Chefs at work at The Breslin. Photos by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

Cooks, Chefs, or Artists? Photos (at NYC’s Breslin) by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

“I always say this to the young chefs and mean it: The customer is excited, he says you are an artist, but we are not, just craftspeople with a little talent. If the chef is an artist, he doesn’t succeed. Why? Because he is inspired today but not tomorrow. We cannot do that.” —Andre Soltner (quoted in Forbes, May 2012)

Back in in the fall of 2008, nearly five years ago, I moderated a discussion between Tony Bourdain and Marco Pierre White (insofar as those two former chefs can be moderated at all). MPW railed against the multi-course tasting menu, and Bourdain reiterated it, while Grant Achatz, feeling personally attacked, fumed in the audience.

As I pointed out in a post addressing the event, The End of the Multi-Course Tasting? (scroll down past Tony’s curious remarks), I found it ironic that MPW was criticizing the very form of dining that had earned him his fame—high-end, highly egotistical food. I also thought it a little un-self-aware that these two celebrities criticize tasting menus given the fact that both he and Bourdain get clobbered with food by chefs eager to impress their culinary heroes, when all they really want is a good burger.

Now it seems that the issue is back with an attack on tasting menus by Corby Kummer in February’s Vanity Fair (it’s been out for a month) and Pete Wells’s more balanced article in the NYTimes last fall.

It should come as no surprise that I’d take issue with the Kummer story as he maligns a friend with whom I’ve worked since 1997, Thomas Keller, recalling not only the meal that made The French Laundry the number one restaurant in the United States, but a subsequent meal a few months later that “felt like a form of torture.”

I was actually there that night, and in the kitchen when Kummer stood at the chef’s station interviewing Keller and typing away on his laptop as Keller patiently responded to questions, and I had spoken with Kummer at length about what I was learning. I happened to have had a really good meal that night myself—I was there working on The French Laundry Cookbook—and don’t recall Kummer’s writing about the torture he experienced then. Now he’s railing against chefs’ power grab and taking the diner hostage—MPW was famous for throwing customers out back in the 90s—from a seat that is as rarefied as those held by MPW and Bourdain.

I guess what bothers me most about Kummer’s article is not what he says but rather the tone of hysteria that infuses the essay, the vehemence of his emotions about restaurant dining when, really, there are a lot more interesting issues, if not pressing ones, to report on. Wells has been charged with the task of being the consumer’s guide for the country’s paper of record, a serious responsibility. Kummer, in what is a kind of reported editorial rant, criticizes as from a throne, seeming to enjoy the sound of his own voice rather than offering useful opinion.

I get hysterical over a lot of things, but the tasting menu isn’t one of them. If I don’t want to eat that way, I don’t go to the restaurant. Wells’s and Kummer’s articles do make clear how difficult a tasting menu is to do, judging from the displeasure these professional writers about food experienced. It’s not simply about serving a lot of courses, it’s about balance. Yes, chefs are competitive, they want to impress, they want to stay fresh, avoid becoming bored, and in their zeal can certainly go overboard. But ultimately, a restaurant is a business, not an art museum, and the marketplace will decide whether a chef’s tasting menu succeeds or not.

The last three tasting menus I had (at MomofukuLe Bernardin, and Next, the Japanese menu orchestrated by chef Dave Beran) were exemplary—exciting to eat throughout, each completely original, not overly long, and leaving us happily sated and not uncomfortably full.

I do think it’s a danger when a chef considers himself or herself an artist—much of our culture seems to take this for granted, and Kummer concludes his tirade with what he calls hopeful food-and-cooking-is-craft-not-art quotes from two other Frenchmen closer to Soltner’s era. Chefs who consider themselves artists are indeed setting themselves up for failure, as Soltner cautioned any cook who would listen. Only once they have become a superlative craftsman (Grant Achatz comes to mind, raising the dining experience to a kind of performance art) should they even attempt to raise food to the level of art. Thomas Keller, at his cooking zenith, always, and proudly, called himself a craftsman and would do so today, though he’s Chef-CEO, not Chef de Cuisine. But I would ask even those who self-consciously consider themselves artists, what is the purpose of turning food into art?

What is the purpose of art?

As Joseph Conrad wrote, the purpose of art is to make us see. And rare is the chef who transforms the way we see the world.

