Rags To Riches
In just about any art form, it takes time to appreciate the finer things. I have experienced this learning curve myself many times, especially when it comes to music.
I’ve loved listening to music since I was very young, and I started out listening to contemporary work, mostly corporate rock bands that got played on my local alternative station.
As it happens for most people, as I got older my taste started to develop. I sought out stranger music, older music, and (occasionally) even jazz.
The first time someone asked me if I wanted to go to the opera, I had a fairly negative reaction.
I immediately pictured an Italian opera from the 1700s, the kind of production that features large, talented vocalists who I wouldn’t be able to understand throughout the course of a 3 ½ hour show.
Not to mention, tickets to the opera aren’t exactly inexpensive. It seemed like a real gamble, and I just wasn’t prepared to have a good time, on any level.
But I bought a ticket anyway, got dressed up, and made the trek to a lovely theater downtown.
The experience that followed was completely unexpected, and it definitely altered my perspective on what I had previously referred to as, “wealthy people music.”
The production was slick, modern, and thoroughly enjoyable. Most importantly, the music itself offered many genuine surprises.
It didn’t feel old or stale or frivolous. There was something interesting happening here, and it served as a gateway to a genre that I had previously written off.
I think many of us have similar stigmas and biases when it comes to gourmet dining. From a distance, it can seem like a high-class area of interest, one that is reserved for the silver-spoon crowd.
But after speaking with two talented culinary professionals working within the gourmet dining community, I can happily say that these perceptions simply aren’t accurate.
So how have the culinary arts changed recently? Has fine dining somehow become more accessible to a much wider scope of people?
I recently had the opportunity to meet with two culinary professionals who have been in the gourmet game for years.
Marc Cleland is a private chef who has worked extensively in Europe, using local produce to create dishes for high-profile clients.
Tony Carson is currently the General Manager of The Modern, which is a restaurant located in tandem with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The Modern currently holds two Michelin-stars.
I wanted to pick their brains when it comes to the finer details of running a restaurant and working in a professional kitchen. After all, neither Cleland or Carson inherited their positions in any way. Both have been training and working incessantly for many years to find their niche within fine dining.
Together, we broke down different aspects of the gourmet culinary experience and the goals and ideals of the chefs, managers, and staff members who make the experience possible.
The Real Gourmet
To start, let’s take a moment to examine the term gourmet, what it means according to a textbook definition, as well as what it means to our guest experts, who both create gourmet experiences.
The dictionary pins the term to individuals: “a connoisseur of good food; a person with a discerning palate.”
For the most part, this was a sentiment I shared. But while the denotation remains fairly innocent, the connotations of the term are a bit more weighty, and they certainly include some negative implications.
As a minor social experiment, I asked several close friends to describe what they pictured when they heard the word ‘gourmet.’ A few named famous chefs, from Gordon Ramsay to the fictional Gusteau of the Disney Pixar film Ratatouille. But the most telling response was when a coworker mentioned that the first person they thought of was the late great food writer for the LA Times, Jonathan Gold.
Gold is perhaps a perfect example for our purposes here. In a way, he represented the complexities of fine dining.
While he certainly indulged in some of the finest Michelin-rated restaurants around the globe, he also criticized guides to the Los Angeles culinary scene because, according to his perception, the authors hadn’t truly explored all the city had to offer, instead opting to highlight only the most well-known and most expensive restaurants.
Gourmet means much more than it would seem at first glance. Cleland pointed out that artistry is a major component of what gourmet means to him.
“A gourmet is a connoisseur who prepares food with quality ingredients in a creative way.”
The creative component is key here. No matter how pricey the ingredients used are, they still need to be combined in just the right way. That’s where most of the art of culinary pursuits really lies.
While we’re on the subject of expensive, high-quality ingredients, let’s hear from Carson on what gourmet means to him.
“Gourmet, to me, means elevated. I think that in today’s world, you can take seemingly simple dishes and make them gourmet. People are doing this either by elevating the ingredients used, the techniques used, or even both.”
Just take a look at the popularity of shows like Worth It that explore some of the most expensive food items available for purchase.
These foods all aim to elevate classic dishes and meals to an entirely new level. Most often, they use the most expensive components possible. A shocking number of these dishes incorporate gold leaf, which, realistically, adds no significant flavor.
At its worst, gourmet is a way to inflate the price of what should be a simple item. But at its best, the gourmet community pushes boundaries and looks for new and better ways to transform something familiar into something entirely new. Think of it as culinary witchcraft.
A Well-Oiled Machine
One the more practical side of things, professional kitchens, whether in a restaurant or private setting, need to run smoothly.
