This is derived from several entries in
tastingmenu.com including -
When I started this website I didn't really have a
philosophy about eating except that I enjoyed it, and looked at every
meal as an opportunity. Have bad food and it was an opportunity missed.
Life is short. Why miss any? When i first wrote this down it had been
something that was been brewing for
some time but it finally surfaced in the form of a full blown
I'm sure I'm not alone in having gone to countless
restaurants where the appetizers are good to great and the entrees are
disappointing. Why is that? Is every appetizer cook great, and the
entree cooks aren't? Doubtful. Often it's the same person anyway. Things
finally came into focus when I was reading from the
French Laundry Cookbook. In retrospect it should be no surprise that
the inspiration came there. Keller talks about "the law of diminishing
returns". He talks about the fact that when someone bites into something
delicious for the first time they have an amazing experience. However,
by the 4th or 5th bite they're already bored no matter how wonderful the
initial impression was of the dish. (As two friends have told me when I
told them about my thoughts on this topic, "this must be why we like
sushi so much".) Keller talks about trying to replicate that first
feeling often throughout the meal always leaving the customer wanting
just one more bite. (He also says that he overdoes it only with caviar
and truffles feeling that most customers don't get to experience those
as often. I think that's cute!) I've often wondered half-jokingly why
there aren't restaurants that only serve appetizers. Yes, I know about
tapas, but that's still pretty narrow and most restaurants who serve
tapas also serve entrees (at least here in the U.S.). Why am I only
half-serious when I make the suggestion of an all-appetizer restaurant?
I think up until now I've been a little uncomfortable with the idea
because after all, you have to have an entree. Don't you? Without
an entree would society start to crumble?
The truth is that entrees are evil. They're a good
appetizer violated. They're too big, too much, and I say that the
current construct of dining in America is breaking under the weight of
those overstuffed overly-emphasized entrees. I know there have been many
people complaining for many years about the increasing emphasis on
quantity in American food service. But that's broader than my focus. I
believe the root of this sickness is the American belief that you
haven't had a meal if you haven't eaten (or half-eaten) an entree. Once
you can convince American diners that they don't need an entree the
benefits are numerous. First and foremost is the emphasis on more first
impressions of great food. These all appetizer meals do not need to be
presented in the form of "tasting menus". They can just be chosen from a
la carte. Or maybe they can even be offered in sets that the chef thinks
would go well together. How many are right? Well if a standard meal is
one appetizer and one entree, maybe a total of three or four would do
the trick. I believe that bread should be served this way as well - not
as an unlimited supply but as a prepared and thoughtful dish. (And while
I'm at it, I can think of almost no reason on earth to ever not serve
bread warm. Cold bread is lame. Warm is divine. The choice is easy.)
An additional possible benefit of the
"eliminate-the-entree" approach is that people may eat less food as
they'll get smaller portions over a longer period of time and they'll
have a chance to feel full before they eat as much as they normally
would. This approach to eating is not so foreign outside of the United
States. Many countries (France and Japan come to mind) already often eat
much more similarly to this style. I imagine in this country of
"super-sizes" some people would say that these ideas would be nice but
Americans love quantity. I say there's something everyone can do.
Restaurants: offer an appetizer-only menu. If you can't go all the way,
then at least highlight some appetizer combinations that people could
order instead of entrees. Customers: go to restaurants and order only
appetizers. Another trick of the trade is to order entrees but split
them. This works best when the entrees are a la carte and not laden with
side items. But even so it might work out. One key to the puzzle is
telling the waiter that you're crafting your own tasting menu. You may
feel a bit odd but don't worry, free yourself from the tyranny of the
entree and you'll never look back. (Here's an
of us doing it successfully.) Make your own tasting menu. It's funny but
when I came up with the name for this website I wanted a food related
term for which the domain wasn't taken. The "tasting menu" theme came to
encompass the small "bites" of food-related news and reviews that occupy
the site. But now the name takes on additional meaning as I think we
need to redefine how we think about eating to have an approach centered
more around tasting as much as possible than eating as much as possible.
Ten years ago I used to love eating out at
even the thought of it makes me queasy. Five years ago I was making fun
of Lauren and Alex for eating asparagus soup out of egg shells at a
fancy restaurant in San Francisco. Now I'm licking the inside of the
eggshell to get the last drop while I wonder how they got the edges so
uniform. Something happened between then
and now that I don't fully understand. I feel like in order to introduce
other people to more interesting food, I have to understand how I was
able to expand my own horizons.
First, some background. I grew up in a
Kosher home (still keep Kosher at home today). No
pork. No shellfish. No mixing of milk and meat. Two sets of everything
- dishes, silverware, etc. Yet we did not keep kosher when eating
outside the home (this is a dichotomy that may seem odd but that I'm
comfortable with and can explain another time). While we ate "out" we
typically avoided ingredients that were innately unkosher. For
example, it was a lot more likely to get a cheeseburger (where the
combination of the dairy and meat was the first contributing factor to
the unkosherness) than a pork or shrimp dish (where no matter how it's
prepared it's never going to be kosher). I ate my first shrimp at age
18 at a Chinese restaurant with friends. It tasted rubbery.
We mostly stayed home to eat. My mom did almost all the cooking.
It's funny but I don't remember much about the range of dishes she
made but there must have been a variety as she cooked almost every
night. They were also all from scratch... no pre-made dinners at our
house. A few standouts do come to mind: the beef, tomato, and noodle
dish that was made many times during the early years of our family
when we couldn't afford much more - it wasn't one of my favorites
especially when it had green peppers in it; Friday night (Sabbath) dinners which
were good with chicken soup, chopped hard boiled eggs with a
super delicious fried chicken fat (grieven - sp?), and chicken wings - I
loved the ones that look like little drumsticks - "drumettes" they're
called by Empire Kosher; there were also wonderful apple pies and hamentaschen (little
mini triangular apple cookies for the Jewish holiday of Purim) that
essentially were like mini-versions of the apple pie; and a really
meatloaf my mom used to make - I never understood why they always made
fun of meatloaf on sitcoms - I loved the one my mom made.
