Grub Street and a few other news sites have picked up a story about the coming closure of a much-lauded Jersey City restaurant. The stories explore New York City's oppressive real estate costs, the goodness of the tasting menu dining format, the roll of the press in shaping dining experiences and other potential land mines, but I think the most interesting issue raised is a perception that fine dining or otherwise elevated restaurant experiences are synonymous with snobbery.
30 Acres co-owner Kevin Pemoulie laid out his reasons for wanting to embrace simplicity, describing happy, homey diners including himself eating burgers and pizzas. After running an expensive, farm-to-table restaurant for four years, Pemoulie says he's had a realization. "It’s so fucking condescending and pretentious to tell people that this is different, and this is how they should eat." he said.
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I dine out because I want access to plates I can't have in my own kitchen. Restaurants lend themselves to a style and scale of cooking that's just not convenient to me at home. Some dishes require special equipment, cooking times that aren't exactly compatible to my lifestyle or exotic ingredients that can only be purchased 20 pounds at a time. Some dishes take a lot of repetition and practice to master, and that's why I turn to chefs when I want to be wowed. I expect them to be better than me. Knowledge transfer and palate expansion — that's exactly why I want to eat out, and it should never come off as a condescending experience. Granted, sometimes I just want to pound some coma-inducing comfort chow before I go home and park it on my couch, but if I'm going out to eat — if dinner is the centerpiece of my evening — then show me something.
Pemoulie's complaint illuminates an important point. Diners tend to feel a sense of entitlement when experiencing the culinary arts that they don't necessarily exhibit when considering other fine arts. While hanging on a wall or bouncing around the insides of a concert hall, art is enjoyed with a certain detachment by its consumer. Viewers allow artists to maintain ownership of their performances and to explore their medium however they see fit. When the art is served on a dinner charger, however, perception shifts. "This is my dinner," the diner thinks, laying a collection of expectations on the plate based on previous dining experiences. Deviations from those norms can be especially offensive.
Diners should come to a fine dining experience as they would to other forms of art or entertainment. If we beat down chefs who try to be creative or expose us to new ingredients, then pizza and burgers are all we'll be left with. At the same time, chefs and their staffs might consider how they present their super-amazing learning experiences. If you think what you're creating is condescending, then it probably is.