside in order to continue business as usual. Whatever cognitive dissonance it offered to the judges and viewers was quickly denied in the distraction of celebrating the marvel of realism that actually won first prize.

Students of the historical avant-garde in art, however, are familiar with such interventions, and know that, if more artists begin to disturb the same rules, the whole irrelevant gingerbread establishment might finally come crumbling down. And that is why people like Elizabeth Falkner may be said to do "bad" work in the very best way.

Copyright 2009 Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.

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05 October 2009


Photos: Chef Hubert Keller's Burger Bar, Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas. By author, August 2009.

In our era of gourmet-burgermania--when almost every restaurant boasts a specialty hamburger with high-grade ingredients, stylish presentations, or ultra-fresh in-house meat grinding--what is the difference between one such "upscale" hamburger served at a casual-dining restaurant and one at a fine-dining establishment?

Price, you think? Think again. The sixty-dollar burger pictured above is on the menu of Hubert Keller's sports-bar-like Burger Bar in Vegas, which--with the omnipresence of TV monitors, rolling luggage, and openness to the casino hallway--has all the rarified atmosphere of an airport pit stop.

The ingredients, you say? Not necessarily. Both Umami Burger (in Los Angeles) and Burger Bar, typical of today's casual places with a high-style burger option, feature burgers with truffles. Burger Bar's sixty-dollar special then adds foie gras to that. And, as you can see from the photos showing this burger's accompaniments--the sauce perigourdine, salt, and pepper in a side tray--care in presentation isn't a key distinction, either.

Perhaps context is the definitive difference. Would the sixty-dollar burger at Burger Bar be a class-elevating experience, for example, while the same burger at Michael Mina's XIV in Los Angeles, in the fine-dining category, would be a "comforting" one? Possibly. That is, if the customer believes strongly in the highbrow/lowbrow distinction between the likes of Burger Bar and XIV. Such a person, however, would be clinging to a fading past.

While high/low distinctions between casual and fine dining do still exist, in recent decades the lines between them have gotten a lot blurrier. Fine-dining restaurants incorporate increasingly casual architectural elements, service, and menu items and casual restaurants take menu cues from the fine-dining world.

The hamburger is one of those items closest to the brow-blurring line. To some extent, this is the hamburger's fault. An iconic yet versatile food, it can be dressed up, with truffles, or down, with lettuce and tomato, for the occasion, and still retain all of its force as a pop-cultural symbol. As long as the burger is anchored to the symbolic machinery of nostalgia and physically acts as a blank canvas for class signifiers, it can thrive where brow lines are most blurry.

At the point of breakdown between highbrow and lowbrow, "burger brow" may be likened to a contemporary condition that cultural critic John Seabrook has called "nobrow." In the world of nobrow, vertical distinctions of high versus low are superseded by status markers based on what's hot, what's buzzing. Media-driven topicality, novelty, fashion--these drive the status of things more than class-based distinctions. In his book Nobrow (2001), Seabrook mostly addressed music and clothing, but his idea could just as easily be applied to food.

In this light, what gives a burger its brow status is not so much whether or not it is adorned with truffles and foie gras and the like or made with Kobe beef, but rather the novelty and mixed-brow chic of such ingredients on a burger in a sports bar ventured by Hubert Keller, a Michelin-starred fine-dining chef. In burger-brow terms, that sizzles.

Copyright 2009. Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.

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01 September 2009


Photo: Mac and cheese at Otom restaurant, Chicago. By author, December 2008.

What, exactly, is comfort food? We hear the term "comfort food" bandied about with increasing frequency. There are now restaurants, such as Citizen Smith and Boho in Los Angeles, defining their food genre as "comfort food" or "modern comfort food," and Food Network cooking-show hosts have been liberally using the term to describe an expanding roster of recipes. I think it's time to ask what people really mean by it and why it has lately gained such currency.

