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The dictatorship of the chefs

Mind-boggling inflexibility and imposed limits on the number of diners per dish.

In the beginning was the Chateaubriand, representative dish of French and international cuisine, today, sadly, vanished from restaurant menus. According to legend, it was invented by the personal cook of the viscount François-René de Chateaubriand around the mid-19th century. This is a cut of the finest-quality meat, namely the centre cut of the tenderest fillet of beef weighing approximately 500 grammes, seared and classically served with boiled vegetables and Béarnaise sauce (also vanished: which cook is able to make it nowadays?). It would therefore be sacrilege to cut it into halves or thirds to obtain one meagre portion: hence the requirement that it be ordered for two people, as required by menus of yore. A perfectly justified rule.
Among the various forms of ‘chef pressure’, one may recall the obsolete ‘dish of the day’, often prepared using surplus ingredients that must be sold off quickly, but sometimes, meritoriously, employing products that are seasonal or available at a fair price at that moment.
Very similar is the concept of ‘daily menu’, which, however, does not specify the number of diners who may order it. Truly irritating, instead, is the very widespread current habit of imposing a two-person minimum on risotto. This happens in a cross-section of restaurants from the middling to the luxurious. This absurd imposition prevents a lone guest from enjoying a good risotto. It is technically incomprehensible, caused merely by organisational issues in the kitchen and a lukewarm desire to meet guests’ needs. But by now, freshly made food has almost vanished from restaurant kitchens, where everything is assembled in advance.
Particularly embarassing are the much-celebrated ‘tasting menus’, which, with the pretext of showcasing the chef’s abilities and class, impose a dozen dishes or more, from starters to desserts, without the possibility of substituting or removing anything, forcing the entire table, mind you, not merely two people, to order that menu, which in high-ranking restaurants can cost 170-200 Euros, with added wine pairings, by the glass, often costing just as much.
Some chefs, perhaps understanding this unease, are beginning to offer two or three tasting menus with increasing prices. What is amazing is the complete lack of flexibility and the regulations regarding the number of diners. Yet today ‘starred’ restaurant kitchens boast an impressive number of cooks (all decked out in chef’s hats, once the sole prerogative of the chef de cuisine, who today wears it no longer) almost equalling the number of diners. The real problem, however, is that the custom of preparing fresh dishes on demand is being lost, yielding to the tendency of advance preparation because of the sophisticated machinery now available in kitchens; and all too frequently, these many cooks form something resembling an assembly line. Recently, a noted Milanese restaurant, acclaimed for its Milanese cutlet, has qualified it with ‘minimum two people’. How staggeringly original. Ordering it, one understands why: a monumental, delicious cutlet suitable not for two but four people. Woe to the ill-fated guest who arrives alone to enjoy this prized Milanese delicacy - whom it would be meet and proper to accommodate in some way.

Paolo Petroni
President of the Accademia

March 2019