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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