Can we say which are and which aren't the comfort foods? The most obvious and ubiquitous examples out there--such as mac and cheese, chicken pot pie, meatloaf, hamburgers, fried chicken, pizza--do tend to have a family resemblance. They became standards of fast-casual chains or sold as icons of the family dinner table via mass-media advertising in the decades immediately following World War II. The list of these foods collapses home and fast-food-chain cooking just as their advertising did, by eliding the contradictory notions of modern convenience and traditional hearth. Home-cooked pop-cultural standards were laden with labor savers--instant mashed potatoes, ready-made mixes, and the like--by the growing chemical-industrial food complex. The fast-food chains enlisted advertising to sell the notion of home or family with their side of fries.

Isn't it ironic that the term "comfort food," meant to evoke the aura of home and hearth, the culinary equivalent of mother's bosom, has been conjured by its opposite? Our use of "comfort food" to designate postwar food Americana also suggests that what comforts us about these foods is their pop-cultural familiarity, not really their source of production.

As the term "comfort food" extended beyond this inner core of postwar standards to embrace the more and more ethnic and regional dishes--from Japanese ramens to Moroccan tagines--to enter the pop-cultural vernacular, what does and doesn't count as a comfort food has become difficult to say. Yet, I suggest, the term stays in circulation because its association with familiarity, familiality, and abundance is useful. It has increased circulation because that has become increasingly useful.

But why? What distinction is the term maintaining, and what rising tide is it invoked to defend against? If "comfort food" is on the rise, mustn't some sort of discomfort food be encroaching?

If we think about the pace at which a widening population of diners has been exposed to new trends and experimentalism generally in our chef-admiring era, perhaps we can understand the rise of comfort food as a reactionary response to those demands. The discomfort food is, like the historical avant-garde, challenging. It requires us to wake up and engage new ideas, to be conscious of what we're eating and about the definition of a meal. By contrast, comfort food, like much pop culture, is meant to go down easy. It demands nothing of us, aims only to please, and flatters mere recognition.

Copyright 2009 Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.

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31 July 2009


Top: "Foie Gras Black Croque-Monsieur, Ham, Cherry, Amaretto" at Ludo Bites @ Breadbar, 21 July 2009.
Chef: Ludovic Lefebvre.


Bottom: Cover of The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World's Fiercest Food Fight (2009).
Author: Mark Caro.


Too often I have heard art invoked as a panacea for guilt about food. And too often I myself have wished it were so that, through artistic transmutation of actual animals into spectacular victuals, culture's inoculation against the pains of nature, we humans were paying respect to the creatures who died for our dinner. How many times has Anthony Bourdain mentioned such "respect" for the many pigs whose crackling glazed skins he has made his personal Eucharist? I would like to comfort myself with the idea that the animal, in spirit, is presiding over my table like a hovering food critic, and taking offense if it, in the afterlife, has not been cooked skillfully or plated artfully.

But I doubt it. The more I ponder the issues raised by books including Mark Caro's The Foie Gras Wars, sympathetic to aspects of both sides of the debate regarding whether or not animals should die for our pleasure, and the more I continue to eat meat and delicacies that some might consider politically incorrect, the more I realize that the debate itself encompasses two persistent sides of our human nature. We kill to live. This is an unchanging fact. We also have empathy. We are born torn.

We are also born artistic, with the interest, as bioevolutionist Ellen Dissanayake has long insisted, in "making [events and subjects] special" through aesthetic manipulation. Perhaps this third aspect of our nature has been trying to reconcile the other two?

If so, I'm afraid it has fallen under the spell of another deeply human trait: wishful thinking. Artistry in food has only reproduced the same conflict between cruelty and and empathy in its spectrum of aesthetic extremes. One one end, we have naturalism (think: California-cuisine school from Chez Panisse through Lucques). On the other, we have extremes of refinement and manipulation (think: the El Bulli school). The former reminds us of our food's natural origins. The latter de-familarizes us from them.