If you liked this post, then check out these other posts:

© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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46 Wonderful responses to “Are Tasting Menus the Way Toward “Art”?”

  • Mark

    Although I am sure the art vs craft question will continue to be raised, and may start to shift towards the former as the industry continues to evolve and push itself, I think the definitive criteria was uttered by Oscar Wilde many years ago, “All art is quite useless.” Until food is no longer primarily a means to sustain, until humans can choose to exist without food (God forbid we ever advance that far) food will still be a craft. A chair, no matter how ornate, fails as a chair if it cannot hold you; a meal, no matter how artfully plated, cannot be considered a success unless it first fills and sustains us.

  • Dan

    I think Chef Keller said it best at the recent panel discussion at The Culinary when he described nouvelle cuisine as being built on fundamental, traditional cuisine filtered through the personality of the chef. It seems that modern cuisine, including tasting menus, builds upon this personality based model quite effectively, much like art. Rather than simply recreating the classics, we expect chefs to personalize their food. Sometimes it works and sometimes it fails, but chefs who simply make classic dishes without their own creativity are truly technicians rather than innovators

  • j gold

    I was at that meal too (probably also at that second one), which I remember extending from 7 or so until well past 2 in the morning. And it was clear that something had changed – although at the time, it was difficult to say just what it was. We were all impressed by the brilliance of much of the cooking; that abstracted technical perfection. We also, I think, felt a bit bludgeoned by the relentlessness of it all. Either we were going to have to cry uncle or Keller was, and it wasn’t going to be him.

    As a meal sui generis, it was extraordinary. As a template, perhaps not.

  • Mike Gebert

    To Mark’s point, yeah, but some of the most interesting things I’ve had at Next in particular really were so minimal on sustenance that they were essentially food art. The corn husk broth at Next Kyoto or the “mint pond” at Next El Bulli really offer little more nutrient value than a picture on the wall, but a strong emotional effect or conceptual wit.

    Man cannot live on nutrients alone.

  • Jason Logsdon

    I find the art vs craft discussion very interesting. At the same time people are railing against “art” in the kitchen other people are arguing that we need more “art” in all aspects of life. Seth Godin talks about how we all need to become artists, that being an “artist” has nothing to do with making something pretty but it’s putting in emotional work and trying to amaze people who come in contact with our work. (good excerpt here: http://is.gd/tqE5lK).

    A lot of it seems to come down to how you define “art”. If it’s something that is pretty and useless then most chefs probably aren’t artists. But if “art” is simply emotional work that moves us, then many chefs are artists, as are the maître d’ and a host of other people that are emotional invested in their jobs.

  • Kimber

    Art is subjective, a term that applies to something ‘created’, where, the processs is what matters most and outcome validated by those experiencing it, be it victuals or visuals(or music). A childs clay handprint can be a work of high art to someone as much as a Picasso. A matter of taste, a matter of love.

  • Margaret in NJ

    As someone who loves good food but does not often get the chance to dine at these “great” restaurants, when I do I always opt for the tasting menu if one is available. . I did it at Le Bernadin and at 11 Madison Park. I can’t wait to get to Atera and Per Se this year. The tasting menu allows me, the common customer, who indulges a few times a year, the opportunity to taste as many of the items a chef makes as opposed to a single dish.
    I, personally, enjoy the experience of the meal as well as the meal itself. Perhaps if I were dining at them every week I, too, would just want a good burger, but for now I set aside a few hours for lunch or dinner and enjoy as much as the chef can give me and the wine to go along with each course.

  • Brian in Seattle

    +1 with Margaret…help educate me, as a diner, on what wonderful food combinations are available. Also, a follow-up point: tasting menus should be about the customer…every diner is at different points in their lives, and for some this might be their first tasting menu to experience. Those chefs that just want “a really good burger” know they want a burger, because THEY have tasted enough food to know what they want. That’s why the tasting menu is so wonderful for those of us (including myself) with less-experienced palates. We like to try new things without having to drop a paycheck by ordering 4 entrees. It’s the food-equivalent of going to college and being forced to take math classes even though you are a philosophy major (it opens you up to new experiences). Why would a chef not want to do that?

