There are few greater pleasures than a good meal in a fine restaurant. Threadbare as that cliché may be, I was bodily reminded of it last week as The Texan and I sat before a white gazpacho at the Book Bindery. With the greatest reverence I lifted the spoon to my lips and sipped the silken liquid. It was the color of polished ivory, a quiet and unassuming hue. Yet on my tongue this soup shed its modest garb and underneath—oh how deep, how complex, how nuanced. It was creamy yet clear, without any of the cloying fattiness that characterizes many such soups. And I tasted wave upon wave: there was a fruity sweetness, the grape no doubt, and beneath it the crab’s rich, aqueous depth. In place of the common crouton there were nuggets of smoky Marcona almond, a stubby Spanish variety of nut that is currently all the rage. They are usually served warm, slick with oil, and lightly salted—very toothsome yet a trifle uninspiring after a time—so discovering Marconas in a white gazpacho was unexpected and wonderful.
My body slowed. Spoon dipping into the ivory soup again I slipped into quiet gastronomic euphoria, a state that often overwhelms me in such circumstances. The symptoms of this state are predictable: the body purrs gently, as if every pore were personally tasting the dish on its own little palate. Every atom wakens and begins humming with happiness. The mind, in contrast, sinks into a contented stupor so that you can barely hold the thread of conversation, offering nothing but monosyllabic responses and a creamy grin. This was good food.
Yet why was this food so spectacular? The most obvious answer is to salute the chef. After all, a fine restaurant must be headed by the best in culinary acuity. Surely it is his skill and creativity—his food—that make the meal. But this is not all. It has long been acknowledged that fine dining is as much theater as cuisine so we must also pay tribute to the waiter. We may sip fine wines and nibble carefully crafted morsels, but waiters are the ones who make us feel like royalty. Our gazpacho at the Book Bindery was not merely plonked down on the table with a brisk ‘bon appétit.’ The waiter arrived carrying jug and a wide, shallow bowl. In the center of the bowl the soup’s ingredients were deconstructed as a garnish and arranged into a little bird’s nest of crab, almond and pickled green grape. With a graceful swoop of his wrist, the waiter poured the soup around the garnish so that it looked as though the bird’s nest had blown into the sea and lay rocking on the waves. Ever ready to answer inane questions, replace tipsily dropped forks, and generally pamper their patrons, these waiters don’t merely deliver the food, they actively manufacture the mental perfume of the place.
Yet again, to define haute cuisine as theater—with the chef as star, servers as supporting actors, and diners as audience—only tells a partial truth. It neglects is the role of the customer. Not merely a passive audience, the diner is part of the play, or rather an active participant in unfolding ritual of the meal. Think about it. The diner books the reservation. She decides what to wear (a ritual in any circumstance and one that says much about your character’s approach to dining out). She chooses the wine, talks to the server, and tastes the food. At the end of the meal she is the one who forks over the money, reacting with gasp, sigh, or casual wave, to the size of this bill which resembles Grecian debt.
The idea of social action as performance is an old one. ‘All the world’s a stage,’ Shakespeare declared. In the same vein, mid-twentieth century anthropologists such as Victor Turner began analyzing social phenomena as one might a play, with actors taking roles and participating together in the performance. This seems a particularly apt model for looking at the dynamics of fine dining where the performative aspects of food reach soaring heights.
I have experienced this from both sides of the table. Having worked in food service I have visceral knowledge of adopting a role. Particularly in America, servers, baristas and their kin are expected to exude bonhomous contentment, as if it were their greatest delight to fulfill the customer’s every whim. Of course, ma’am, I would just love to drop what I’m doing, butter your croissant and divide it into three perfectly equal pieces for your whining brats who need to learn that someone always, always gets the smaller slice, and life is really, really unfair. Butter your own bloody croissant. Only you don’t say all that. You smile sweetly, attend graciously. Within days this costume feels like a second skin.
On the other hand, I have experienced the delicious sensation of wafting into a restaurant, relinquishing my coat to the host and settling into a few hours of luxury. This too is a role. I am not this important in the real world. But it’s more fun to play the beaming queen rather than the obsequious serf. I have also watched diners play other roles, like the man in rumpled clothes and sporting an air of casual detachment, even boredom. I do this all the time, blah blah. Or the woman who flaunts her gastronomic knowledge and attempts to one-up the waiter. ‘Chilean sea bass?’ Her left eyebrow creeps upwards and a smirk curls out from her lips, ‘are you by any chance referring to Patagonian toothfish?’
Perhaps, then, it is the donning of these roles—the sumptuous caress of the costume—that makes the meal. Would that gazpacho have tasted so good served in my chipped blue bowl at home, the table strewn with books, and the occasional fruit fly dallying overhead? Probably not. As Claude Levi-Strauss famously said, ‘food must be good to think about before it is good to eat.’ I prefer the thought of billowy chairs and soft lighting to fruit flies and chipped china.
This is why I have a tumultuous relationship with fine dining. On the one hand my knees quiver at the mere mention of foie gras emulsion, my tastes buds collapse in ecstasy when confronted by a masterful tiramisu. And although I know that those thimble-sized glasses of squash-ginger cappuccino were not really ‘a gift from the chef’ but were carefully factored into the cost of the meal, I still felt a warm glow as the waiter sets them delicately on our table. Yet I am conflicted. This food is so removed from business of nourishment, of sustenance and health. It is so excessive and flashy, so ludicrously extravagant. But, oh, it feels so good.
For a moment at the Book Bindery I am caught in this antagonistic terrain. And then our main course arrives: For myself, caramelized sea scallops with chanterelle mushrooms, red kuri squash, bacon jam, and sauce Périgourdine. For The Texan, the Mishima Ranch “Flavor Curve” of beef with fork crushed fingerling potatoes, grilled king trumpet mushrooms, pearl onions, and Bordelaise vinaigrette. My fork pierces the golden brown surface and melts into the scallop. I shrug.
What queen, for the length of her reign, would question the monarchy?