Our standard exception to eating at home was going out for Chinese
food. And while my parents wouldn't partake of any of the meat or
seafood dishes, my sister and I would wolf down "Peking Ravioli" at Hsing Hsing Chinese restaurant in Central Square, Cambridge, MA.
I loved hot and sour soup too (even with the bits of pork in it). (Now
that I've had time to reminisce a bit we also ate out at this little
Italian place in Newton Centre, MA every so often - I think they're long
gone and the name escapes me.) (Note: someone wrote me and reminded me.
It was called Cantina Abruzzi.)
Once in awhile my Dad would do the cooking. Two things stand out:
getting cold cuts at the neighborhood deli and eating them for weekend
lunches, and him making us large meals of Italian food out of his one
and only Italian cookbook - Food alla Florentine, by Naomi Barry and
Beppe Bellini. He would work for hours on meals of
pasta with tomato sauce and veal marsala. These were always among my
favorites. These days he's expanded his repertoire and spends quite a
bit of time baking.
My grandmothers left some lasting impressions as well. One made
the best chicken soup I've ever had in my life - a rich yellow, with
pools of delicious chicken fat, and an intense chicken flavor. She
fried up eggs as "loction" and cut them into strips to put in the
soup. Up until recently we thought she had taken her soup secrets to
the grave. We have the recipe, but have been unable to reproduce her
soup. We had all sorts of theories - the water in Toronto; the chicken
in Toronto; she cheated and snuck in a bouillon cube, etc. For awhile
we think my mom was doubling the water - that didn't help matters.
This past year I thought maybe it was under-salted as my Mom
accidentally put in "too much" salt, but for me it was just right. There
was a point at which the soup started to bring back memories of the
original but later it turned into something else entirely. I might
have left the parsnip in too long. And finally, just during the last
couple of months, my father is convinced he's figure out the secret by
adding a bit of sugar to the soup. Anyway, the conclusion of this
quest is something for later. This same grandmother made mandelbroit
(kind of a biscotti - no anise)
and moon cookies (poppy seed cookies) that I loved as well. My other
grandmother had her signature recipes as well: smoked carp, peppery
gefilte fish, and apricot "pasties" (not for strippers but apricot
filling in little soft dough "purses" for dessert). Yummy.
Back to the question
of how I made the transition. Actually, maybe the question should be how
did I start the transition to lover of all things food, as it's by no
means complete. I may have painted a slightly bleaker picture than
really existed. There were seeds of the future. I always loved to cook.
My mother says I was watching Julia Child on TV religiously at a very
early age. My dishes may not have been fancy: creative milkshakes after
school, "egg-in-a-nest" and a variety of omelets, salads and salad
dressings, but I did have fun making and eating them.
I also had a
healthy appreciation for a variety of ethnic foods. Aside from the
Chinese and sometimes Israeli food I grew up liking, during (and just
after) college I
fell in love with Thai, Korean, Vietnamese and Indian as well. (Waltham, MA
where Brandeis University is located had a bunch of super cheap Indian
restaurants as well as a very inexpensive shack cum restaurant serving
Vietnamese yummy goodness. I guess lack of money drove me to some of these
It was also at that time that I somehow fell in love with
sushi. This is incredibly odd as I only remember two points on the
spectrum: going out to dinner with a friend and his family and them
having to beat on me to even try a cucumber maki, and sometime later not
being able to get enough sushi. Ever. How that evolution happened I'll
never know. However I still was relatively sheltered compared to my
current habits and awareness of food.
I think the thing that eventually drove me to a more
diversified set of food adventures was my metabolism slowing down. In
college I weighed 135 pounds. I'm not tall by any means but this was
still pretty skinny. I looked weird - like
Anthony Michael Hall in
Breakfast Club. Skinny geek. Sometime soon after college my metabolism
started slowing down. By 5 years after college my weight was up to 182.
I remember seeing my uncle Nat one day and in the way of the very old
(and the very young) he unceremoniously pronounced how fat I'd gotten.
Me? Fat? It freaked me out. I was a "skinny guy". By 1999 I was on track to getting married
and didn't plan on looking puffy at my wedding. Since exercise is
against my religion (not Judaism, but my own personal religion that
forbids me from spending countless hours bored out of my mind), I needed
to find a way to eat less. The first thing I realized was that since
through college I was able to eat any amount of any food at any time and
continue to be hungry that I had basically become immune to my body's
own signals that I was full. To turn insight into action I came up with
a new rule. Translated into plain English it goes something like "don't
eat when you're not hungry." It is amazing to me that something so
simple appears (at least for me personally) to be a challenge of
I started noticing several interesting behavior and
thought patterns that for years had existed only in my sub-conscious. 1)
I eat food I love. If there's a plate full of sushi, I'll eat it -
whether I'm hungry or not. Some shrimp sitting on a plate? I'll eat
them. Doesn't matter that I just had 500 shrimp. There are two more
sitting there and I love shrimp. 2) I eat food I don't love. I don't
like waste. This is deadly. The meal is over.