  • Michael Massimino

    I’m a huge fan of the tasting menu, I trust that a professional chef can put together something more amazing than I would pick for myself even if I’m a highly evolved eater. They’re my preferred way to enjoy a high end option, honestly. I like the surprise and the theater of it.

    The comment on just wanting a good burger is the most useless and pointless ever. If you want a good burger, go to a friggen burger joint and not a 3 star expensive restaurant. I don’t go to Five Guys and ask for a tasting menu.

  • Edgar

    I believe there is room for both “culinary craft” and “culinary art” When you are very hungry nothing satisfies like a plate of well prepared comfort food. When you are in the mood to explore your palate (and not all people are or ever do) a multi course tasting menu paired perfectly with wine is and always will be an art form. Sometimes we “eat” and sometimes we “dine”
    .

  • Mantonat

    I’d amend the Conrad quote to read “one of the purposes of art is to make us see.” The real purpose of art is to be art. It sits there and is art. It’s not meant to be eaten or used as a tool. Food can be artistic, a well designed car or a piece of furniture can have artistic qualities. But chefs aren’t artists, they are chefs. Some of them may be very good at what they do, and they may make us think about what food is and what it means to us, but in the end, it’s still dinner. You wouldn’t partake if you weren’t hungry.

    I’ve been to Alinea and absolutely loved it. I’ve had other tasting menus that have been fun, informative, creative, and yes, even artistic. I was lucky enough to be present for the filming of a Bizarre Foods episode, where Denver chef Mary Nguyen created a wonderful and challenging menu. During the course of the evening, we were treated to a passed appetizer featuring a whole alligator hand as garnish, a tom yum soup featuring whole crustaceans and fish, a coconut cake studded with whole caterpillars, and the appearance of a live silkie chicken just before we were served one of its brethren, complete with heads and feet. I haven’t watched the episode yet, so I’m not sure if these presentations were played up for shock value, but over the course of the dinner, it became very clear that Chef Nguyen was not trying to shock or to play up the “bizarre” aspects of the ingredients. She was instead focusing our attention on the sources of our food, on the animals (and plants) that become food, and on the fact that what is bizarre (or shocking or disgusting) to Americans is merely a source of nutrition in other parts of the world. The love and respect she showed was evident in the rich and complex flavors of her dishes, despite their initial unfamiliarity to most of the diners. She certainly used artistic skills to highlight her dishes, but in the end her goal was to present food and to make us acutely aware that was food, and not simply entertainment or shock value. I think she succeeded in subtly subverting the goals of Bizarre Foods, even if that was edited out of the final show. Art? Maybe. Food – definitely, and great food at that.

    • Carolyn Z

      Wow you were in Bizarre Foods America Denver? That was a great show. I wanted to be there for that tasting.

      I’ve been to Morimoto Napa and let the chefs choose the menu. They were able to accomodate my shellfish allergy without skipping a beat. It was really good. We were a bit full, but satisfied.

      I too enjoy a meal of small plates. Can’t get that everywhere, but fun to do where you can, and share with others.

  • Michael Ruhlman

    margaret and brian, I too like to get a range from the kitchen. which is why i think when i go to a restaurant with a conventional menu, I almost never order an entree but rather several appetizers. and I love menus composed mainly of smaller plates.

  • Carri

    Perhaps it isn’t an art to cook food, but I do think the art lies in the presenting, the atmosphere, the way the meal is designed…all ephemeral, hostage only to our memory. It’s like a great performance piece where all that is left is the feeling it gave you. And if you really look, such art is everywhere…whether it’s a burger at 5 Guys or a tasting menu at the French Laundry, like the difference between the awesome graffiti on the train or the Van Gogh exhibit at MOMA, it all has a lasting effect on you.

  • Carri

    One more thought, I respectfully disagree that it is a rare chef who transforms the way we see the world…indeed, you cannot be a successful chef if you DON”T have an effect on the way people see the world, even if it only lasts as long as their hunger is satiated. It has been my mission as a cook to make sure the people who eat at my restaurant not only leave with their hunger satisfied, but also their spirit lifted and yes, ultimately, transformed.

  • Tags

    As I see it, art is a subset of craft. All art is craft, though not all craft is art.

  • Jay

    Ruhlman, my boy, there are a great many things these days that are “unbecoming of a journalist”.

