August 24, 2011
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Ideas and Eating

Over on Facebook, a lively discussion of Next has led Jeff Moyers to think I’ve lost my marbles.

I am also surprised to see so many people (seemingly) taking offense at the fact that some of us had bad food, bad service, and/or bad experiences at if my comments concerning were directed at them personally. Why is this? Why do you care so much about our experiences? You didn't wait on us, you didn't prepare our food, so what gives? If your experience at Next differs from ours, what's it to you? Just saying" 100% "of the people you know who have gone to Next had perfect experiences there doesn't (and won't) change our experience nor our opinion. So shut-up already.

Moyers is vexed by the ticketing system. So is everyone. That’s an interesting technical problem about which I’ll likely write more in a bit, but that core problem is that he didn’t find the experience quite right.

Even the New York Times said the food at Next ‘wobbles’ and at those prices food cannot ‘wobble’. The last thing I want to do after going to dinner (especially at those prices) is to find myself hungry an hour or two after the meal has concluded.

That last bit is, I think, just a reflex slam at Asian food. Almost all the sterner critics in this thread fixate on cost, and I fear that a lot of anger is simply outrage that an Asian restaurant – and Next is Asian for the next month or two – wouldn’t be cheap.

But there’s a more serious, significant contest of ideas here, one that reflect the core divide of food writing:

There are two schools of good writing about food: the mock epic and the mystical microcosmic. The mock epic (A. J. Liebling Calvin Trillin, the French writer Robert Courtine, and any good restaurant critic) is essentially comic and treats the small ambitions of the greedy eater as though they were big and noble, spoofing the idea of the heroic while raising the minor subject to at least temporary greatness. The mystical microcosmic, of which Elizabeth David and M. F. K. Fisher are the masters, is essentially poetic, and turn every remembered recipe into a meditation on hunger and the transience of its fulfillment

The two styles can’t be mixed. If we are reading, say, about Liebling’s quest for the secret of how rascasse are used in bouillabaisse, we don’t want to be stopped to consider the melancholy lives of the remote fishermen who seek them out. And if we are reading David’s or Fisher’s sad thoughts on the love that got away on the plate that time forgot, we would hate to find, on the next page, the writer handing out peppy stars in modish kitchens. (Adam Gopnik)

If you go to a restaurant because you’re hungry and you want to eat pancakes, then what matters to you is the pancake. If you go to a very expensive restaurant because you want to eat pancakes, the pancake should be well prepared and well presented. You’re paying for the pancake, and you are paying enough that the restaurant should take great care to please you and to make sure you are not inconvenienced in any way. In this view, restaurants are a service.

Some restaurants try to explore what food means, to make us reflect on food and eating just as painting invites us to think about what we see, and theater wants us to think about people we know. This might not always be entirely comfortable or predictable; a terrific painting might not be pretty, and good plays often portray people you really wouldn’t want to know. The analogy isn’t exact because, after all, you are eating: you can endure Endgame from the fifth row, you can look at Los Desastres de la Guerra on the wall, but eating something that unpleasant would be intolerable. Still, food can say a lot, and some people want to make it speak to us. In this view, restaurants are a performance.

That’s what Alinea and Next and El Bulli are setting out to do. If that’s not what you want, the experience can be frustrating, just as you can be miserable in a theater if you really wish you were at the ballpark. If that’s your problem, it’s your problem. Making food say new things might require experiment and risk, and that’s fine. The food at Next should wobble, because

When the experience is fresh, we don’t know what to expect – and the performers cannot know, either. Refinement that makes sense in a well-known context – the classical French country destination restaurant – is possible only where both patron and server know exactly what should happen.

When you go to a ball game, you cannot feel cheated if the Cubs fail to win. It doesn’t matter that you paid a lot for your tickets. What you can demand, though, is that they play hard, that they strive to win. (This is why lollygagging is such a big deal in baseball; if the players are seen not to care, everyone will stop paying attention. Other unwritten rules concern giving unnecessary offense, but the lollygagging rules – running out ground balls and popups, making fielding plays even in a blowout– protect the idea that the game is worth caring about.)

What is Next’s Tour of Thailand about? I think, fundamentally, it explores new abundance built on a long tradition of contested frugality. This shows up in the elegant street food and the extravagantly basic curry, in the intricate (but uncharacteristic) composed dessert followed by the simple dragonfruit set off by a shared rose. This can be done in other media– some Dutch genre paintings come to mind– but it’s an idea that lends itself to food. You could do it with other cuisines – Achatz has talked about doing a menu from wartime Italy, and you might do amazing things with Jewish cooking in Vienna or Warsaw or Minsk circa 1931. But Thailand is makes a lot of sense, not least because, in Asia, it’s so often been all about having enough to eat.