I'm full. There's some leftovers on one of the communal dishes? I'll eat
them. 3) I eat out of boredom. Bottom line: there was no situation where
I said "no thank you". As soon as I realized this I started noticing
this "sick" feeling I had after many meals. I started to feel a little
nuts. At every meal I would stuff myself until I was sick and not even
notice how yucky I felt. After this realization things started to
progress naturally. And while I did get a bunch of the weight off in
time for the wedding in 1999 (hopefully not to the point where people
are confusing me for Anthony Michael Hall) it was only a few weeks ago
that I realized the most important lesson - most people focus on
quantity of food. I now focus on quantity of tastes.
By focusing on tasting as many things as possible I am
becoming more and more averse to eating large portions of anything. And
by looking for as high quality tastes as possible I limit myself even
further so that when the opportunity arises to eat something that is
high quality I have room in my stomach, and can enjoy it. I'm averse to
eating large portions even of things that are of super high quality as I
want to preserve the memory of those first few bites and not ruin the
memory via repetitious overkill. I am aspiring to a state that exposes
me to as much high quality food as possible, and keeps me within some
reasonable bounds of being height/weight proportionate. In the interest
of full disclosure I must confess that in practice my old ways do still
find a home at my table. I find it almost impossible to leave a shrimp
or piece of high quality sushi uneaten. But if I'm still on track to try
as many interesting and superb dishes as possible is eating some extra
sushi such a terrible crime?
My parents recently came to visit their new
granddaughter here in Seattle. She and her brother are quite captivating
(if I do say so myself), but I hoped to give my family some exposure to
some of the best food Seattle has to offer -
Lampreia of course. It's a risky
proposition to be honest. My mom is a picky eater. My father is
semi-adventurous. My sister I think could be a real honest-to-goodness
chef someday but all of them to one degree or another are much like the
old me. Comfortable with the food they know and like. (Not to mention
that none of them eat any shellfish.)
Of course, the right way to
experience Lampreia is to let it's Chef, Scott Carsberg, cook for you.
No ordering off the menu. Whatever the chef sends is what we eat.
"What if we don't like it?" they all chimed in. The one
restriction/request Scott has been consistently comfortable with is
making a version of dinner vegetarian.
Lauren has to eat too you
know. Knowing that Lauren always has to share bits of her dish
with all of us while she can't eat many of ours, I thought this might be
a nice solution. I'd order my family all vegetarian tasting menus and
they'd have a hard time finding an ingredient they were averse to, and
might even give dinner a chance.
Dinner was scheduled for Tuesday. On
Monday events did not portend well for our trip to Lampreia. After a
quick stop at
Malay Satay Hut (well received) my father and I went out
to Pike Place market to shop for fresh ingredients with which to make
dinner. We came home with gorgeous raspberries, a variety of yummy
vegetables, and some beautiful pieces of sashimi grade tuna. My mom
immediately declared that she didn't like tuna. "Why?" I asked. "It's
always too dry." Sashimi grade tuna, dry? Always?
I prepared the
tuna with one of Tom Douglas' rubs and just seared the outside of it
before depositing it on a bed of greens and drizzled some sauce over it.
Despite the fact that we ended up getting her some salmon she ended up
trying the "tuna salad". She said the tuna was great and not dry. Let's
take her at her word (and not assume she was being polite) as I tried
the tuna and it was definitely juicy and not dry.
This got me thinking. Throughout our lives we
are trained to determine what we like based on what ingredients it
contains and not based on the attentiveness with which it was prepared
or the quality of the ingredient itself. First question asked by a
person eating some type of ethnic food for the first time: "what's in
it?" Would it matter if they knew there was fish sauce in the Thai food?
First of all, fish sauce bears little resemblance to fish in its final
form. Second, fish sauce bears little resemblance to the dish in which
it's used as fish sauce alone is pretty powerful, yet when used as part
of a Thai dish, strangely complementary despite its potency. What good
would knowing what was in the Thai food help the first time diner with
determining in advance whether they liked it? I suppose if you pick from
ingredients you do like in other contexts then it helps with the
transition, but it's still a pretty limiting way to think when it comes
to trying new foods.
I took a moment after the potentially dry yet
juicy tuna incident to muse on this new bit of insight to my family as a
way of getting their minds more open for our trip to Lampreia. I knew
they were still stressed out about going to a meal where they didn't get
to pick their dishes, though the vegetarian filter their dinner was
going to pass through calmed them to some degree, but we marched on.
Tuesday night came and we went to dinner.
Dinner was of course magnificent. Things
started off smashingly where the first dish we all received was only
distinguished for the non-vegetarian orderers by the presence of duck
carpaccio. Needless to say I immediately pounced and pointed out to my
parents and my sister that their conservatism had deprived them of duck
carpaccio. Though I made sure that I didn't deprive them of any and gave
them some of mine. Score 1 for broadening your horizons.
The meal continued with a large number of
wonderful dishes both ones that excluded meat and fish and ones that
were not. The
poached egg with truffle was absolutely delicious. Give credit to my
shy family that they appeared to be genuinely enthused about the
truffleness. The corn veloute was the perfect essence of just sweet
enough corn in liquid form. And the encrusted lamb was yet another dish
that made my family wistful for limiting themselves to the vegetarian
dishes. Though I must say, if you're going to be a vegetarian, eating at
Lampreia is still an incredibly enjoyable and luxurious experience. When
we got to dessert and a
slice of pineapple was used as a dumpling wrapper we were all
impressed. And it was delicious.
So what did my family think of the meal? They
said nice things, and I think they enjoyed the adventure. But I think it
definitely took them out of their comfort zone, and I'm not sure they
really enjoyed it as a meal per se. I have a feeling that they were a
little bummed at the (from their perspective) "small" portions (by the
way, there were 7 courses - count 'em 7 courses and while the portions
were not Claimjumperesque they were not microbial by any stretch). And
of course the moderation of size is what made the courses enjoyable and
let us try so many of them. Nobody walked away hungry.