If the dishes being prepared were simple and repetitive, this would be a bit easier to achieve, but for Cleland and Carson, this is not the case. Menus need to be refreshed and rotated, curated for the enjoyment and excitement of customers and clients.
For example, The Modern currently offers a take on prix fixe dining (fixed-price meals), featuring 7 different courses for each patron. It is no small feat to create seven inventive courses for each visitor.
Since management is Carson’s specialty, I asked him to give a breakdown of how he’s able to maintain an efficient and effective workflow in such a hectic environment.
“There are a lot of factors that go into making a restaurant run smoothly. However, I think that there are three main things that need to happen. The first is preparation. If you are not prepared, you are allowing the service to happen to you, rather than taking control of it.”
Everyone needs to know their work ahead of time, their duties and responsibilities, without exception. It’s a bit like the crew of a ship. Everyone has their job and they need to complete it with excellence every time.
“Teamwork would be the second. It’s an essential part of any restaurant. No one can succeed on their own.”
There’s really no room in a professional kitchen for isolationists. Sure, one may often be working solo to complete a task or a dish, but cooperation needs to be woven into the fabric of the daily work routine.
Gourmet kitchens often require substantial staff to handle many different tasks at once. And when a kitchen works as a team, incredible things happen.
Carson also mentioned that communication between staff members is key.
“And lastly, communication is always important. Open and efficient communication through a shared vocabulary prevents so many problems.”
This is true for just about any workspace. Staff members need to talk to each other. When communication no longer takes place, problems are bound to arise.
Accessing High-End Dining
Now we come to the crux of the issue: is fine dining truly accessible today? Has the foodie movement opened the floodgates for more and more people to explore fine food and drink? Is it easier for culinary professionals to enter the gourmet scene?
Cleland discussed gourmet entry-points for professionals:
“To enter the world of high-end dining, work experience in a Michelin star restaurant is a strategic option. But it doesn’t end there. You also need to strive to be the best at all times.”
This is a crucial component of any culinary career, and we’ll be exploring it in more detail shortly. Suffice it to say self-improvement is a common theme among many culinary professionals.
Carson approached the issue of accessibility from the perspective of a customer. He happily acknowledged that there are more options nowadays, more venues in which to discover and experience food that surprises and delights.
“Quality dining is very accessible today, perhaps more than ever. My advice would be to start somewhere that makes you feel comfortable. Restaurants are all fundamentally the same in what they do: they serve food and beverages. Some do it in suits with tablecloths and others do it in jeans and a t-shirt with Top 40 music in the background.”
This reiterates an idea we discussed earlier in the article, namely that gourmet food, fine dining, or whatever we decide to call it, isn’t just one thing anymore, and it’s no longer limited to one specific style or setting.
This is especially true in urban environments that place great emphasis on commercial development. Smaller cities and those with traditionally sparsely-populated urban cores around the USA are seeing new restaurants, bars, and bistros from young entrepreneurs fairly often. Think Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Denver, etc.
The consistent amounts of traffic these restaurants see are only further proof that the general public, especially among younger demographics, is eager to enjoy great food in curated settings. It’s possible to have a “gourmet” experience in a gastropub, a beachside restaurant, or even at a creative food truck.
More formal high-end dining spaces are not likely to fall away any time soon, and these fresh new dining options may, in fact, help many people overcome the intimidation they feel when considering fine dining.
Creative Work Environments
So what does it actually feel like to work in a gourmet cooking environment?
First, we need to recognize that the culinary arts themselves involve a unique brand of creativity and execution.
There are certain art forms that thrive almost exclusively on unlimited creativity. The abstract expressionist painters of the latter half of the 20th century are a good example. Their work (think Jackson Pollock drip paintings) was about unbridled artistic action. Technical skill didn’t factor in. For Pollock, too much attention on technique was seen as a hindrance.
But cooking, at least on a professional level, can’t exist as a solely creative endeavor. It has to be a balance between the creative and the technical.
I asked the experts about their past working environments. Both were quick to respond with some of their favorite work scenarios of their careers thus far.
Carson told me about his time as a Sommelier (wine expert and curator) when working in the UK.
“I really enjoyed my time as Sommelier of The Fat Duck Restaurant, which is in Bray, England. There was never a day where I wasn’t learning from my role and growing as a professional. It was a restaurant that had many accolades and high expectations, however, it also knew how to have fun. That was always the overall feel: just be yourself, the best version of yourself.”
Cleland also spoke of a workspace where high standards were achieved without the usual strict procedures and guidelines you might find in a typical restaurant.
“My favorite role was as Private Chef on the Luciole Hotel Barge. I had free range to cook my own dishes with fantastic local produce. Working on a French Canal was a very calm and unique environment, certainly not the same pressure you’d feel while working in mainstream kitchens.”
