Aesthetic appetite

Markus Glocker’s Koloman restaurant.

Today’s New York Times brings Pete Wells’s three-star review of Markus Glocker’s new restaurant, Koloman, in the Chelsea district. My wife and I are particularly delighted about this, since we’ve actually been enjoying Glocker’s restaurants for almost fifteen years — since 2010, when he was the chef de cuisine at the now-shuttered Gordon Ramsay at the London. In the interim we also visited his Bâtard in Tribeca during his brief tenure there, and in the meantime ran into him once in a while at Cafe Katja, my Lower East Side regular. The review promises a long run for Koloman, and I lift my gustatory glass to him.

As long as I’m publishing souvenirs of my years as a theater writer here, I offer the below review of Glocker’s “performance” at Gordon Ramsay at the London, first posted here in 2010. I suppose it was in the nature of an experiment: Could I approach a restaurant experience with the same critical perspective as I could approach a theatrical one? It is also perhaps a response to a controversial essay about food by William Deresiewicz, published in the New York Times in 2012 and recently republished in his intriguing and worthwhile book The End of Solitude. In a discussion of “foodism” and the American trend to treat food as a pseudo-art-form, he wrote:

Food now expresses the ethical values and absorbs the spiritual energies of the educated class. It has become invested with the meaning of life. It is seen as a path to salvation, for the self and humanity both.

But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It offers no ideas, proposes no meanings. It furnishes nothing to the imagination, nothing to the mind. … A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul. Yes, food centers life in France and Italy, too, but not to the disadvantage of art, which still occupies the supreme place in both cultures. Here in America, we are in danger of confusing our palates with our souls.

Clearly whether or not you agree with Mr. Deresiewicz depends on whether you are sympathetic to his ideas about art itself. This is not one of those hills I’m willing to die on. But I do offer the below as one approach up that hill, take it or leave it. It has been lightly revised.

If contemporary theatre criticism looks for performance outside the four walls of the studio space or auditorium, it may be worthwhile to consider dining as performance. The restaurant is a unique site of artifice and, in better restaurants, elegance; if we are now to think of ourselves as “consumers” of an aesthetic experience, then why can’t gustatory consumption provide aesthetic experience as well? Certainly as theatre takes the everyday elements of experience and renders them something unique and meditative, the restaurant serves the necessary food to quell the inescapable appetite.

The restaurant meal as aesthetic experience, then, is as capable of providing a meditative and contemplative experience as theatre. I often mention elegance as a necessary component of the powerful theatre production, and certainly this is as valid in the restaurant experience. My wife and I recently paid our second visit in as many years to Gordon Ramsay at the London, itself under the supervision of chef de cuisine Markus Glocker and designed by David Collins, and it too provided considerable food for thought. Ramsay is probably best known as the foul-mouthed, violently demanding ex-footballer on shows like Hell’s Kitchen and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, and this is how most of his audience sees him. But most of this audience, I’m sure, does not have the opportunity to enter a Gordon Ramsay restaurant themselves (even though his restaurants may be found around the world — there’s even a “Gordon Ramsay Plane Food” restaurant in Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5). It is only there that the true theme of Ramsay’s television shows, and where they differ from Top Chef and Iron Chef, becomes apparent — they are not about Ramsay’s personality (however overpowering that is), but about the discipline, skill, collaboration and talent required to render the dining experience itself an aesthetic product. The dining experience is Ramsay’s true calling — and he is as much an artist here as Giacometti in painting, Howard Barker or Richard Foreman in theatre, and Morton Feldman in music.

Like theatre, there is the playing space (the restaurant itself) and backstage (the kitchen); a fine meal requires a clocklike efficiency between the two arenas. Gordon Ramsay at the London, in a dining room panelled in emerald and timber, presents a quiet spacious area for relaxation. The waitstaff, attentive but unobtrusive, performs on a thin tightrope between formality and the casual, wearing dark suits but not tuxedoes (the restaurant notes that the dress code for patrons is “smart, with jackets preferred for gentlemen, but not required”). They are personable and friendly, but not familiar, and there is much to be said about the elegance in their gestures themselves: wine is poured and dishes are served with quiet efficiency but a great deal of attention to the angle of the bottle and the way the wrist is turned, the precise ease with which the dishes are placed before the diner. (I know theatre directors and performers who pay far less attention to the appearance and grace of their bodies as they perform.) It is also interesting to note that, during both my visits to the restaurant, not one cellphone or pager was heard to beep through the entire meal.

Indeed, at Gordon Ramsay at the London, the dining experience is one of intimacy within the high-ceilinged arena; despite the relatively small room, it is arranged so that each table continues to possess a quiet privacy. This is unlike Daniel Boulud’s Daniel, which with its multiple levels and dining areas renders the diners both spectators and spectacle, part of the scenery rather than a private individual (appropriate in a restaurant in which it may be important to see-and-be-seen), or Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50, which offers a more casual, diner-like Lower East Side atmosphere (appropriate for a Lower East Side restaurant).

Dining at a restaurant like Glocker’s is a leisurely experience; serving the seven-course tasting menu takes a little less than three hours. The role of time and rhythm in taking a meal is akin to the role they play in music: nothing rushed or fast, time enough to linger over the taste of a dish (or a sound or sequence of notes), to relish and contemplate it. Time and rhythm in another sense is key to the menu itself and the sequence of dishes and wines. For there is a rhythm to the tasting menu, make no mistake about that: beginning with a light amuse bouche (and a glass of champagne or sparkling wine), the meal progresses from lighter to heavier dishes, and similarly at Gordon Ramsay at the London these are accompanied by wines that progress from lighter whites to fuller reds. A tenderly sauteed slice of fois gras, its creaming density leavened with the provision of a brightly-sliced plum, is followed by a single scallop accompanied by curried cauliflower, pressed mango and spiced chickpeas, and only then do the main dishes arrive: a turbot (amusingly presented; slicing into the center of the turbot, one is surprised by the right yellow of an organic egg yolk that pours from the fish) and, for me, lamb cooked to the precise definition of “medium,” pink in the center and growing progressively more done as towards the edges. (And here the reds are served.) And a decrescendo follows in the form of first a pre-dessert in the form of a light lime sorbet and then a final dessert, for me of a light Concord grape cream and yogurt sorbet.

It is essential to note that Glocker’s form of French cooking partakes of that most generous trait of any good host: entertainment just to the point of satiety and not beyond. There are times at even the best restaurants when you can have too much of a good thing (this was my experience at Daniel and, more especially, at WD-50). What is most poetic about Glocker’s cooking is its restraint, not only in flavor (which engages and tempts the palate but does not overwhelm it) but in portion servings as well. On both occasions I’ve dined at Gordon Ramsay at the London, I wasn’t left wanting more, but on the other hand I didn’t have a feeling of overindulgence either. The key to Glocker’s sensitivity is in his measure of quiet, modest excellence. Similarly, because eating is as much a visual as gustatory experience, the minimalist plating, with a careful eye to color, space and placement, provides just enough for the eye to see and doesn’t overwhelm the visual sense.

What we eat, and how we choose to eat it, tells us a great deal about our culture — as much as the plays it chooses to see and the music it chooses to listen to. Artists like Markus Glocker and restaurants like Gordon Ramsay at the London also can tell us through their creations about the world that presents itself to us: we are inclined and encouraged to be more demanding of our everyday experiences, not to take for granted the pleasures of eating and appetite. They provide, like dramatists, painters, poets and musicians, a new way of looking at the environment around us — and remind us that we cannot take that, either, for granted.