This is too simple, of course. Both extremes, to some degree, contain the other. But the point stands. Food artistry is not a legitimate way to excuse our guilt. It is, however, a way of extending our contradictory nature. We are condemned to live with our cruelty and our empathy, and to repeat it all, in new forms, through our compulsion for art.

Copyright 2009. Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.

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25 June 2009


Photo: Umami Burger menu June 24, 2009.

In the book Sirio: The Story of My Life and Le Cirque (2004), the renowned restaurateur Sirio Maccioni remembers insisting on offering his Le Cirque clients an extensive menu of at least fifty-five items. The ability to offer so much and be so versatile, he believed, was the sign of a great kitchen. In addition, Maccioni prided himself on Le Cirque's ability to produce whatever his guests wanted that wasn't on the menu. Extensive menus meant that the customer would have no need to go elsewhere. While Maccioni was an innovator in many respects, this was not one of them. 

In an era of micro-niche marketing, today what's big is the menu that's small. I can't remember precisely when this trend arose, but I subjectively date it back to the Seinfeld episode featuring the "Soup Nazi." The Soup Nazi did only soup--very, very well. So well, in fact, that the lines outside his food stand, and the fact that he got away with abusing customers because his soup was so sought after, made for the drama's main MacGuffin. 

While the big menu still exists today, the small menu has gained distinction. Restaurants like the Oinkster in Eagle Rock, Umami Burger and Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, and Momofuku in New York thrive on this model. Umami Burger changes its menu frequently, but it will present on its menu only approximately eight burgers at a time. Gordon Ramsay, the chef celebrity host of the BBC's Nightmare Kitchens, is often recommending, when he rehabilitates a failing restaurant, that the owners make their menus more focused, more specialized. Smaller. 

Granted, Ramsay suggests this to restaurateurs with much less experience than he has, and especially for small-scale operations. This makes economic sense. There is greater turnover of ingredients and abbreviations to the menu are manageable for the less seasoned restaurateur. 

But there is more to this trend than the sheer practicality of businesses slimming down to niches they can handle. Focus and specialization have become words of praise.  To me, they sound like the virtues of a culture of expertise. This one is a culture that grafts the aims of graduate school onto romantic ideals of food production, as in "We make only goat cheese on our family farm. It's the best in the world." So, the small, "focused" menu suggests depth of knowledge while simultaneously conjuring associations with the "artisanal." The latter is cultivated by farmers markets and everything related to Slow Foodism, wherein big--industrial-scale--food is deemed bad, and small--family-scale--food is good. 

Small menus stoke appetites, yes, but also intellectualism and a dose of primitivism. Small, of course.

Copyright 2009. Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.

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30 May 2009


Photos: "Cookies 'n Milk" dessert at Otom Restaurant, Chicago, December 2008. Chef: Daryl Nash.



Ninety-eighth Annual Meeting of the College Art Association, Chicago, Illiniois, February 10-13, 2010

Session Chair: Dr. Alison Pearlman, Associate Professor of Art History, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, apearlman@csupomona.edu.

While social scientists and culinary historians have long examined the cultures of food production and consumption, only in recent years has interest surged among historians and critics of visual art and design. None too soon! Given the importance of aesthetic considerations to food production and consumption--in food selection, preparation, presentation, dining, food-related media, and food-related architecture, packaging, and graphic design--the contributions of visual studies to this subject matter are well overdue.

For the "Food Aesthetics" session, the Visual Culture Caucus is seeking original, unpublished papers to be presented as 15-20-minute talks. Panelists' papers may explore the social significance of any aspect of the visual and/or spatial aesthetics of food production or consumption of any culture or period. Papers may address such topics as food sourcing and selection, culinary styles, food styling, food imagery (including the infamous "food porn"), the designed spaces of food (restaurants, markets), as well as the aesthetics of performance in dining or food offering.

