Monday, May 17, 2004
It is one of the few things in my lifetime about which I agreed with the Vatican. In 1975, Craig Claiborne, the food editor of the New York Times and arguably the most influential food writer of the day, made the high bid at a charity auction for a dinner for two, donated by American Express, at any restaurant the winner chose. He chose his business partner, Pierre Franey, as his dining companion; for the restaurant, they chose Chez Denis in Paris, where they ordered 31 dishes and nine wines, ringing up a $4,000 bill. Claiborne’s “review” of Chez Denis ran on the front page of the November 14, 1975 Times, and was met with swift and vigorous disapproval. The Vatican newspaper called it a deplorable display in a world where people were starving; Claiborne’s colleague Harriet Van Horne called it a stunt calculated to stimulate outrage; French newspapers noted that the night’s tab represented a year’s wages for many French workers. Even their host at Chez Denis had suggested to them that their bill of fare would feed 10 people, and they could still dine splendidly without sampling every single dish.
After Claiborne’s death in 2000, the Chez Denis stunt was duly noted in his obituaries, and in tributes that poured in to the Times. In hindsight, many writers expressed admiration for Claiborne, some grudgingly, some enthusiastically, for having had the moxie to pull this off. I was not one of those people, and still am not. I won’t even pretend to any sort of journalistic equivocation: I thought that this was a disgusting thing to do, not because there were people starving around the world on that November night, but because it was a profoundly antigastronomic thing to do. Claiborne wrote that he found the last of his three soups “anticlimactic.” Of course it was! When you have that much food spread before you, at what point does each dish lose its individual integrity, its singularity? When does it become an undifferentiated mass of food? At what point are you no longer eating, but feeding instead?
I have mentioned before that I am not a fan of faux populism, the idea that haute is automatically inferior to bistro, which is automatically inferior to home. (Granted, I *do* tend to favor home-cooked food, particularly the kind known in France as “cuisine de mere;” it is what I’d prefer to eat and certainly what I’d prefer to cook, but I believe that you can love your grandma’s beef stew without spitting all over the daube at your local four-star.) But if I don’t like faux populism, I absolutely, positively hate faux gourmandism, the idea that a high price tag justifies splashing about expensive ingredients hither and yon without considering basic principles of taste and balance. If my Italian local is lucky enough to procure fresh white truffles in season, I have no problem with ordering a plate of spaghetti dressed with nothing but butter and a few shavings of those white truffles, and I understand that those shavings are going to put some serious additional change on the bill. But I don’t want those truffles on every damn dish on the menu. Nor do I need foie gras in a burrito, or ground Kobe beef in a hamburger.
Most of all, I don’t need caviar in a frittata. I haven’t had too much exposure to caviar, but I’ve had enough to know that if you’re shelling out big bucks for beluga or sevruga, you don’t want to gunk up those little pearls with cream or meat or vinaigrette or chopped hard-boiled egg. (Why this compulsion to serve egg with egg? Why?) Apparently, though, someone at the Parker Meridien, one of the most expensive hotels in Midtown, has decided that what their frittata special really needs is caviar. And lobster. And cream sauce, plenty of cream sauce. Thus it is that the P-M openly, freely and without shame, invites you to order this on your next visit.
The hotel’s general manager, Steven Pipes, has admitted that he doesn’t anticipate too many takers on this frittata, that he and the executive chef came up with this dish as a way to keep the menu from getting too “stale” (I still dream of the day when this sort of food fashion, “is it in or is it out?,” falls out of fashion), and that the whole thing is just a bit of a joke. I agree that it’s a joke. But it’s not funny. What it is is a waste: a waste of a good lobster, a waste of almost ¾ pound of caviar, a waste of butter and heavy cream, a waste of six eggs, all in pursuit of a stunt we should have got over playing 30 years ago.
Edit: In my haste to get this post up, I neglected to mention that while I was able to track down the original Claiborne piece in the New York Times, I found both Harriet Van Horne’s comments and the remarks by Denis of Chez Denis in John and Karen Hess’s The Taste of America, a book that gets more and more useful to me with each passing day.
Posted by Bakerina
at 12:00 PM in anger is an energy
Once again, I have to thank everyone for such kind feedback. Who knew that this sort of thing hits such a nerve with normal people as well as hopeless food cranks like myself?
Leigh, I thank you for your words even as I am convinced that they are better meant for someone else. Hey, I think you should be an agent, but a blog salon would be a pretty neat thing, too.
Now, David...I don’t think this is any better than the rant you would have written. So write it, already! You know I’ll read it.
Jamie, I agree with you on the white chocolate phenom. I like white chocolate a lot, but I’m picky about it. The only brands I really like are Wilbur and Valrhona, which are not cut with any vegetable fats, but are pure cocoa butter. Wilbur in particular has a lot of milk solids, so you don’t want to combine it with anything that doesn’t blend well with dairy. Like so many of the best ingredients, white chocolate really benefits from a light hand. I have used it as a support ingredient in white cakes and icings, but I’m not a fan of white chocolate cheesecake at all.
Court, once again you nail it, in your own beautiful idiom.
