In the February issue of Vanity Fair, Corby Kummer, one of the most celebrated food writers in the United States, penned a lightning-rod essay that called out some of America’s best chefs for making their meals about themselves instead of their customers. “A diner’s pleasure is secondary; subjugation to the will of the creative genius comes first,” Kummer writes. “The chef sets the rules; the diner (together with the cowed serving staff) obeys.” As if this were news.
Kummer spends nearly 5,000 words bashing tasting menus and longing for the good old days when chefs were “employees” dedicated to fulfilling a diner’s every whim—a position that had some nodding their heads but more howling that Kummer was out of touch. If the guy hates tasting menus, the naysayers argue, he can go elsewhere. (This is a similar argument to “If you don’t like America, then leave,” which is exactly the kind of knee-jerk politics that never holds anyone accountable for actions.)
When I went to Elizabeth Restaurant, the eight people at my communal table were at the mercy of chef Iliana Regan for 24 courses, and I for one never felt tyrannized. I felt joy and excitement—even as I was told what, when, and how to eat. The only tyranny originated from us diners. We couldn’t let go of our iPhones and cameras, and we spent almost five hours on foodie one-upmanship and name-dropping—not even stopping when the soft-spoken Regan came out to explain what was on our plates. We were a bunch of starfuckers who couldn’t name one song by the person performing but still wanted to get backstage.
Kummer, like the rest of us, simply wants chefs to deliver an enjoyable experience. There’s nothing wrong with that. If we’re going to point the finger at the kitchen, maybe it’s time to start pointing it around the table, too.