Submissions are welcome from art, design, and cultural-studies scholars, critics, and journalists; artists and designers; and those in food-related industries. To submit a proposal, please e-mail the session chair with a statement of your interest and expertise in your topic and attach the following documents: your resume or curriculum vitae (including reliable contact information for the summer months) and a maximum-250-word abstract of your proposal that includes and is headed by your name and institutional affiliation. 

Please note that your submission represents a commitment to travel to Chicago to present your paper at the CAA conference if your proposal is accepted. DEADLINE FOR SUBMISSIONS: July 9, 2009.

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01 May 2009


It goes without saying that the burger you order in a restaurant should arrive ready to be eaten. But should it come ready to be photographed, too? With the proliferation of food blogs published by amateur, unannounced, and anonymous restaurant-goers, we may have entered an era when they do.

Consider my photographs from last week's dinner at Umami Burger, a Los-Angeles newcomer to the sophisticated-burger scene. There is nothing special about the photos. I do not have photographic skill. It is the burgers that are extraordinary--albeit in a way easily overlooked because we are used to seeing the effect in question in food-magazine photography. Look again.

Notice the perfectly even sheen on the top bun? From my entire personal history of consuming restaurant hamburgers, I do not recall being presented with a burger so artfully shellacked. Having enjoyed many tasty burgers in my time, including "gourmet" burgers, I conclude that such a feature is unnecessary for taste or as a byproduct of cooking methods.

Of course, I've known shiny streaks and spots and smears--accidental grease. The unintended traces of a fast-moving cook. But at Umami Burger there was such complete coverage, and consistent, too, on every burger carried out of the kitchen. I should mention that the glossiness did not detract from taste. Our burgers did not taste oily, but delectable. So I believe these burgers were deliberately dressed to impress--the eye and the lens, not the taste buds. Put in terms of food porn, our burgers were "fluffed."

More than that, they were prepared to compensate for my unprofessional food photography, my lack of food-stylist help and expertise, and that of all the other food bloggers snapping flashless photos between courses. Our amateur photography cannot be relied upon for public relations to the restaurant's advantage. Perhaps we should see blog-ready food as a tactic in restaurant media defense. Through it, a restaurant can reclaim some of the control over its visual representation that it lost in the proliferation of amateur reportage. 

Copyright 2009 Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.  

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06 April 2009


Since the circa 2001 advent of the restaurant website, you could say that every restaurant that created one gained a new--and a new kind of--front room. The restaurant website is certainly a space of anticipation. Any decent antechamber is. It offers prospective diners a peek into the restaurant environment and its cuisine. It goes further than your average waiting room, allowing you to inspect the other guests' plates in close-up and for as long as needed. It may tell you something about the restaurant's staff members' professional histories and, if the site is set to share, their personal passions. Importantly, it gives us would-be diners the chance to opt out if we're not interested--we've made no commitments at that juncture--without embarrassing anyone involved.

Above all, the restaurant website tends to make the restaurant-going experience more egalitarian. It removes the social awkwardness or intimidation that used to come from staring through dark glass or hoping to find a menu posted outside. Restaurant reviews have always had a unique role to play in informing consumers. But the restaurant website allows the restaurant to present itself as it would like to be seen. Restaurant-goers have a way of independently gauging what the restaurant itself wants from its consumers straight from the source. Does it insist on a prix-fixe menu? Can you expect large portions?

In pajamas-on comfort, one can open as many restaurant doors as one can stand to, peek around, often at close range, inspect the decor and dishes, and decide if one would like to physically trek to any. The restaurant website offers unprecedented accessibility and a way of educating the consumer.

Of course, there is a range in the richness and the content of restaurant websites. So their actual effects vary greatly. And not everything about restaurant websites has been positive. So much pre-viewing of the restaurant's cuisine can lead to a loss of surprise. It can hold the restaurant experience captive to comparison with photography-induced expectations. This effect was once described by the still-relevant theorist of photography and culture, Walter Benjamin, as a loss of the uniqueness of time-and-place experience. In a famous 1936 essay entitled "The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility," he argued this was the effect photography had on works of art. It applies here as well. The trade off of for this unique physical experience, as Benjamin too would admit, is social egalitarianism. Photography may have damaged what Benjamin called the "aura" of painting, but it also made it accessible.