    • ruhlman

      Too true! Funny you call attention to that. It wasn’t sitting right with me. I think what I meant was that he seemed to be enjoying the sound of his own voice a little too much rather than voicing a useful opinion.

      • Dan

        It also seemed like there was a certain amount of ownership in his tone, in relation to The French Laundry especially. He seemed to be saying “How dare you do this to us because We made you important.” He suggests that it was due to the critics at that meal that Chef Keller became famous, and, now that his restaurants are so well received it is time to remind him of his place..

  • Michael Ruhlman

    I agree with you Tags.

    I also might have added that dinner at Alinea feels very much like participating in performance art

  • Mike

    This was a really good post, Michael. I enjoyed reading your inserted links as always too. I’ve only had the pleasure of eating one tasting menu and it was fantastic. I always like going to restaurant links of the places you mention or have visited. A tasting menu is something I always look for. I look forward to being able to try more in the future as availability and money allow! We have a chef in our employee cafeteria who puts out fantastic food. I always like asking him to just make something off the set menu choices for me to let him express the art in his cooking. Like it was mentioned in the French Laundry article with quoting Keller, “Trust me.” Sometimes I think folks over think things vs just allowing them to be what it is based on preference.

  • Eric F. Van de Velde

    Almost 15 years ago, I had dinner at the French Laundry (after reading the book). That meal changed how I looked at food and cooking.

    In home kitchens, we cannot aspire to the craftsmanship and the superb ingredients of the high-end professional kitchen. Yet, it is always possible to do a little better with every meal, improve one’s own craftsmanship, adopt new ingredients, and expand one’s repertoire.

    So, Thomas Keller may consider himself a consumate craftsman, and he is, but he definitely made me see the kitchen differently. That makes him an artist.

    BTW, the problem with tasting menus is that too many chefs without the necessary skills are pushing them. Tasting menus also require a front-of-the-house staff of exceptional quality.

  • former butcher

    I never got to El Bulli, and I will probably never get to Alinea, or Noma, or Faviken. The list goes on and on. But I have the cookbooks; and I am fascinated by where these “mad scientist” chefs are taking dining. Notice I did not say where they are taking food.
    When the chef burns leaves, or boils hibiscus flowers at your table, you have gone way beyond merely eating a well prepared meal. And the chef is reaching for an effect that I’m not sure I’m prepared to respond to.
    I mention the above restaurants because the starters, entrees, and desserts they prepare cry out for the “tasting menu” format. This is especially true in those places where the chef is deeply into “molecular gastronomy”.
    The point being, that you had better have some very serious cooking credentials to even offer a “tasting menu”, and you had better execute it flawlessly, as if every diner out in the room had the discriminating taste of a NYT critic.
    And about Faviken; when the cup of dried pig’s blood is put in front of me is when I go running out into the snow.

  • Matt

    Michael–I seem to recall a story where Thomas Keller was disappointed you got up to use the restroom during a dinner. The reason–he was performing and such an absence disrupts the execution and flow he had so carefully been planning, practicing, and demonstrating. It takes the highest level of conceit (innate behavior for a NYTimes and Vanity Fair writer, I’m sure) to expect your dinner tasting-menu reservation to stand when you are 2 hours late. Would you expect a movie, play, or musical to start over given the same?

    Moreover, only an outrageous ego-maniac can believe that he/she knows, or has experienced, all there is to behold in the culinary world. That’s the beauty of tasting-menus. They are an opportunity to be taken somewhere you’ve never been. I’d be ridiculed a fool to dictate the duration, cinematography, and style of a movie because I thought I knew better or just happened to like it better that way.

    As for Kummer’s paranoia that the diner is becoming hostage to the chef and subject to their dictatorial will, we have this thing called the “market.” If people don’t want the experience, they won’t go. If great enough in numbers, restaurants will change to meet what the market wants. Personally, I don’t mind pledging my dollars toward a tasting-menu or two.

  • Marshall

    I have not had the pleasure (or torture) of a high end tasting menu experience. And honestly I’m not sure I would want to. I do, however agree that having a range from the kitchen is ideal. One of the main reasons that every time I am in Chicago, I dine at Avec. That, the fact that the food is fantastic.

