Get the tasting menu and listen to the whole song

Dry aged duck from a tasting menu at Birdie // Photo via Birdie Facebook page

When someone asks me about the point of a chef’s tasting menu, and why it’s worth ordering, it takes me a while to get beyond “don’t you want to see what they can do when they’re turned loose?” I realize not everyone thinks that way, or that they might blink at a three-hour dinner. So here’s another way of looking at it.

Peter Plaehn // Illustration by Brent Schoonover

Most chefs I know are very musical. Even if they don’t play, they like music and I’ve never been in a kitchen during prep or pre-service that hasn’t had tunes going strong. The iTunes Store is essentially a menu of music. Click on a song, get a chunk of melody. Sample an album, get 30-second highlights of everything. You’ll get an idea of what that artist can do, but you’re not getting the whole arc of the story they’re trying to tell.

Chefs—the good ones, anyway—have the ability to communicate this way and evoke feeling and story with food. I love a great burger, but to me that’s just a good hook. Burgers are the thing right now, but have you noticed the best ones are at restaurants with insanely talented chefs? Let’s lay a few out—Saint Dinette, Revival, Alma, Parlour. Heck, even Bellecour is doing a burger. Don’t you want to hear more than just the chorus?

That’s why the best restaurants in the world are almost exclusively based on tasting menus. They’re playing full songs, not just hooks and easy-to-whistle riffs. The recently-voted top restaurant in the world, Eleven Madison Park, changes the entire direction of the menu on a regular basis; they don’t just change the songs, they change the album.

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But the cost, right? $85-ish for five courses isn’t minor spending. Seems like you’re being fleeced? Well here’s an insider tidbit: tasting menus aren’t usually the most profitable thing. Sometimes the margins work, like Eleven Madison Park’s $300 per person before pairings. But often the restaurants that offer tasting menus on top of a regular menu understand that most guests will order a la carte, so that’s where the margin and profit is. That leaves the tasting menu as the showpiece for the chef and a deal for us.

And again, you’re getting a full song (for a song). When I saw that the six-course menu at the upcoming Tenant, in the former Piccolo space, would be in the $50 range, the former restaurant general manager in me turned white thinking of cost and revenue. I can’t wait to see how they’re going to do it. Maybe with the wine pairings?

Ah, the pairings. Just get a bottle everyone likes to share, right? Tell me, would you ever play Nirvana’s “Nevermind” on a mono system? No, you wouldn’t. One wine will never, ever satisfy an entire five-course like specific pairings—you will end up obliterating at least some of the food if you try. So get the pairings. Those aforementioned “good burger places” also have very talented beverage folks on the team. My advice: Go for the food and let the drinks complete the show. The next time you see a tasting menu offered, give the whole song a listen.