You know the names. The French Laundry in Napa, the famous-but-now-closed El Bulli in Spain, and Charlie Trotters in Chicago (also now closed!). In Manhattan, Eleven Madison Park and Per Se. With reservations almost impossible to get, and chefs in charge of both dining time (likely several hours) and menu (multi-course tastings of whatever they please), the meals will cost you several hundred dollars- at least. These restaurants have paved the way for a tasting-menu approach that celebrates the chef as an artist and is only gaining in popularity around the country. But a recent article I (Lauren) read in Vanity Fair questioned the shift in power from diner to chef: With that kind of price tag, doesn’t it matter- at least a little- that the chef have an interest in what and how much I want to eat?

While I would likely not choose to dine at one of these celebrated restaurants over others solely based on their fame, the article left me thinking. Isn’t there something magical about being at the mercy of a great chef? I love sitting back and letting a chef guide my palate. At a nice restaurant given too many mouth-watering options, my husband and I will often, willingly, default to the server’s recommendation on dishes. We’ll do the same when traveling, when we may not be familiar with the ingredients on the menu (or if it’s simply in another language we can’t translate). And one of our favorite weeks of the year in our city is restaurant week, when the best restaurants in town each serve their own single, four-course menu set by the chef. We willingly let go of the power to choose our meal and let our dining experience be at the mercy of an expert. And on the topic of hard-to-get reservations-isn’t that part of the fun if you’re lucky enough to snag a seat?

So what do you think: Do you like to hold absolute power and choice over your dining experience? Or are you one to save your pennies to enjoy the luxury of a tasting-menu experience…one where you’ll likely try something you wouldn’t have otherwise? Would love to hear your thoughts on this!

Images via 1, 2, 3, 4  

  1. La Torontoise

    Dear Lauren, all,
    I enjoyed reading your post!
    Thank you for sharing; indeed, this post and the question in it make us think: -)
    Personally, I think it’s very good to see this practice being adopted in more and more restaurants in North America. In my view, this significantly redefined the restaurant-goer’s experience. In all my years in Toronto, I’ve been dreaming of this kind of experiences and there have been no offerings of *this kind* at all…

    Chef-predefined menus, or tasting menus, have been a common practice in France for more than 50 years. This is what is called ‘Menu du chef’, or ‘menu du jour’. The idea being that (1) guests pay less for more in terms of sampling and experience-building (for example, you get three courses for the price of such two), and (2) guests enter for pure enjoyment free of any decision-making related to designing/free-style their own eating experience. It’s an extremely popular concept for lunch all over the country. Many good French restaurants servenothing else for lunch , but a choice of 2, 3 or 4 predefined menus each being a unique combination of flavors that is priced differently. Such a menu is preferred by both locals and tourists.
    A reputable restaurant would showcase the best of their art in these menus, using fresh ingredients exclusively. So, if you go to a restaurant on this premise, you indeed are expected to delegate so someone else (the chef) the responsibility to guide you in the journey. The price for the fixed menu at lunch is less expensive than if you order it for dinner. Authoritative French guides as the Michelin list the lunch and dinner prices explicitly and this helps you save visitors a sizeable amount money as they can plan their culinary experiences and book tables well ahead. While in France, my restaurant tours rely on these menu options. Otherwise the tour might get prohibitively expensive (for two people and a little child). Suppose you wish you get to know closer the art of Alain Ducasse in Monaco, his restaurant offers a fixed menu for lunch prices at 99 Euro (pricewise, this is considered a great deal for a 5-star Michelin restaurant). Otherwise, the average price for a multiple course experience could easily go to 200 Euro.
    ( )

    That a chef is perceived as an artist is also ‘very French’: -)
    In 2010, French cuisine and food culture, which in essence is the understanding of cooking as an art, got a UNESCO World Heritage status. The World Heritage list defines the term ‘gastronomic meal’ as the ‘festive meal bringing people together for an occasion to enjoy the art of good eating and drinking’. For more on this, I would add these links to the Time magazine and the Independent (UK):,8599,2032377,00.html

    This said, I look forward to my next trip to NYC and could say, I already anticipate the pleasure of ‘experiencing the art of the chefs’ : -)

    • What great background-thank you for sharing! The Vanity Fair piece mentioned the French influence on this trend’s coming to be in North America, but I love your insights and perspective. I like the way you phrased it too-when restaurants take this approach, it allows us to be free of decision-making and delegate to the chef to guide our dining journey. That’s exactly what I love about the tasting model.

  2. Having food allergies makes an experience like this a little difficult, but with that said…I would LOVE to the opportunity to have four luxurious hours of tasting whatever a fabulous chef sits down in front of me! :)

  3. My friend writes NYC restaurant reviews, and she’s done a number of tasting menus, at both Eleven Madison Park and Per Se. It’s always so fascinating to read them, and the presentation of each dish is a work of art, but I don’t think I could ever do it. I’m willing to try new things, but I would be scared to spend so much money on a meal and not enjoy it — I’m just not sure my tastes are sophisticated enough haha. But I’m also not their target market! I think it’s just a part of the experience — it’s not any different than someone paying me to design their site as I see fit because they trust my work implicitly. Here is one of her posts from Per Se:, and one from Eleven Madison Park:

    • Oh, wow. Her photos are gorgeous, and what a cool job to write restaurant reviews! I always love seeing the presentation of food at restaurants like these-it truly is art on a plate. Great point too on comparing it to your clients trusting you to expertly guide their site design, Lisa.

  4. Very thought-provoking post!

    My boyfriend recently took me to Fearrington Village (just outside of Pittsboro, NC) for a surprise romantic getaway the Saturday after Valentine’s Day. We enjoyed a couples massage, a wonderful and light lunch (with a few pints) at the Granary Restaurant in the Village, and we finished off the evening with the most spectacular 3-course meal at the Fearrington House Restaurant.

    The food was art. The plating was breathtaking. This experience allowed me to see food as something other than just fuel for my body or something delicious. Each plate that arrived housed small and delicate works of edible art. Pieces of food added texture and depth, while sauces and creams acted as paint on a palette. I could go on about the food forever, but hands down, such a unique and memorable experience. I can’t wait to go back!

    Look up Fearrington Village! And if you’re ever in the NC area, make a reservation at the restaurant, and book a room at the inn — you won’t regret it!

    • Thanks for the tip, Cassandra! Sounds like a lovely experience-we had a similar weekend getaway where the 3-course meal was equally divine. I agree, you won’t regret it when it’s a treat you enjoy together!

  5. La Torontoise

    Cassandra, thank you for this tip! I googled for it and collected the info. What a great place…
    All the best, M.

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