Ultimately I give credit to my family for
trying. Among our friends there are parents that wouldn't even be
willing to give it a shot, and mine definitely did. Afterwards I thought
to myself that maybe I had pushed a little too hard for them to broaden
their food world view. They were comfortable where they were, why should
I push? My measure of a meal I love is often that there's at least one
dish that I can remember with deep affection months or years later.
These are courses that make deep and lasting impressions. A week after
our trip to Lampreia I get a call from my mother and my sister: "Hi,
we're trying to recreate the corn soup from Lampreia. Any tips?" Maybe
our trip to Lampreia was the the tipping point for my family after all.
Postscript: my mom and sister's attempt at recreating
Scott Carsberg's Corn Veloute was unsuccessful. While I need to ask him
how he did it, I conveyed to them that I was sure it involved some
ungodly number of hours of preparation, possibly a vegetable stock that
didn't give away a hint of its presence except to support the essential
"corn-ness" of the liquid, and an amazing amount of straining through a
chinoise. This simple soup was not so simple anymore.
I got to thinking about the new lesson learned from my
adventures exposing my family to new and different foods. We are raised
to determine what we do and don't like in advance based on what
ingredients it contains and not based on how it's prepared. If my
two-year-old is any indication there must be biological roots in this
pattern of behavior. Maybe to avoid poisons children are biologically
programmed to taste enough foods to give them sustenance and then stop
trying new foods for fear of being poisoned. Then again, maybe not.
Maybe (whatever the biology) humans just like the comfort of the
familiar. It's easy to eat things we like. It's hard to try the unknown.
And to a certain extent this serves us well. There are
some ingredients that people just don't like. It doesn't matter how many
times you try it, in what form, how it was prepared, or by whom. That
said, I have been out to eat too many times with picky eaters only to
see them try something prepared by a talented chef with an ingredient
they don't like only to see them new fans of said ingredient with a
religious fervor reserved exclusively for recently reformed smokers.
How do you explain cilantro? Two years ago, a fouler
green did not exist on my flavor roster. The smell? Atrocious. The taste.
Overpowering. In my food? No thanks - makes it taste soapy. "No cilantro
please" was my motto. And now???
I can't get enough of it. It has an
incredible smell and flavor that brighten everything it's in. I keep it
on hand at home in bunches and think about things I can make with it. In
the same time period, this cilantro conversion has happened to two other
people I know. Did the genetic makeup for cilantro crops world-wide
change over the last two years to make it suddenly pleasing and
palatable? Were we somehow hypnotized by the "Cilantro Council"? Or did something more insidious
What happened is that I got used to it. And once I was familiar
with the flavor, I wanted to get familiar with it as often as possible.
If this could happen with an ingredient I used to despise, why not with
any ingredient I simply don't like or prefer. And remember, it wasn't just me, this
happened to two other people.
This is even more counter-intuitive than it
seems. It's not just people's likes that define them, their dislikes are
equally (if not more) visible signs defining their personas.
People love to proudly declare their dislike for various foods. And it's
not just limited to the fast-food set. The "enlightened" can be even
worse, deriding simple pleasures like good street food, and breakfast
diner buttered white toast. As hard as it may be to put something in
your mouth that might not taste good, once you've decided you're brave
enough to do that at least once per food item, you realize that by
trying things you might like them. And what if you all of a sudden like
the food that for years you've made fun of your friends for eating?
The weirdest (and for me most embarrassing) thing is
that not all of these dislikes are based on actual experience. Yep. I've
found that not all things people dislike have they actually tried. In
fact (while I await funding for my scientific study) I will venture a
guess that most foods that people claim to not like, they have never
I realized recently that I like cherries, capers, and
Given that I've been writing this website for over a
year, it's pretty shameful to admit, but that's right, I hadn't really
eaten a cherry up until recently. Thirty-four years without tasting a
real fresh cherry. The funny thing is that I was absolutely certain I didn't
like cherries. How did that happen? I think Cherry flavored cough syrup was the
main culprit. I still find that flavor vile. Of course only recently did
I realize it tastes nothing like cherries. It tastes like cough syrup.
Of course I did have lingering doubts about my cherry phobia only because the
medicine-ish cherry-flavored Luden's "cough drops" are so yummy.
With capers, it was just that they looked yucky. And
then I realized (after I actually tried one) that they were little pods
of salty goodness.
With beets, I never tried them and they somehow ended up
in the dislike bucket. I admit that I wasn't immediately super in love
with their flavor, but golden beets have a lighter flavor that led me to
fall in love with the whole beet family. How many people are out there
not eating yummy food because of cough syrup. I believe people have a
list of food they eat and a list of food they don't. Long gone are the
reasons items showed up on the don't list.
The psychological warfare I am engaged in with my
two-year-old son sheds a little light on the subject. Before his birth
and during the first few months of his existence when his diet was
pretty regulated, I planned long and hard about all the food adventures
we'd have together as soon as he could eat real food. I imagined us
going to dim sum every Sunday morning, fighting over the last piece of
sushi at dinner, and hunting for the perfect Vietnamese restaurant
together. The picky eater that took over my son's body has no place in my fantasies. Months of peanut butter on matzah forced me to develop new
pathways of creativity when it comes to getting him to try new foods.
Reasoning with a two-year-old is not a path to success.
For awhile I thought his preference for certain foods
was really about their flavor. I was so proud the day I got him to eat
chicken satay at the Thai restaurant after I shoved it with some peanut
sauce between the toast points they gave us. I started to wonder if it
really mattered what was between the pieces of toast. It seems that the
satay benefited from the peanut sauce, which he was already comfortable
with because of his peanut butter obsession. That said, when he does
taste a new flavor it does take him a minute to adapt and decide whether
he likes it or not. And there are so many things that I wanted him to
try that I thought wouldn't work between two pieces of toast.