Now, Tvindy, before I get all contrary with you, you know I love you, right? I agree with you that sometimes special events warrant special circumstances, but there’s a big difference between eating three pounds of mozzarella (which I could certainly do, horrendous aftermaths notwithstanding) and spending $4,000 on a meal for two people. Keep in mind that this is $4,000 in 1975 dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that’s over $14,000 in 2004 dollars. I don’t care how many doggie bags you take with you (and I have to admit that I don’t know if they took it with them, but I doubt it, as most of the dishes served were very fragile, like poached fish with beurre blanc, which does not keep or reheat well); spending $14,000 on a meal that only feeds two people is so wasteful to me that the motivation behind it is beside the point. One of the criticisms leveled at Claiborne and Franey is that they were trying to to replicate the classic a la Francaise table service, which was common in wealthy households and did comprise several dozen dishes. However, a la Francaise service was not only designed to feed a large party, but it was a given that everybody would not be sampling from each dish; either you took what you were interested in eating, or, more commonly, you took whatever was sitting closest to you at the table. It sounds to me like Claiborne had a certain idea of what fine dining was about, but in the Chez Denis dinner, he ripped that idea from its proper context and jammed it into a place never meant to accommodate it.
Receptionista, I’m a big proponent of the simpler, the better as well. I do make exceptions for certain Asian cuisines. I like the “layering” found in some Thai dishes, for example. When you look at the ingredient lists, they can be daunting, but once you taste them, you see how the ingredients come together to make something different and new. In general, though, I like those simple lovely flavors too—and I love the rock ‘em sock ‘em robot simile.
Tvindy, I hope you’re having a good time with this, because I’m having a blast. I’m so stoked that you bought the Times archived Claiborne piece. Even though I’ve been coming down very hard on Claiborne, I would still recommend that people read the actual review if they can get their hands on it, simply because it is a fascinating little slice of culinary history, regardless of your point of view.
Speaking of point of view, mine may still diverge from yours, but I understand yours. I know that Claiborne did not undertake this dinner as a spontaneous ill-conceived stunt. I know that what could have been much more straightforward was complicated by Amex’s prize rules, and that Claiborne and Franey had discussed the size of the menu directly with the chef. I still maintain, though, that even with the chef’s input and his determination of the final bill, this was still an over-the-top, antigastronomic stunt, one that did no favors to the dishes themselves, to the restaurant, to the chef or to Claiborne.
I will admit that I could be bringing some “Claiborne baggage” to the table here; I’ve read a lot of his work, and it strikes me that he has a real affinity for unnecessary expense and affectation. One of his NYT columns was for a New Year’s Eve dinner that would set one back $900.00; he did say, however, that he had picked the most expensive (not the best, mind you, just the most expensive) wines in each class, and agreed that if less expensive but still drinkable wines had been selected, the cost would drop to around $90.00 for the dinner. And for all that he was a lover of good food—and I do believe that he was—his culinary training was at a famous hotel school in Switzerland where only about a third of the curriculum was cooking; the rest was table service, which could explain why he was so taken with presentation, particularly the presentation in haute restaurants. He did make concessions for “home food” such as meatloaf and noodle casseroles (which is only shocking until you consider that Franey, his partner, was a consultant chef for Howard Johnson’s), but he usually surrounded them with “well, it has low-rent connotations, but imagine my shock to discover that it was good, too!”
Lest it sound like I’m carrying my Claiborne grudge too far, I will concede that he is responsible for one of my favorite cookie recipes, the cardamom cookies originally published in An Herb and Spice Cookbook and reprinted in Maida Heatter’s Brand New Book of Great Cookies. They’re like gingersnaps, only with cardamom. Beautiful flavor, beautiful texture and fun to roll out. Maybe I’ll bake some this weekend.
Okay, Tvindy, it’s a deal. I will give it some careful thought, and I’ll post that Ideal Meal Exhibition, hopefully by the weekend. Thank you for the link, incidentally.
I also have a lot to learn about haute, and even more about wine. One thing I did learn, thanks once again to my good friends the Hesses, was that Claiborne was way off when he said that “the beurre blanc should have been very hot.” Beurre blanc is a fluffy emulsified butter sauce made by combining diced shallots and white wine vinegar over heat, reducing the vinegar until the pan is almost dry (watching closely so that the vinegar doesn’t brown), then beating in quantities of cold cubed butter until you have a thick, shiny, gluey, mayonnaise-like sauce. It has to be kept at a very gentle heat; if you get it too hot, the sauce will break. I know that some chefs get around that by adding heavy cream to the sauce, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s a cheat. It’s like adding gelatin to mayonnaise—it’s just not necessary.
Oh, I missed David Letterman eating the $1,000 omelette! I did, however, pick up a Daily News today, in which their restaurant critic, Pascale Le Draoulec (author of American Pie, a book I just read and loved), went to the Parker Meridien and ordered it, just to see how the server would react. She did not identify herself as a journalist; she just showed up and ordered it. The waiter brought her the egg-white and rock shrimp frittata; when she explained that she wanted the Zillion-Dollar Frittata, she set off a shock wave at the restaurant. First the waiter apologized; then he plied her with champagne and fruit; then the manager rang a cowbell and announced “this is the first woman ever to order our Zillion-Dollar Frittata!” She said that you can’t expect to order this thing and maintain a low profile. She also said it was prepared magnificently. I have no doubt that it was, but I still think it’s a pointless extravagance, and I’m still not buyin’ it, in any sense of the word.
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