  • Derek

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Michael. Experiencing a tasting menu for me is a drastically different experience today than it is for a Bourdain or the critic you criticize. I get a chance to eat a tasting menu once every few years at best. I can easily see how it would be a punishing ordeal if you eat tasting menus all the time, but that’s not my lifestyle. Eating a tasting menu at an Alinea is the highlight of a dining vacation. I go into it expecting to get blown away by course after course. I wouldn’t want to eat like that every day or even very often. The problem isn’t with tasting menus, it’s achieving a lifestyle where tasting menus have become such a common experience that they aren’t extraordinary any more.

  • Miguel Massens

    I recall a quote from Daniel Boulud on this subject recently where he said something to the effect that chefs are tasked with repeating a dish perfectly over and over, whereas an artist makes a piece of art only once, and it is near impossible to reproduce the same way.

  • bob del Grosso

    Here is how I responded to a comment about this made on Facebook by Russ Parsons:

    I think the guy [Kummer] who complained about tasting menus, chose his topic by throwing a dart at a list. I have to keep reminding myself that it appeared in Vanity Fair which seems to have a quota of fatuous material that it must fulfill in order to justify its title.

    Complaining about the “tyranny” of chefs who create tasting menus that cannot be altered? Whining about not being served because you show up late for a meal that has a timed presentation? This is the kind of stuff that not only creates animosity among restaurateurs towards food critics, it also feeds into the popular perception that this kind of writer is effete, cynical and snobbish.

  • Ken Miller

    My take is that if you don’t like tasting menus, don’t dine at places that do them. I don’t mind tasting menus as long as thy are willing to make substitutions for dietary needs. For instance, I don’t eat pork or shellfish for religious reasons, and I’ve been accommodated for the most part by simply making a request upon reservation or ticket purchase. Tasting menus are just as much about the experience a the food. Some people just don’t get that n

  • karen downie makley

    i don’t think food is necessarily in the same realm of art, although i think there can and SHOULD be a sense of “other”-ness during some dining experiences…separating a special food-related moment from day-to-day sustenance. i make my living cooking (what i hope) is an elevated version of day-to-day sustenance. i try to make sure my flavors are balanced and my execution is accurate. i’m a good mechanic. i’m a really good mechanic. but that’s it. i don’t think i am a designer. some chefs are good mechanics AND designers. these chefs have a culinary viewpoint that is goes beyond day-to-day sustenance. and they somehow know exactly how to go beyond, too. so when i step into a dining room that i suspect is backed up by one of those designerly chefs, i am looking for flavors that are put together in such a way as to really be a revelation to me. i love it when somebody’s food makes me feel like i’ve been airlifted out of an earth-bound mundane moment. i am seeking magic, chasing rainbows, trying to stick my finger in a pie of pure manna. it doesn’t happen often. but it CAN happen. food CAN be that good. you don’t have to call food “art”, but it the hands of those designer-type chefs it sure ain’t plain porridge anymore.

  • Mikmeg

    bob del Grosso said it the best and I love anything written By Michael R… Balance is king

  • dee es

    I don’t trust Conrad for a second. Here’s what he thinks of cookbooks: “The intention of every other piece of prose may be discussed and even mistrusted; but the purpose of a cookery book is one and unmistakable. Its object can conceivably be no other than to increase the happiness of mankind.”

  • Michael

    Kummer’s article seemed to also position large multi-course menus as a new and uniquely American phenomenon. As a resident of Hong Kong, I have encountered numerous cuisine styles where many courses have been expected for thousands of years. A traditional Chinese banquet will usually start with palette cleansers (peanuts, radishes), and then move on to cold appetizers, hot appetizers, soup, meat and fish dishes, and a starchy end of noodles, rice, or dumplings. The intent is not to overwhelm the eater or to enforce the Chet’s will – rather, there is a defined progression of tastes, textures, and traditions (rice is always last so you leave full!). To say nothing of Japanese kaiseki, Thai platters of priks, and Indian thalis…

    Bad or boring tasting menus are bad and boring, but the criticism should be aimed at the true crime, not the form in and of itself.