He likes to eat apples. We always have granny
smith in the house, so those are apples. Anything else round and edible
is a different colored apple. For awhile, oranges were orange apples. I
used to disabuse him of this notion. Now I leave it in place. The
association is critical to him being comfortable with eating the fruit.
When he insisted on eating a "red apple" recently I made no objection or
correction. And now he's a big fan of plums.
The proudest moment of inspiration was
recently when somehow I got him to take a bite of a red pepper - and he
liked it. I sliced the top off, emptied out the insides and then called
him over to show him how I could open and close the pepper like a little
container with a top. When I took a bite of the top, that was fun, so he
took one too. Progress! Before we knew it, we had eaten so many bites
that what was left of the piece attached to the stem of the pepper was
no longer an effective top for the pepper "bowl". With the fun gone, his
willingness to eat pepper disappeared as well. I offered him any part he
wanted of the other 90% of the pepper, but tops were all he wanted. I
started to scheme furiously at how I could use up all that extra pepper
with him only eating pepper tops. (The similarity to the Seinfeld
"Muffin Top" episode was not lost on me.) And then inspiration hit
- pepper stars. Sure enough, the very same pepper cut into little star
shapes was acceptable and even considered yummy by my son.
Freud aside, I think in some ways most people
are stuck at two when it comes to food. The list of foods we don't like,
won't try, have never eaten, etc. is not necessarily rational, but it
exists. Maybe if people try the food they dislike in the shape of stars
or hearts their worlds might open up a bit. As much as I love pepper
stars, I have to admit, I am already counting the days until my infant
daughter starts eating solid food, as the first Sunday following, she
and I will be taking a road trip to Vancouver, B.C. to wolf down some
All this musing leads me to shamelessly steal a page from
Jeffrey Steingarten's book -
The Man Who Ate Everything. I will go on
and on praising him and his incredibly inspiring book in a later entry,
but for now I will take a page from his [play]book. When he started out
as food critic for Vogue he realized that to be a completely neutral
observer of all things culinary he needed to dispense with any of his
prejudices. He spent long hours determining that biologically there is
almost nothing we can't eat, and in fact - as human beings - we're
supposed to eat as many things as possible - we're designed for it.
He lists out everything he dislikes including Greek food, desserts
served at Indian restaurants, and blue food to name a few. He then goes
on a program of exposure and open-mindedness where he overcomes
essentially all his food phobias. I did note when I read the book that
he didn't include bugs. Though in the sequel - It Must Have Been
Something I Ate - he does come back to bugs and in fact has made
progress in that arena. I will not be discussing bugs either. Not now,
not ever. Bugs are yucky. Maybe if someone decides to pay me to do this
job then I'll consider it, but doubtful even then. Anyway, back to
things I don't like other than bugs. Here it is: my all time list of
major dislikes when it comes to food. These are the items that will
cause me to not eat something. These are things I will pick out of other
- Raisins. These are the cockroaches of the dried fruit
world. Yes, I like grapes. Yes, I like other dried fruits - apples,
apricots, etc. Yes I like grapes. Yes I know that raisins are just
dried grapes. But I cannot abide raisins. They are small, and chewy,
and usually inserted into dishes where they don't belong as tiny
invisible smart bombs of yucky overly sweet chewy fruit taste when I
was just enjoying my Persian rice or my challah. I don't know if I'll
ever get over my hatred (and yes, I mean hatred) of raisins.
- Coffee. My parents loves coffee. They consider themselves
coffee gourmands. They have all sorts of apparatuses for grinding,
filtering, and brewing it. I grew up around it, and never fell in love
with it. Quite the opposite. Coffee tastes to me like someone found an
old car in a junkyard that belonged to a chain smoker, scraped the
ashtrays, added hot water, steeped, and poured the resulting liquid
into a mug and offered to dilute it with cream and sugar. (I always
hear of incidental association between coffee and cigarettes as a fine
pairing for people who are into both, but that's something to
investigate another time.) The funny thing is that I've grown to love
the smell of coffee. Brewing, roasting. It smells great. You'd think I
was halfway there, but every couple of years I take a sip (of high
quality stuff I'm told) and I find it yucky. Fall back to the slew of
coffee-type products - the frappucinos with all sorts of enticing
flavors - even coffee ice cream; I don't like any of them. I will
admit to having mixed a tiny bit of ground coffee into my recipe for chocolate spread (it gives the spread
a bittersweet tinge). But beyond that I really just don't like coffee.
As their appears to be a crack in the armor of my dislike, I think
there's a fighting chance coffee will eventually leave this list. At
least in one of it's watered down forms - like the multitude of
desserts or dessert beverages that are so overloaded with dairy and
sugar products that the coffee is reduced to a mere essence.
- Tea. This is coffee's "friendly" cousin. Take the
recipe from above and substitute flowers for ashtray scrapings and
voila - tea! I know tea lovers across the planet are horrified at my
generalization. I must be referring to herbal tea. Nope. It all tastes
like flower water to me. I'm not entirely sure of the odds of
overcoming my dislike of tea. I think in order to be on the road to
solving a problem you have to be able to visualize the solution and
frankly I just can't picture myself drinking tea.
Note: my aversion to the world's agreed upon
hot drinks is especially difficult for waiters and waitresses at the end
of meals, and hosts and hostesses in cultures where serving someone a
hot drink when they visit your home is missed only on pain of death. Hot
chocolate? Hot water with lemon? Chicken consomme? None seem to be realistic
alternatives when a friendly host is pushing their ashtray/flower water
on me. Though I will say Starbucks' menu of "Coffee Alternatives"
(they're alternatives to tea as well but the Starbucks folks didn't mind
this technical inaccuracy) is quite delicious. They have a vanilla "creme"
drink that's like a warm vanilla milkshake. Not an appetizing
description but quite nice once you try it. Their caramel apple beverage
is also excellent. Thanks to
Steve and Kira for turning me on to these.