It was yet another unique environment, and it allowed for a higher level of creativity. For a professional Chef, an opportunity like that is incredibly valuable.
Like many other varieties of artists, culinary professionals often thrive on being challenged on a consistent basis.
Cleland told me that he never really stops practicing. It would be counterintuitive, to say the least. But it would also most likely lead to a creative rut. For him, it’s not simply about continuing on as you always have, but instead to try and be the absolute best you can be at what you do.
“To be the best, it is necessary to challenge yourself. I’m always learning, practicing new ideas and techniques.”
Carson agreed wholeheartedly. Challenges are a large part of what keeps him motivated and invested in his work. Routine can quickly become a detriment both to creativity and skillful execution.
“I am personally someone who needs to be challenged. It keeps me engaged and performing at my best. It’s something that I search for constantly.”
So far, Carson has certainly been able to find challenges. Maintaining a Michelin rating is a never-ending pursuit. Everyone needs to be at their best at all times.
Sources of Inspiration
When we ask ourselves who some of the greatest Chefs of all time have been, it’s not terribly difficult to name greats such as Julia Child, James Beard, and Auguste Escoffier.
Their work has continued to influence the culinary arts long after they departed. But when we try to have this conversation with regards to contemporary chefs, I personally have some trouble narrowing down the list.
I asked Carson and Cleland about their culinary heroes.
Carson named a prominent chef who has created a number of restaurants around the globe and who has remained interested in the fresh new artists and aspects of the culinary world.
“A truly great chef who inspires my work is Daniel Boulud. He is a real chef’s chef. He is well known for investing in and following the careers of young chefs. He gives a lot back to the industry that gave him his success, and that inspires me to try and do the same.”
Meanwhile, Cleland singled out a prominent American chef who has dedicated his career to creating authentic French cuisine with the finest local ingredients available at his famous hallmark restaurant in Northern California.
“Thomas Keller and his restaurant, The French Laundry, is a huge source of inspiration. Many of my career aspirations have to do with achieving his level of mastery and inventive creativity.”
My conversation with these two talented professionals was a whirlwind of information, in the best way possible.
There’s something wonderful about speaking with people who have truly found their calling, and, perhaps more importantly, people who have found success in their area of expertise.
In the hopes of learning some of their secrets for success, I asked them about what lessons they’ve learned since entering the professional culinary world.
For Cleland, the lessons are simple and invaluable at the same time:
“Work hard, remain passionate, and stay humble! Even after you’ve found success, you can’t let your ego get in the way of great work.”
Carson returned to the ultimate basis for the culinary arts in general:
“It’s crucial to remember that our work revolves around people, both the people who create dishes and the people we serve. The culinary industry creates families and gives people an escape. None of this happens without good people at the foundation.”
Losing sight of this reality can cause any number of problems and distractions. Chefs, managers, kitchen staff, and servers should always remember that the goal is to satisfy the customers.
The best chefs and restaurants are able to give customers food that is surprising and exciting while being familiar at the same time.
Let’s talk about some steps you can take if you’re interested in exploring gourmet food and fine dining even further.
Find Favorite Spots in Your Town
As we discussed earlier, fine dining doesn’t have to mean white tablecloths and formalwear. Try to find some restaurants where you live that have garnered praise from critics and/or online reviewers.
Research different spots online, looking at menus and reading visitor reviews. Of course, it’s also important to remember that reviews on aggregate sites are not always entirely accurate or representative of how the restaurant operates on a regular basis.
Find some friends to come along with you as you explore different restaurants and gastropubs. Before you know it, some of these destinations may encourage regular visits or become frequent meeting spots.
Learn New Recipes and Cooking Techniques
It’s never a bad idea to learn more advanced cooking techniques for yourself. This will give you a completely different perspective on cuisine as a whole.
It will also help you to better understand the terms and descriptions commonly used in gourmet dining environments. You’ll also be able to explore different recipes on your own, without even visiting restaurants.
Additionally, your friends will love trying out your newest creations.
Plan a Culinary Expedition
Eating at gourmet restaurants on a regular basis definitely requires a substantial amount of savings. But saving up and visiting a gourmet restaurant just once or twice a year is feasible for most people.
Do your research, plan ahead, get a big group together, and make a reservation several months ahead, especially if you live in a large city such as New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.
Make sure that you have plenty saved up. This will allow you to try several different courses and wine pairings. Never be afraid to ask friends and family members for recommendations.
If you’re new to the gourmet experience, don’t forget that you don’t have to pretend to like a certain dish simply because it’s expensive and rare. You’re there to enjoy yourself, and your server is ready and willing to help you find something you’ll truly love.