Watched Tony Bourdain "do" The French Laundry a couple of nights ago and found the program enchanting. It was fun watching Bourdain, who is usually only warmly enthusiastic (in my opinion) and sometimes leaning sharply in the direction of ennui (again, my opinion) get so damned little-boy excited about meeting, greeting, and eating with Thomas Keller. If they had edited out all except Bourdain and left only Bourdain, it would still have been a show well worth watching.
The second most fascinating thing about the show was the tasting meal Keller "whipped up" for the four chefs; Bourdain and his three “Great Chefs of America” guests. (Sorry. Didn't catch all of their names, but God, that French guy is sexy!) Obviously Keller is fully familiar with the long tradition in chefdom of sticking one's finger in the food or sauce to taste, and occasionally even double dipping before sharing with the world, so he quite ingeniously sent out four different dishes for each course and the chef/guests had a taste of whatever came to them first, then passed it on. Quadruple your pleasure, quadruple you fun!
But that got me thinking... If they had 15 courses, which is probably not far off, then each chef/guest tasted 60 different dishes! But did they? Indeed, could they? In the world of fine perfume, one is advised never to smell more than three aromas on a buying trip, to place a dot on a pulse point your nose can reach, do NOT smell it for at least half an hour so it has time to bloom. Oh, and yes, you can place three different perfumes on three pulse points all at the same time as long as you remember which is which. And if at the end of half an hour you are only in "like" with any of them, go home and come back tomorrow and try a different three when your sense of smell is no longer fatigued.
The question seems logical to me that if three perfumes put your sense of smell at the point of saturation, my god, what must 60 different tastings do! It must put this sort of food orgy in the category of hedonistic trauma. Hey, ain't nothing wrong with hedonism, if that's what turns you on, but I am beginning to have difficulty with the term, "tasting menu." It's beginning to clang like some sort of oxymoron in my brain...
So I started thinking about what sorts of things could be helpful in shaking at least some of the sense of satiety loose from diner's brains. The first thing that occurred to me was a relaxing mini-stroll in a lovely garden, then to a different table and ambiance to carry on with the feast. But... The garden stroll would be far less difficult than building an eatery with enough dining rooms to house an evening's guest list. And how to schedule the game of musical tables? And it wouldn't be very relaxing to have to stroll in a garden packed with other strollers. So that won't work.
Idea Number Two is to change the scenery in the room. That could be as simple as opening the shutters on a window or two and allowing in a lovely view. Change lighting level. Cover a picture on a wall with a stunning tapestry. Simpler still, a new and ever changing center piece. It was interesting watching the center of the table on the Bourdain show. A charming multi-flowered centerpiece in appetite stimulating hues appeared and disappeared as the meal progressed, switched out for elegant center-table foods. But as far as I could tell, it was always the same floral centerpiece that appeared and disappeared. Not exactly what I had in mind.
Then, last night it dawned on me. Much as I hate fusion for it's heavy handedness in pushing aside traditional foods (with flavors I love but can no longer find), in this case fusion may well be the answer. But not the food! In the progression of service and presentation!
In the very traditional Japanese chanoyu I experienced in my youth (when I was much nimbler of body!), the progression of the tea "ceremony" was well set out and accomplished all of the things I've considered above in the space of one small rustic tea house and one small but masterfully executed garden. I've only experienced one full four hour "chaji," in my lifetime, and it was some fifty years ago. The essence of the experience, if not the exact progression, is still strong in my mind. But that's okay because I don't think the discipline of true chanoyu would fly with today's "Americans."
It's what was done with one small garden and one rustic tea house that is phenomenal and could add richness -- with a few modifications -- to today's most elite dining experiences. On arrival for chanoyu, the guests gather in an anteroom and are served a simple cup of the hot water that will be used in brewing both teas served later. In the way of Zen, it's a time to clear out the mind, get a hold on what's to come by familiarizing oneself with the "flavor" of the water, and a way to ritually cleanse the mouth and soul, the better to embrace the whole experience. Well, in today's world, I ain't gonna hold my breath for that to happen in this culture! But... I could see a quiet relaxing table in a quiet relaxing bar being served a quiet relaxing drink as a nice prelude to the evening to come. A transition time in which to relax and gather one's focus.
