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Monday, March 14, 2005

My Dinner at Charlie's (Simplicity, Part 4)

This is a post that I've been meaning to write for over six months. As they say, better late than never. Don't worry if this doesn't seem to have anything to do with my previous simplicity posts; that comes in later.

On September 3, 2004, I had the pleasure of eating dinner at one of the most highly acclaimed restaurants in the United States, and thus the world--Charlie Trotter's, in Chicago. We--myself, two old friends (one from Portland, the other from Dallas) who are themselves superb guides to good food, and an acquaintance well-connected to the Chicago food scene--sat at the Kitchen Table, and got to watch the wonder of world-class cooking, serving, and restaurant management unfold all around us for three-plus hours. Plus we ate the finest meal I've ever had in my life. Not that I can claim any sort of expertise in that matter--I do all right with the culinary arts, on my own level, but when it comes to "Aka Yagara with Emerald Cove Oyster and Peas" I'm at a loss: I just eat it and enjoy (or not). There are, I've come to learn, profoundly differing philosophies out there guiding how one might assess any particular restaurant or dish--debates over the presentation, ingredients, and overall aims which go into the construction of every menu. Some of that I can, perhaps, say something about. But as for the food itself--for that, I just sat back in wonderment.

Just for the record, out of more than 17 separate courses served us, what did I really like? (Fortunately, one of my friends kept a very complete photo record of the whole evening.) Well...

Bluefin Tuna with Cucumber Soup (also here and here): The soup had jalapenos in it, somewhere, and immediately set me to fantasizing about making some cucumber salsa (which I've since learned is actually not at all uncommon). One of our favorite dishes at home is just a very simple salmon with salsa, and as a well-prepared tuna has all the taste of salmon, I took to this wonderful mix of flavors immediately. It was my favorite fish course (there were five) all night.

Heirloom Tomato with Arugula and Heart of Palm Sorbet: Leaving aside the sorbet, of which I remember nothing (I confess I didn't really understand or appreciate the restaurant's tendency to dress up every other course with multiple special sauces, souffles, and sorbets, but I guess that's haute cuisine for you), I have to say this was the tastiest tomato I've ever eaten in my life. Great presentation too.

Bread and Olive Oil: Someone, I don't remember who (maybe me) asked for some oil to go with our bread, rather than the (very cool) unsalted butter and separate sea salt available on our table as condiments. This being Charlie Trotter's, they didn't just plunk a bottle of olive oil on our table; they brought us three fine selections, one from California, one from Italy, and one from Spain. The Californian olive oil tasted flat, but the other two were wonderful, the Italian being my favorite. I love good bread, and I must have emptied most of oil dish all on my own.

Lamb with Rutabaga and Black Truffle: I haven't had lamb nearly enough in my life. An incredibly tasty course.

Cashew Cheese Cake with Peaches, Kumquats and Star Thistle Honey: This was, hands down, my favorite dish of the night, and very likely the best dessert I've ever had in my life. The egg-like thing in the picture is a compact, smooth cashew "cake," with a consistency almost like ice cream. I have no idea how they made it; something about whipping cashews in a machine until they're reduced to a paste. I could have eaten a pint of it--simply astounding. It was served alongside a caramel custard with espresso jelly, which was quite nice, but which couldn't even touch this luxury. I wish Trotter's had been the kind of place where I could have ordered some of this to go.

Hot Chocolate with Nibs and Cream (also here and here): Since a few of us aren't coffee drinkers, someone asked for some hot cocoa, and this is what Charlie Trotter's came up with. Delicious, rich chocolate, complemented by some tasty, mildly bitter chocolate nibs. I generally prefer hot cocoa to chocolate; the latter is usually a little too sweet and syrupy for my tastes. But the nibs made up for that, and made for a tremendous finisher to the evening.

What's the point of listing all these fine dishes? For someone who loves good dining, going into the details of what restaurants like Charlie Trotter's--or any restaurant for that matter, whether pricey or cheap, world-famous or entirely local--is much the same as movie fans listing their favorite scenes from great movies, or arguing about the choices great actors have made in interpreting classic roles. It's about enriching our appreciation of a particular cultural endeavor: filling in the nooks and crannies of, and thereby situating our own preferences in relation to, a given creative space.

Ah, but is it a space worth exploring? Movies are available to everyone nowadays, or just about; fine food, at least on this level, is most certainly not. Furthermore, as huge as Hollywood may be, the fact is that it is a mostly enclosed economy, one that we can shut ourselves away from, or selectively partake of, as we think best. But food is something else: buying (literally!) into a world of great food is to partake of and thus support a truly global economic superstructure, where foodstuffs are grown and raised and traded and shipped worldwide, where tremendous energy and expense (and waste) go into the manufacture a single, ridiculously labor-intensive, complex and therefore pricey desert. This isn't primarily an environmental question--after all, a truly wealthy place like Charlie Trotter's can afford to select from only the rarest organic and free-range meats and vegetables, and thus come off smelling quite green. It's a question about turning something as basic as keeping our bodies fed into a competition, a business, a luxury, something with a hierarchy, economy and ranking that puts certain diets and food choices beneath others, encouraging us to spend our time, if we're so inclined, climbing the ladder, spending our money and searching out culinary experiences instead of dealing with simpler, more necessary things. Sitting there in Trotter's didn't exactly fill me with guilt about starving masses in Chad or Bangladesh (though there's every reason it could have), but it did make me wonder if it wasn't flirting with a kind of idolatry or addiction, waiting to see what amazing new thing the cooks have discovered you can do with caviar, whose very presence in a restaurant in Chicago goes to show that we sometimes seem to care a great deal more about such complex things as making the arrangements so that fish eggs can be transported across continents, than the innumerable humbler, more egalitarian things that would employ and feed ourselves (and others, especially desperately hungry others) just as well.