  • E. Nassar

    I, a non- VIP-once-every-blue-moon diner at a fine dining establishment with multi-course tasting, have no idea what the crummy article by Kummer is complaining about for FOUR pages. I see no point to it as it deals with a non-issue on top of having a lot of downright inaccuracies. I ate at El Bulli in 2005 and my menu was nowhere near 50 courses. I have a reservation at The French Laundry coming up in March for which I am VERY excited and the menu is 9 (maybe close to 11 or 12 if you count the mignardise and such) NOT 40. These places are special occasion dining destinations that take care of their diners and treat them like kings. They are not places you go there for “dinner” when you are hungry.
    The whole art vs craft thing? IMHO it’s simple, cooking is a craft not art but some chefs elevate their craft to the level of art.

  • Paul Kobulnicky

    Sorry … just can’t get excited about this debate. I’d MUCH rather go back to Ruhlman’s recent trip to Italy and the Zucchini soup. The essence of great cooking is what built cuisines in the first place … a very few local and seasonal ingredients and what to make of them? Is great sculpting (art) about a man with a hammer and chisel and a block of stone or is it about sourcing the perfect stone, doing the design on your computer and then feeding the design into the robotic sculpting machine that etches out the final product. Not a perfect example but my idea of the perfect tasting menu would be a walk down any asian street-food market. What goes on in high end restaurants is just jumping the shark, IMHO.

  • DJK

    “Kummer, in what is a kind of reported editorial rant, criticizes as from a throne, seeming to enjoy the sound of his own voice rather than offering useful opinion.”

    Maybe my expectations, after reading your blog entry, adjusted my perception of the article, but it didn’t feel very rant-like to me; nor did anything come across as mean-spirited as “enjoying the sound of his own voice.” (Though there were enough allusions to dictatorships that I imagine a re-skimming could turn up something.)

    In general, it felt to me like his issue was less with chefs like Keller & Achatz than with their imitators, who incorporate all the inconvenience of the form without the capacity to match Keller’s & Achatz’ excellence. And the call for even chefs at the level of Keller & Achatz to exhibit some self-restraint feels pretty reasonable to me.

    But for an article ostensibly centered on the power balance in American restaurants, there seemed to me to be some glaring omissions. I’ve always despised the ubiquitous space-saving (and thus profit-generating) bench seating in restaurants, but the next step to communal seating just irks me to no end. Worse yet, we have the no-reservations, wait-in-line business model; which can be exacerbated further by the addition of the “and ya’ better get there early”-since-we-run-out-of-food gimmick.

    I also think that by asking for a return to “the customer is king,” he’s pushing for an overcorrection. I don’t imagine he’d take to kindly to the concept of his readers dictating the content of his columns by way of demands like “oh, I’m allergic to adverbs; could you please remove those?” and “don’t you have any alliteration; a half rhyme at least?”

  • Isa

    I totally agree with Bob del Grosso. To be more blunt, it smacks of the classic a*hole at a party who wearily complains about things like touring Italy because “there’s only so much Italian food one can take.” Such comments don’t usually have the desired effect of cementing the snob/elite credentials for the speaker, quite the opposite. Are there really only soooo many strawberries one can eat at Wimbledon? Perhaps, but who the f* cares to read that observation in a lengthy article?

  • Gael

    Chefs can be argued but I consider bartenders artists and not artisans. Alcoholic drinks are never consumed to satisfy a thirst. They are made for the pure pleasure of drinking. Any drink can basically served neat or mixed in any proportion of the bartenders choosing. The array of liquors is equivalent to a palette of paints to craft a drink with a particular taste the bartender wants to express. Winemakers also fall into the same category. Either by picking the grape or making certain blends, they are trying to express a certain taste for pleasure. In other words the drinks are meant to be ‘pretty’, just like art.

    Food at least has to satisfy some guidelines. It needs to meet some basic nutritional standards and also certain pairings. Drinks have no nutritional reasons for existing.

  • Jane

    I think a good tasting menu is great, but not all are good. I recently had the truffle tasting menu at Saam at the Bazaar in LA which was 16 awesome courses, and left just satisfied, not too full at all. On the same trip I had a 12 course tasting menu at an Italian restaurant and was super full before I got even half way through. The problem was that rather than do a special menu, they were doing dishes of the regular menu and splitting them between the two of us having the tasting. That meant the dishes were way too big for 12 courses. So we didn’t enjoy it (after the first few courses) and felt like we were disappointing the chefs by sending back most of the food.
    I think that’s the sort of tasting menu that gives them a bad name.

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