Are tasting menus deskilling the industry?

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th July 2018

Tasting menus are becoming increasingly more popular, but what are the consequences of just serving tasting menus in restaurants? 

Tasting Menus are dividing chefs and the restaurant industry. Are they a great idea or would dining rooms be better without them? And how do the skills required by chefs preparing them impact on their knowledge and familiarity with classic cuisine dishes?

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Sat Bains tasting menu.
Credit: annaliiise_xx (Instagram)

Why have tasting menus become so popular?

Two or three courses? Why not ten? Over the last few decades, tasting menus have grown massively in popularity, giving customers the chance to try a multitude of mini dishes on a night out.

For many, tasting menus represent a more modern, ‘chic’ style of dining to your traditional restaurant or pub. An opportunity to experience a vast array of flavours and ingredients, irrespective of a significantly smaller portion size, and often ending with a far heftier bill.

For chefs, tasting menus can be a great opportunity to get creative with the different dishes and show off their skills but ultimately it ticks the Michelin box of 'consistency'. But some people believe that tasting menus may be saturating the industry with a lack of preparation for traditionally-cooked dishes.

Why has there been an increase in tasting menus?

The tasting menu experience is said to have surfaced sometime in the late 90’s, giving chefs the platform to demonstrate their creative artistry via chefs such as Paul Bocuse, Michel Guérard and Alain Chapel, who introduced the concept of serving smaller portions via six, seven and eight-course menus.

Two-Michelin star chef Sat Bains, who offers guests a variety of weather, season and market dependent tasting menus at his Restaurant Sat Bains, spoke about its history: “Tasting Menus are not a modern phenomena and are based on one of the oldest forms of eating, Japanese Kaiseki, with some origins going back as far as the 9th century.” 

sat

“All we’ve done here with our tasting menus is incorporate all the same mastering of techniques and skills, balancing of dishes, showcasing the seasons and presenting all of that on a menu, in a way fit for the 21st Century. It may sound modern but it's actually so reverential to the past, not only in the respect to the ingredients but also to the mastery of cheffing as a craft.”

Tasting Menus vs À la carte – What are the advantages and disadvantages?

There are certainly some clear advantages for featuring tasting menus, which includes decreasing both food cost and waste and there is a school of thought that tasting menus provide a great opportunity to allow chefs to perfect their dishes. By displaying set menus that stimulate a chef’s creativity, it can be argued that cooking and preparing smaller dishes on a regular basis (as part of a tasting menu) can contribute to a more relaxed and enjoyable kitchen environment. Of course, from a customer’s perspective, tasting menus are an exciting opportunity to try food they may not get the chance to try elsewhere.

What do chefs think about tasting menus?

Sat Bains says: “From a guest’s perspective, we’ve had nothing but positive feedback over the years, which is why we only do them now. People love coming here, and with the obvious exception of dietary requirements (which are planned in advance), they really enjoy not having to decide what courses they want.”

He continued: “It just makes it more relaxing as they get to go on a bit of a food journey and spend more time talking to the people they are with”. 

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Dom Robinson, who has worked in some of the most prestigious of restaurants across the globe has been known to voice his lack of appreciation for the choice of style-dining.

He said: “A lot of it is just painting by numbers because that's what chefs think they need to cook. I'm all in favour of a small tasting menu to run alongside the a la carte but tasting menus only is something I just can't fathom, mind you, I'm a dinosaur who still makes béchamel sauce so what the fuck do I know?”

When asked about what he thinks about any genuine advantages, Dom gave some credit to this type of dining: “Tasting menus are becoming more popular for a number of reasons. It's a massive trend and in my opinion people think that loads and loads of small fiddly courses automatically means Michelin stars. I'm no fan, but on the plus side there's no denying that in terms of consistency and wastage or food cost they have a big advantage over a la carte.”

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Credit: tastingmenutraveler
 (Instagram)

What is the impact of Tasting Menus on the modern-day chef?

The focal disadvantage being discussed is, where chefs are preparing the same dishes day in, day out, they are ill-prepared in the event of working somewhere different. Are tasting menus wasting a chef’s talent? Or do they allow them to expand their knowledge and creativity in the industry?

When asked about whether he believes tasting menus have the potential to deskill chefs.  Sat does not think this is the case - he said:  “It’s about pulling the kitchen together and using our skills and creativity as chefs to provide an equally exciting dining experience for our guests. Plus, it is dependent on the tasting menu and the restaurant. Here the chefs get to poach, slow cook, roast, BBQ, smoke, grill, fry, pickle, ferment, butcher, bone, fillet –that’s before we even begin with the work on sauces or desserts. And that’s daily!”

With quite the contrasting view on the matter, Dom Robinson argued: “People will forget how to actually cook proper food in the traditional format. What's wrong with starter, main and dessert? Throw in canapés, amuse, pré dessert and petit fours and that's still plenty of courses to build a lovely dining experience. Less is more.”

By Scott Dexter

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th July 2018

Are tasting menus deskilling the industry?