More recently, some restaurant websites have added on a still further structure--the social-networking site. What was an antechamber has, with blogs and Twitter, stretched into a community center. In the case of the renowned Chicago restaurant Alinea, those who bought the Alinea book can join www.alineamosaic.com and carry on discussions with the other enthusiasts as well as the staff of Alinea, who answer questions and give insight into the cuisine and the backstage life of the restaurant. Another noteworthy phenomenon is the Kogi BBQ taco truck in Los Angeles (see pictures). It built a following through the application of a media-savvy team to a taco truck business that combines the Mexican formats of tacos and burritos with the Korean flavors of kimchi, spiced meats and tofu. Their web team uses Twitter to keep fans constantly apprised of their two Kogi trucks' locations. People catch up with the truck, add their own tweets, and stand in line for as much as two hours to dig into their street-friendly, ethnic-fusion munchies.

Thus we have arrived at Restaurant Websites 2.0 (Community Building). This phase in restaurant website design helps to cultivate sub-cultural communities, which transcend, as all websites do, particular places and times. And yet, it does so in a way that creates anticipatory community. For, when finally meeting at the particular restaurant, or taco truck location, the online socializing results in reinforcing and compounding those social bonds. It literally cashes it in--in the case of Kogi, for scrumptious tacos and the swell sight of people who followed the truck as you did standing in line trading knowing smiles and chatting.

Benjamin could never have anticipated that the loss of uniqueness of experience in space and time created by mass media could come full circle and become an actual generator of it.

Copyright Alison Pearlman 2009. All rights reserved.

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07 March 2009


Let's try to explain the micro-trend of contemporary restaurant (though by no means only restaurant) interiors of combining the clean, simple lines and surfaces of modernism with the charmingly ornate profusions of a sort of Rococo style. We'll call this combination "contemporary Rococo." Although he is not alone working in this manner, the designer who most consistently does, and has done in restaurants, is Philippe Starck. The photo above shows the graphic design of a candy-counter takeout container from The Bazaar by Jose Andres at the SLS hotel in Beverly Hills, one of Starck's 2008 restaurant designs. Photos of the interior are not allowed, so this container will have to do for now to convey a sense of the basic elements of contemporary Rococo.

It would be easy to dismiss this combination of industrial and old-world, serious and kitsch, as just another, even belated, manifestation of a familiar formula of postmodernism in design, that penchant for eclectic mixtures of old and new styles and highbrow and lowbrow cultural references that embrace an omnivorous as well as campy approach to culture. Starck's penchant for antlers and chandeliers against monochromatic backgrounds, as in the outdoor lounge area at SLS, is fiendishly playful in the postmodernist style indeed.

Contemporary Rococo is certainly that. But there's something more specific going on in this particular stylistic mixture. 

In Starck's restaurants, for example, as at the smaller-scale but perfectly on-trend LA Mill Coffee designed by Rubbish Interiors, also in Los Angeles, there is a pattern in the relationship between modernism and Rococo. Modernism becomes a flat-surface backdrop for the Rococo elements of chandeliers or flourishes on chairs, which, owing to the modernist elements' flatness and monochrome and its playing a background role, allows the Rococo to become, above all, a GRAPHIC effect. The modernism serves to flatten the Rococo into graphic pattern. Even though these restaurants are three-dimensional--arguably, four-dimensional--spaces, this aspect of their design seems to aspire to the condition of two dimensions.

It is the case that contemporary architecture is, as never before, collaborative with graphic design. Is what we are seeing with the contemporary Rococo not only a manifestation of postmodernism but also a symptom of the contemporary influence of graphic design on environmental space?