Anyway, back to my food therapy.
- Shellfish in the shell. This may seem like a nit since I've
overcome my "dislike" of shellfish. In fact it never was quite that.
More of a fear since I grew up in a house without - Kosher. Now I
adore shrimp, am having a love affair with scallops, guzzle clam chowder, and even like buttery
morsels of lobster tail. But serve those in their native homes and I
am grossed out. I think this is too reminiscent of the bug ban. A big
lobster in the shell looks too much like a cockroach for my taste.
Sucking on those spindly legs (are they legs?) is just too much for me
though I'm sure the flavor is quite lovely. This one may never get
fixed. (On a related note: I also find certain shellfish too rubbery in certain forms -
squid, octopus, cuttlefish, etc. Though I've had them roasted or in
other forms that were quite nice so I guess they don't really count.)
- Ethiopian food. This one is probably too silly to mention.
I tried it once at a restaurant in Washington DC. Lentils are ok. But
this was like a huge mash of tasteless gray lentils spread across an enormous
pita. I should probably try a good Ethiopian restaurant and be
- Stews. They're just a big soppy mess. Everything kind of
merges together and gets dull. Paella counts too. I have to assume
that there's a stew out there that will blow me away.
- Cooked green peppers. For years I thought I didn't like
peppers. My first exposure too any kind of pepper was cooked green
peppers. The bitterness that's more prevalent in the green pepper
(versus the other colors) is accentuated in a distasteful way (in my
opinion) when you cook it. My phobia of all things pepper went on for
more years than it had to likely because my budget didn't allow for
spending $5 a pound on a red, orange, or yellow pepper. Needless to
say, when I finally realized what I was missing, I measured my career
success by whether my salary let me buy red peppers without a second
thought. That's rich!
- Black Licorice. Gross. Though, maybe it's the concentration
that bothers me. I love anise and fennel. I couldn't imagine my
vietnamese pho without that flavor.
- Root Beer. Maybe I should put this one under the tea
phobia. It's kind of flowery to me. My friend Steve knowing that I'm
not shy about taking food from other people's plates, drank root beer
all throughout college even though it wasn't his favorite, just so I
wouldn't take any.
- Mint flavored desserts. I've been working hard trying to
pinpoint the issue here and only figured it out recently. At first I
thought I didn't like mint. But I brush my teeth with minty
toothpaste, and eat minty gum. Then I thought I didn't like mint mixed
with anything else, but in fact the mint in Vietnamese dishes like Goi
Cuon or Pho is quite delicious and essential. Then I thought I didn't
like mint in desserts, but I've had a couple of sprigs on a sorbet
that were refreshing. And then it finally distilled into its essence:
I don't like desserts where one of the main flavors is mint. Mint ice
cream is really gross. The only thing worse is the combination of mint
and chocolate. Truly despicable.
That's it. The whole list. I've tried to be exhaustive
here even to the point where it's just embarrassing. But nothing can be
done about that. I figure, if I'm going to try and be as honest as
possible about the food I love, then it's critical that I'm just as
honest about the foods I avoid. Everything else is pretty much "on the menu". Some
things I love. Some I'm just ok with, but I'll eat them all. I can't
promise that I'll overcome each of these dislikes, but I am doing my
best to put them behind me by exposing myself to the best in each
category when I have the time (and energy). At least now though, you can
read what follows enlightened about my blind spots.
This website exists to document my experiences with eating great (and
sometimes not-so-great) food. Invariably, when you write almost 300
posts, most about meals and eating at various restaurants, cafes,
bakeries, and food stands, people are going to call you a “food critic”.
On the one hand there’s no doubt I think critically about the food I
eat. But a “food critic”? I have to admit that title feels a little like
an epithet to me.
Let’s start at the beginning. Anywhere there are
creative people expressing themselves (especially for money) there grows
a cottage industry around criticizing what those creative people do. I’m
not (at least in this post) trying to get into a discussion of whether
cooking is art, craft, or something in between, but cooking and creating
food in general does appear to be one of those creative endeavors that
has inspired a legion of people who spend their life and make their
living criticizing other people’s cooking and creativity.
Some of the
people who write about food for a living (possibly even many of them)
are simply thrilled about sharing their love of food with others. Many
are counting their lucky stars that their paid to do this. Others do it
even without being paid – note the hundreds of food blogs that have
sprouted up all over the net over the last couple of years. Others
however (and by my take this is the majority) appear to be taken mostly
with themselves as opposed to the food and food producers they’re paid
to write about. How do I know this? I’ll tell you.
There are two things
that tell me. The first is the myth under which most food critics
operate. The second is the drivel most food critics produce. Let’s start
with the myth. The myth is one of objectivity. It starts with the
employers of most food critics in the nation – commercial media, mostly
newspapers. The people who write for newspapers are called journalists.
Journalists build their credibility on the notion that they are
objective. The more textured among them will fully acknowledge that
complete objectivity is impossible, and their real goal is to be honest,
fair, and balance (though the latter of those two have been co-opted in
the most sad and ironic fashion by a media outlet that clearly is
neither). My point here is not to take a position on some part of the
red/purple/blue spectrum but rather to point out that the notion of
being objective in writing about food is silly.