In the next chaji stage of chanoyu, guests are led into a small sector of the host's garden where there will be running water where each guest rinses their hands and mouth in preparation for the rest of the day. And the time of day everything begins is important. In old traditional chanoyu, the host either started things off very early in the morning or later in the day, the objective in either case being to take advantage of the change in light and to gain the colors of sunrise or sunset. Well, forget about dawn. Who needs a breakfast tasting of tiny Belgian waffles and stone ground oatmeal? Not me!
I need to say something about the gardens surrounding a tea house. "Masterpiece" springs to mind. The Japanese have spent centuries refining the art of garden design. Some teahouse gardens are, simply put, a masterpiece of trompe l'oeil. By carefully contouring the land, then selecting plants and trees by shape, color and size, the eye is fooled into believing that a small garden is very large. And then there is the aesthetic pleasure of a sand garden.
During the four hour experience, the guests will be returned to the garden several times, but always to a different place, so the view is always different. No sensory fatigue here! I think this is something that a French Laundry type of restaurant could handle without making major logistical changes to the place. And I think at least two "garden breaks" during the course of the meal would relax the diners and help push them back from the brink of satiety.
A traditional teahouse is designed with two major wall elements that are the focal points of decor and ambience. One is the tokonoma, or "alcove", the other is a shoji. The shoji doors are not used for entering and exiting the teahouse. That's accomplished through a small door that requires all who enter to bend over in order to get through. The purpose is to literally force recognition by everyone that all are equals in chanoyu. Well, let's face it. That ain't gonna fly in western society. But a French door could accomplish the same thing as the shojis: They are not left open all the time, but when they are opened the color of the sky -- a remarkable blue, a storm threatening gray, a dazzling sunset red -- is a rich stimulus to the visual sense, and truly fine dining is a full sensory experience.
The tokonoma is a small raised platform against the wall with wooden floor to ceiling pillars framing the front of it. In other words, it is a small stage. During the courses of food and tea (and breaks in the garden) two things are displayed in the tokonoma: calligraphy and ikebana. Well, "calligraphy" isn't quite a hard fast rule, since sometimes it will also contain an illustration or pillar painting and sometimes not. The calligraphy is always amazing to see. I once had a girlfriend who held citations from Emperor Hirohito for her calligraphy, and watching her work was very very special! The scroll painting or calligraphy hangs in the tokonoma at exactly the right height and placement that brings harmony and balance to the eye. Well, western art isn't as esoteric, but a really nice painting can certainly help diners relax and appreciate the food. Couldn't hurt! But I should also add that there is no room for a centerpiece on the table in chanoyu since there is no table! Just host and guests with iron knees.
When guests return from a specific "garden break", the host will have removed the pillar painting/calligraphy and the tokonoma will hold an ikebana flower arrangement. Or is it vice versa? I no longer recall the exact order, but there is one. "Ikebana" is a floral study in asymmetrical balance. And no. “Asymmetrical balance” is not an oxymoron. I won't go into the three points of heaven, earth, man in the arrangement, but just say that these are truly wonderful. In most fine dining tasting settings, the flower arrangements are usually satisfactory. But one arrangement per entire meal does not push back the mental fatigue of sensory overload through the taste buds. So what's wrong with flowers being traded out for a fruit arrangement or an amazing piece of porcelain? And I'm going to risk howls of "Philistine' here by suggesting that plain white china is not the most pleasing way to present course after course of fine food.
Way too late to try to make this short, but I do think that diners would benefit greatly from a few breaks to stimulate the other senses, give the body a chance to assume (and enjoy) a non-sitting position, and the opportunity to let the stomach shake down and the taste buds relax. In other words, forget about the bouche for the moment and bring on the amuse!
What do you think?
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