Copyright 2009 Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.

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04 February 2009


The evolution of the restaurant, at least in the West, is inextricable from two related developments: the growth of cities and the increasing need or desire to replace the homemade meal. I would argue that, since the restaurant's inception in the late eighteenth century, these twin drivers, the city and the home, have had a lasting influence on the physical design and typology of restaurants.

The territories of the city and the home have always been opposites. Urbanism involves being among strangers, of sharing pathways and landmarks but only optionally words or glances, and of reveling in the totality of commercial or public spectacle. The home, by contrast, is the sphere of aesthetic and social intimacy, where secrets may be shared in cozy proximity with family, friends, and furniture.

The opposing influences of city and home have manifested themselves throughout the history of restaurant design. If there has been one constant theme, one persistent preoccupation of restaurant architects and interior designers throughout the restaurant's history, it is how to balance the promotion of strangers' conviviality or communalism and the accommodation of diners' privacy--in other words, how to balance its dual, and potentially conflicting, DNA strands of public street and private home.

Restaurant designers and historians have constantly spoken of designers' efforts to make the diner feel "comfortable." By this they mean at ease eating, and sharing once-domestic rituals, amid strangers and courtesy of the kitchen of strangers. Establishing trust has always been the first task of any restaurant design.

Because reconciling communalism and privacy, the city and the home, has been a central historic challenge of restaurant design, it is possible to understand any restaurant as occupying some point along the spectrum of "home" and "city." All restaurants are some combination of the two types. You can tell which way they lean by what they emphasize in their design.

"City" elements in restaurants include spectacular design features that can be seen throughout the restaurant--a large sculptural installation, an open kitchen, a water feature in the center. These are like landmarks, the Times-Square-billboard-and-skyscraper effects of urbanism brought into interiors. They cultivate communal experience, serving as common points of reference. Long communal tables, as in some gastro-pubs, or counter seating, as in many diners, also offer a sense of urban communalism but without the spectacle of a centralized figure.

"Home" features in restaurant design include strong design distinctions and more space between the zones occupied by private tables. They also may include relatively lengthy or aesthetically transitional thresholds. One may be between the entrance door and where the seating begins. Others may be found between groups of tables. The more "home" the restaurant is, the more it is divided into several smaller dining zones, each with a distinct character and shielded from the others by literal or optical barriers, aesthetic differences, and/or sound buffering. "Home" style cultivates distance and offers transitions between tables or groups of tables, thus fostering intimacy and privacy among people of individual parties.

So long as the restaurant is the functional result of urbanism and home replacement, it will manifest the tensions and points of harmony between the city and the home in its design.

Copyright Alison Pearlman 2009. All rights reserved.

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10 January 2009


Did it begin in the 1990s or as recently as this decade? Perhaps you remember the first time you noticed that some restaurant menus had taken to describing dishes with the disjunctive brevity of concrete poetry. On one Los Angeles evening in August 2008, in the trend-conscious, casual shoebox Animal, a couple of lines from the mains section read:

niman flat iron, bordelaise, creamed leaks, potato, corn, sweetbreads
quail fry, anson mills grits, long cooked greens, slab bacon.

The more formal and far more expensive gastronomic destination, Alinea, in Chicago, offered a twenty-five-course "tasting tour" in December 2008 with a program of dishes described with a similar syntax. It began:

TROUT ROE parsnip, licorice, ginger
LEMONGRASS oyster, sesame, yuzu
CAULIFLOWER five coatings, three gels, cider.

Meals at Animal and Alinea differ wildly in cost. For the former, for one person, with wine, before tip, dinner might amount to $50-60. For the latter, the "tasting tour" for one with wine pairings, pre-tip, came out to--how could I forget--$466. So the similarity in the style of menu language is not strongly tied to cost. It is, however, a style I have seen only in restaurants with gourmet ambition. Would you agree?