Not so says the
Association of Food Journalists. In fact,
in their "Food Critics'
Guidelines", they claim that “Good
restaurant reviewing is good journalism. Reviewers should subscribe to
the same accepted standards of professional responsibility as other
journalists.” The give specifics on how to achieve this: “The
Association believes that the primary responsibility of food journalists
is to serve the public interest by reporting the news accurately and as
objectively as possible. (1) Gifts, favors, free travel or lodging,
special treatment or privileges can compromise the integrity and
diminish the credibility of food journalists, as well as that of their
employers. This includes commercially sponsored contests. Such offers
should be avoided. An example is a contest promoting specific food
products that is open to food journalists only. (2) Similarly, food
journalists should not use their positions to win favors for themselves
or for others.” There are a bunch of others, but my favorite is “(8)
Because of the controversial nature of many food-related topics, food
journalists accept the obligation to acknowledge opposing views on such
Now I am sure that most restaurant critics do their utmost to
follow all these rules to the letter, but my take is that it’s
borderline impossible to follow these rules, and completely impossible
to follow the spirit of them. Whether they want to acknowledge it or
not, most reviewers portraits are plastered to the bulletin boards of
kitchens all over their respective “beats” right next to the OSHA
mandated postings. Waiters are trained to look for the critics and relay
the information when one is spotted to the folks in the kitchen who do
their utmost to treat the reviewer like a king (or queen as the case may
be). Additionally, many reviewers get discounts and freebies. Maybe not
at the actual meal where they are reviewing the restaurant, but at
others. Chefs and restaurateurs have confirmed this to me privately. And
let’s say for argument’s sake that a critic goes through all sorts of
trouble to stay unrecognized, refuses all freebies, and follows all the
other rules and guidelines. They still are not, in my opinion, able to
follow the spirit of the guidelines.
Again, I know it’s a
generalization, but my impression is that many food critics get carried
away with themselves. Everyone has met people in life who squeeze every
last drop of leverage and superiority from the small positions of power
they wield. In the worst cases this small taste of power results in an overinflated sense of self-worth and expertise. There’s nothing worse
than critics who feel that their positions on newspapers and other media
outlets somehow make them experts at food. This is like disc jockeys who
get their job because of the quality of their voice, but have come to
believe they are now experts on music, determining what’s good and what
isn’t. The best journalists food or otherwise readily admit their
biases, the things that color their opinion, and the context for their
Recently the editors of Slate magazine
decided to tell the world how they were going to vote in the
Presidential election. In “Our
case for journalistic disclosure”
Jacob Weisberg says much more eloquently than I ever could when he
explains that one of the reasons they did it was “to emphasize the
distinction between opinion and bias. Journalists, like people, have
opinions that influence their behavior. Reporters and editors at most
large news organizations in the United States are instructed to keep
their opinions to themselves to avoid creating an impression of
partisanship. Len Downie, the executive editor of the Washington Post,
famously goes so far as to avoid even voting. Slate, which is a journal
of opinion, takes precisely the opposite approach. Rather than bury our
views, we cultivate and exhibit them. A basic premise of our kind of
journalism is that we can openly express what we think and still be
fair. Fairness, in the kind of journalism Slate practices, does not mean
equal time for both sides. It does not mean withholding judgment past a
reasonable point. It means having basic intellectual honesty. When you
advance a hypothesis, you must test it against reality. When you make a
political argument, you must take seriously the significant arguments on
the other side. And indeed, Slate writers tend to be the sort of people
who relish opportunities to criticize their own team and give credit to
their opponents. Or so we'd like to think. By disclosing our opinions
about who should be president, we're giving readers a chance to judge
how well we are living up to these ideals.” And while the practice of
writing about food is not of the same importance as writing about
politics (in either direction depending on your outlook on life) here at
tastingmenu we try to live up to these same ideals. And why aren’t these
the ideals of the Association of Food Journalists?
The thing is that it
is impossible to be objective about food. Food is an emotional component
of our lives. You cannot convince me that Bella Cooperman, my father’s
mother, didn’t make the best chicken soup ever in the history of planet
earth. Nor can you convince me that my other grandmother, Goldie
Jackson, didn’t make the best small apricot filled pastries(the
unfortunately named Apricot Pasties). And while I’m sure each and every
one of you would agree with me on how perfect these dishes were (if only
my grandmothers were alive to make them for all of us) the flavors in
these dishes are so intertwined with my memories of my grandmothers that
it’s really impossible for me to separate the two. This shouldn’t be a
surprise to anyone who has wonderful memories that involve food. Smell
is a critical
part of tasting food, and smell is also
linked very closely to memory
(both positive and negative). It doesn’t bother me that objectivity is
impossible. What bothers me is people who under the mantle of
objectivity spout their opinions as if they have some greater value than
any other person’s perception. Even, Jeffrey Steingarten, his quality
writing I aspire to achieve a fraction of, said at one point that there
were several restaurants he loved so much he frequented them regularly
and therefore would never write about them. I say why not? Do I imagine
that just because he’s become friendly with the chef that all of a
sudden he loves the food even if it sucks? Maybe he became friendly with
the person making the food because the food was so good in the first
place. I feel cheated not knowing the names of those restaurants.
Because as much as I respect the opinion of Steingarten, I’d still like
the option to make up my own mind.
And while objective food criticism is a joke if not in practice, then in spirit, just look
at the quality of the content and the recommendations to know for sure
that most food writing (especially in newspapers) sucks. (Luckily
food blogs are
starting to fill the void.) The main
signpost for me is the relentless focus on trends. How many articles
have you seen talking about what foods are trendy at restaurants? The
latest interesting ingredients that “everyone” is cooking with? I
remember running into a local food personality once and asking her what
her favorite restaurants were. This is a question that in the worst case
helps me get context for what kind of food the person is into, and in
the best case lets me know about cool restaurants I didn’t know about.
