On Fine Dining

And how making it vegan complicates matters for omnivorous critics.

Last Wednesday, I had the privilege of speaking to an undergraduate philosophy class at Hamilton College about how masculinity, money, gender, and meat are all tied up in restaurant critics’ assessments of fine dining. This was especially fun for me because, of course, I’m writing a book about vegetarian and vegan cultural and culinary history in the U.S. over the last 50 years: The delegitimization of meatless food as sufficiently “gourmet” continuing into the year 2021 is a point of fascination. 

The one piece we focused on the most—indeed, perhaps the richest text on the matter—was the conversation at Grub Street between Adam Platt and Rachel Sugar about eating a meal at the newly plant-based Eleven Madison Park. In it, Platt says of faux-caviar:

The dish sort of encapsulates the contradictions that big-money gourmet destinations like this find themselves in: How can we be progressive and “gourmet” at the same time? How do we appeal to the new generation without losing the old one that, by the way, has all the money?

I think this is the real crux of the issue: Who defines “gourmet,” and why is it people with money, who broadly—as I wrote last week—have shitty taste in food? (I also love the Allez Celine memes on the matter.) What does “progressive” mean here, and why doesn’t it line up with whatever “gourmet” means? All these words are thrown out there and it’s assumed the audience, of course, is aligned with the magazine’s longtime critic. But it also points to how critics are not taking meatless food seriously, treating it as novelty with political meaning before gastronomic meaning. It’s, again, a misunderstanding of what people who’ve made ethical choices want to eat.

The other frustration here is that Platt couldn’t name a good vegan meal he’d ever had (his conversation partner, Sugar, eats vegan while not working). I had been working up to the question of why it’s ok for a restaurant critic to openly have no knowledge or curiosity about vegan food throughout the class, having the students tell me how they define fine dining, how they perceive women cooking versus men cooking, what they think when someone tells them they’re vegan or vegetarian. We discussed the deliberate and extensive coverage of chefs like Humm, as well as Danny Meyer, or folks who have done vegetable and fruit charcuterie, while ignoring Amanda Cohen, who’s always cooked vegetarian food. All of these things are connected.

I’m obviously a broken record on meat = masculinity, vegetables = femininity in U.S. society. I’m a broken record that male chefs are easily understood as “great” while women are not, unless they display masculine traits in their bravado or cooking. I think it’s utterly stupid to be impressed by a piece of meat when one wouldn’t be impressed by a vegetable given the same preparation. But I’ve been paying attention to this shit for a while, and because I’ve had vegan meals in fine dining restaurants before, none of this is new. Why are critics acting as though it is? Because it’s new to them, and perhaps it’s a bit scary to realize that we really, really do have to eat less meat.

As I said to the students, in 2014, a friend and I flew to Chicago for one day to celebrate our birthdays by eating a very extravagant meal at Alinea. This restaurant, famously helmed by Grant Achatz, is a fine dining restaurant with a focus on molecular gastronomy—turning apple candy into balloons and making beans look like rocks sitting under the sea. My menu was a vegan menu, and my friend’s was an omnivore menu, with his various food allergies accommodated. In a particularly memorable course, a rutabaga cooked sous-vide then seared tasted so much like pork belly that I asked the waiter if they hadn’t gotten something wrong. 

For us, at the time, this expensive experience was worthwhile because we love food and wanted to see new things done with it, and the forum of fine dining tends to be where food is redefined. It was also a very instructive experience for me, as they didn’t make a show of doing a vegan tasting menu. My food looked like my friend’s food. My menu listed my food; it wasn’t the omnivore menu with notes on substitutions. (Whether the restaurant is a Good Place, or Achatz is a Good Person is a conversation for another day.)

I’ve also, of course, eaten at Dirt Candy numerous times. The idea of eating an extravagant vegan fine dining meal isn’t new, hasn’t been new, yet it is so new to these critics. Why have they never taken something that has already existed seriously until the great male chef Daniel Humm did some grand-standing? We know why! And still, it is so hard to meet the food as food and not as pure meaning.

An interesting point is that vegetables, we’ve seen in critique of vegan fine dining, complicate critics’ ideas about value. Vegetables are expected to be cheap, and so how much work should be done to “elevate” them to the level of meat so that they’re worth a few hundred dollars? But don’t do too much work, the critiques seem to say, because then we’re missing the point of the vegetable. Few restaurant critics working today seem capable of engaging with vegetables in a way that shows me they’ve ever taken them seriously before—why? (Soleil Ho and Tejal Rao are the exceptions, always, but the weight shouldn’t be on their shoulders to actively engage with the reality of “plant-based” food as its own cuisine.) 

At the end of the day, so to speak, I think it’s important that Daniel Humm has made EMP plant-based if only for the reason that it has forced critics to grapple with how to transfer their ideas about what constitutes a worthwhile meal onto vegan food. One student astutely pointed out in the class that, based on his experience being a vegetarian temporarily, his palate changed: Bacon was no longer appealing, for instance. He suggested the critics simply didn’t have the palate for understanding plant-based food. 

When I was doing restaurant reviews for the Village Voice, I was focused on vegan restaurants specifically, and because I was vegan, I was meeting the food where it was and comparing it to other vegan experiences. I would encourage restaurant critics to eat more vegan food, period. Go to Toad Style for a burger. Go to Vegan’s Delight in the Bronx for a lentil patty. Go to Confectionery in the East Village for chocolates. Eat tempeh at Awang Kitchen in Queens. Expand the context, the meanings, of vegan food, because until that happens, reviews of vegan fine dining from most critics will be absolutely useless as anything but conversational fodder. But anyway, I’m writing a book about all of this…


Throughout October, Friday conversations will be available publicly thanks to Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer's Encyclopedia, out 10/12 from Workman Publishing. Purchase this encyclopedia of incredible ingredients, food adventures, and edible wonders here.

This Friday’s interview will feature the prolific and fabulous Melissa Clark, a New York Times food writer and recipe developer with many cookbooks under her belt, including the recent Dinner in French and the forthcoming Dinner in One. We talked about growing up in Brooklyn, her food writing trajectory, and how she maintains her creativity. (I, of course, ask specifically about working on The Last Course with Claudia Fleming.)

Last Wednesday, paid subscribers received a vegan chocolate tart recipe.


Published:
Nothing, I think? I’m truly a disaster: Not only did I talk to students, but I gave a talk that evening on why I think we need an eco-feminist and agroecological food future, not a techno-optimist one. It was wild, my first time giving a talk where I really tried to talk about not just read something I’d prepared. I talked for 36 minutes straight and then we did an hour of really fabulous and engaged Q&A. I had a terrible college experience, so it’s nice to step into an academic space and not feel … awful.

Reading:
BOOK RESEARCH.

Cooking:
Nothing all that special. All the same shit as usual!!! I did an interview that will come out eventually where I said I have cooking weeks and writing weeks: Last week was a writing week. I did eat the perfect avocado pictured above.