Not all gourmet-forward restaurants, however, do what I'll call menu minimalism. More often one sees the longer-lived syntax of dishes described with conjunctions. In August 2008, a starter on the lunch menu of Los Angeles institution Lucques was described as "slow-roasted king salmon salad with avocado and green goddess dressing," and a main as "ricotta gnocchi with braised beef shortrib, cherry tomatoes and feta salsa verde." The special-occasion tour-de-force Ortolan, also in Los Angeles, offered for dinner in the same period, among other things,

Marinated Hamachi with Blood Orange
Osetra Caviar, Red Bell Pepper, and Ginger.

(In menu quotes, I've represented any distinctions of display type that may impact perceptions of syntax. I've reproduced lower-case, bolded, and capitalized words and words on separate lines.)

I conclude that menu minimalism is a recent sub-trend in the gourmet restaurant world. But it is an identifiable trend, a pronounced style. What are its elements? What are its effects? And, finally, what are their implications? Some brief thoughts for discussion:

The elimination of conjunctions suggests an anti-hierarchical attitude. All components of a dish are accorded equal status. This contrasts with the more traditional style of prioritizing elements of a dish, which conjunctions such as "and" and "with" facilitate. The linguistic reductionism of menu minimalists also projects straightforwardness.

The aesthetic features of menu minimalism have a precedent in 1960s Minimalism in art. Three-dimensional art moved away from the tendency of traditional figurative sculpture to prioritize a particular angle of view, as in the authoritarian form of monuments. Monumentality in art parallels the more traditional menu's linguistic emphasis on the meat or other most luxurious ingredient. Just as the sculpture tradition depended on the unification of body parts essential to likeness of the human figure, which has a top and bottom, so the use of conjunctions in menus upholds a hierarchy with which a diner apprehends the components of a dish.

When the Minimalists challenged hierarchy in sculpture, they severed conjunctions. No longer welding parts, they produced modular, nonfigurative "structures," and displayed them detached, side by side. The menu minimalists have done the same, producing blunt sequences of separated ingredients--taking a similarly modular, and thus arguably anti-hierarchical, approach to describing cuisine.

But are anti-hierarchy and bluntness actual functions of the new minimalistic menus within the total context of the dining experience?

Listing a dish by ingredients alone, a practice broken only occasionally when a poetic note must rescue a mundane-sounding ingredient (e.g., "long cooked greens"), conceals the methods of ingredients' preparation, and avoids reference to the cooks' labor. So this style is not straightforward but rather mystifying. It contributes to the diner's sense of surprise as the diner, when finally presented with the dish, finds ingredients transformed in unanticipated ways. Menu minimalism is thus a dramatic device that depends on, rather than debunks, obfuscation.

Understood this way, it makes sense that menu minimalism has emerged in the gourmet sector. There, the most complex and skilled transformations of ingredients, and the greatest need to wow the diner with such skill, may be found.

Describing a dish by ingredients alone also calls attention to the nature of the ingredients themselves, and the art of their combination. In the hyper-competitive arena of chefs and restaurants, the use of novel ingredients and the novel use of ingredients in unlikely combinations have become marks of distinction. The chef's skills as a creative and worldly consumer, not just producer, of foods are highlighted in the menu-minimalist style.

As reductive as that style is, there has been plenty of room for name-dropping prized producers--e.g., "niman flat iron," "anson mills grits"--showing off the chef's savvy or social conscience in sourcing fine, politically correct, or novel ingredients.

The laundry-listing of ingredients also draws diners' attention to the chef's ability to steer clear of overused ingredient combinations, a skill increasingly impressive, and his or her inclusion of items even well-traveled diners don't yet know of. Togarachi, anyone?

So menu minimalism may have undermined the older hierarchy of ingredients, but has introduced new markers of status: obscurantism, novelty, and derivation from designer sources. Meanwhile, this style, while withholding information for dramatic impact, is anything but straightforward.

Copyright Alison Pearlman 2009. All rights reserved. 

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