At first I was surprised that it took her a full 30-40 seconds to come
up with even one name. This person is in the food business and has lived
in Seattle for many years. And when she finally did come up with some
names, they were all of restaurants that opened in the past 12 months
and were considered “hip”. Distressing to say the least.
I’ve gotten accused once or twice myself of showing favoritism.
Consider this post my response. I write about food because I love to eat. And due to some
dysfunction in my personality when I love something I get just as much
pleasure from getting other
people to feel the same way about it as I do. I have no qualifications,
no expertise, and no right to judge anyone's cooking as I am not
very good at it myself. The only thing that fuels my efforts is my
unhealthy obsession with documenting my life, and my willingness to
dedicate what little spare time I have to doing so. I don’t expect
everyone to agree with all my opinions, but I know from much of the
supportive mail I’ve gotten that often people have had great experiences
with food they read about first on this site. And that moment, the
moment of shared discovery of something wonderful is why this site
exists. So when you see me writing about food I love, ingredients I
adore, and people who’s cooking fills me with wonderful memories – be it
a person with 3 stars from Michelin, a person manning a street-side food stall, or
my grandmothers – understand my exuberance is just that. And I hope that
on occasion you’ll find a reason to share it.
or Other?", March 2, 2005 — I spend an unhealthy amount of
time thinking about how to evaluate food. Mostly restaurants in
fact. I also spend quite a bit of time lamenting why I can't find
more restaurants that I really like. These are essentially the same
topic in my mind. The truth is that I feel a natural affinity for
people who dislike critics. After all, where's the art in
criticizing others? And where's the humanity in it? These people put
their hearts on the line every day. And critics come along and
render their "expert" opinions, shooting arrows from a distance.
From the comfort of their keyboard. For over two years I have made
it clear that I love two things. I love finding wonderful food
experiences, and I love sharing them with others. That's not
criticism. Is it? That's just passion for food. But really that's
not entirely true. This site already contains what are essentially
hundreds of restaurant and food reviews. And now we're on our way
down the slippery slope.
The next step is coming up with shorthand. Three
stars from Michelin (now
surveying New York for the first time), four from the New York
Times... we have Love, Like, and Other. The definitions are
here. But the truth is that
they are difficult to define for us. Remember something... writing
about food is completely subjective. Yes, there is a general
framework for how to evaluate a food experience, but it is simply
impossible to be objective. And because so much of one's own
expectations color their opinions of a food experience, eating (and
deciding what food you enjoy most), it's ultimately very very
personal. And so this site is really a personal expression.
But that said, we still have the shorthand. What
does it really mean? Well, we never talk about the shorthand as we
write about a restaurant as there's always texture. But when you
review a list of restaurants in a city, we put them in categories
for you. Categories that give you a sense of which we think are
better than the others. Every meal we eat together ends with a
simple question: "love, like, or other?"
Sometimes we've even considered creating a fourth
category, for the highest echelon of eating experiences. But it's
not clear what the point would be given how few there are.
Ultimately here is the key: Making good food is easy
(even I can do it if I really try). Making great food is hard.
Making great food consistently is really really hard. Making great
food consistently for a lot of people is nearly impossible. Great
food can be from a street vendor, or a 20 course tasting menu at an
expensive restaurant. Great food doesn't discriminate. But the
physics of making great food is consistent - like gravity.
Standards, focus, and lack of compromise are what make great food.
And just as with figure skating at the Winter Olympics, there are
degrees of difficulty. But unlike the Olympics, we don't
discriminate. If you do a simple jump and it's a ten, it's a ten. If
you do a triple lutz, they give you extra points. We don't. Is that
the right thing? I don't know. On the one hand I think that people
should get credit for trying something with a greater difficulty. On
the other hand, I also feel like if you try to do something more
complicated, you made your bed. And if we only gave our highest
recognition to restaurants trying to make the most difficult food,
then our "Loves" would look like the list of four star restaurants
from the New York Times: Daniel, Jean Georges, Le Bernadin, Masa,
Per Se (Ducasse lost his fourth star recently). They're all very
expensive, and until Per Se and Masa were added they were all very
French. (I think this list is complete, but for some unknown reason
the New York Times website has eliminated the ability to search
based on star rating).
It's nice to know that even the very chefs who've
earned these stars know that
not all good food is expensive: "Mr. Keller says he used to have
a weakness for Burger King's Whopper with extra cheese and French
fries, but now that he lives in California, he has switched his
allegiance to the cheeseburgers at In-N-Out Burger, with French
fries and a milkshake." It's also nice to know that these same chefs
follow the same protocol as we do when going out to eat: "How often
to eat can also be an issue. Mr. Trotter, for one, limits the number
of evening meals on his travels to one, but 15 years ago, he said,
he would pack away "three full dinners - I don't mean grazing - just
to see what's going on." When you're young, you can do it, " Mr.
Trotter, now 45, says. "I would eat for two hours at 5:30, for an
hour and a half at 8 p.m., and then I'd eat again. I'd be with two
or three other people, and we'd order six appetizers and eight
entrees. I was like an eating machine."
So we're back to standards, focus, and lack of
compromise. And art and commerce don't mix. Not compromising doesn't
seem so admirable when nobody's coming to eat in your restaurant.
Not compromising, and making a successful business is nearly
impossible. Nearly. And so there are restaurants that stay focused.
That have maniacal attention to detail. And ultimately believe that
quality and consistency are one in the same. Those are the ones I'm
looking for. Those are the ones we try to talk about on this site.
And while you might expect that someone who spends all this time
criticizing might enjoy being negative, I swear it's not true. I get
the most personal enjoyment from finding something great and sharing
it with others. I wish I could do it more often.