In George Orwell's fantastic Down and Out in Paris and London, he talked about how he worked as a plongeur (a dishwasher and general errand-boy) for a just-opened restaurant in Paris. His workday was hell, and the conditions in the kitchen were worse. When I first read that book, I could sympathize: I'd washed dishes in a restaurant before, and I found his reading of the tense interactions of the backroom staff (waiters, cooks, hosts, etc.) at a busy restaurant exactly right. But what stayed with me even more was his general condemnation of the whole enterprise:

"People have a way of taking it for granted that all work is done for a sound purpose. They see somebody else doing a disagreeable job, and think that they have solved things by saying that the job is necessary. Coal-mining, for example, is hard work, but it is necessary--we must have coal....And similarly with a plongeur's work. Some people must feed in restaurants, and so other people must swab dishes for eighty hours a week. It is the work of civilization, therefore unquestionable. This point is worth considering. Is a plongeur's work really necessary to civilization?...He earns his bread in the sweat of his brow, but it does not follow that he is doing anything useful; he may be only supplying a luxury which, very often, is not a luxury."

Orwell then went on to talk about rickshaws, and the people and ponies who carry them. The animals are driven until their death, and then shipped off to the knacker; the men run themselves ragged, "earn thirty or forty rupees a month, and cough their lungs out after a few years." And for what? The luxury of riding in a rickshaw--usually an uncomfortable and even slow ride--is hardly great; it only exists because the upper classes (or those who wish to pose as such) of south and east Asia long considered it vulgar to walk. "They afford a small amount of convenience," Orwell wrote, "which cannot possibly balance the suffering of the men and animals. Similarly with the plongeur....He is the slave of a hotel or restaurant, and his slavery is more or less useless. For, after all, what is the real need of big hotels and smart restaurants? They are supposed to provide luxury, but in reality they provide only a cheap, shoddy imitation of it....Some restaurants are better than others, but it is impossible to get as good a meal in a restaurant as one can get...in a private house....Essentially, a 'smart' hotel is a place where a hundred people toil like devils in order that two hundred may pay through the nose for things they do not really want."

Now, of course, things have changed in the last seventy years. There is a great deal more wealth in the world, and a great deal more labor protection too; between minimum wage laws and health code inspections, the working lives of most of those who wash the vegetables and clean the dishes in our restaurants are significantly better than they were for Orwell. Moreover, Orwell lived in a world where there was relatively little travel, and comparatively less exchange of goods: the enormous rush of attention and money which would be pored into the creation of easily replicatable living environments to serve mobile populations (hotels, restaurants, highways, etc.) was still a few decades away. But I wonder if that changes anything essential about Orwell's diagnosis. He's still right that there's little to the luxury of restaurants that isn't obtainable in the home--or at least would be, if people still knew how to cook and the global economy hadn't either enticed or thrown so many of us into patterns of work which leave few with the time to learn. He's right that the luxuries afforded by these institutions are rarely all that luxurious, especially once the expense and the time and the distance have all been tallied up. And he's especially right that such luxuries are a product of a relentless push by owners to get those who labor under them to create something that is, almost certainly, unnecessary. Which means, as Orwell thoughtfully concludes, that on some level perhaps, as consumers of luxury, we do not see the labors of plongeurs and their contemporary equivalents as "honest work," and thus hypocritically figure that those who can do no better than to wash sheets and clean carrots are probably better off being left there, out of sight and out of mind.

But wait, a possible response! At Charlie Trotter's, the carrot cleaners were not out of sight and out of mind; on the contrary, we watched them all night, as they bustled around us. They made us part of the meal, in a way; there was a kind of interactivity to our eating, as the passers-by asked us questions about the food and we asked questions in return. One could argue that there was a bit of performance art going on in that setting; that the dirtier work, the expensive, complicated, crude work of transforming foodstuffs into a luxurious experience had perhaps been outsourced, so that we could imagine the eating experience as something spare and simple and direct. Maybe. But then again, perhaps treating fine dining as a performance art is the better way to think about it. Clearly, a fine restaurant could simply be about feeding, our personal nutritional satisfaction transformed by competitive acquisition. But to the extent such is the case, and we buy into it, we've allowed our natural appetites to be co-opted by an attitude which insists that eating ought to be luxurious, and the more luxurious the better: that food makes demands on us ("What, you eat that? Haven't you heard? No one eats that any more!"), and we have to respond, giving credence to those food profiteers who insist that we must be so hungry, so weary, so bored, so unsatisfied that we've no alternative but to clamber on up to the next feeding level, or else be condemned with the rest of the pizza-munchers below. But art doesn't have that attitude, or at least it needn't. It isn't so demanding; it's inviting. Try something, and see if you like it; if you don't, try something else.

That's not to say there can't be a place for normative concerns in food as in any other cultural space--actually, some food is better than others, and just as it's worth developing an ear for music, it's worth developing one's palate. At Charlie Trotter's, my palate was stretched a long ways, and I'm a better person for it. But I went into that restaurant--that expensive, complicated restaurant--and was treated to a show, a show (however truthful it may have been) of honest work in the name of adventuresome, avant-garde tastes and combinations. It was like going to see a Picasso--which is also a luxury, but one which doesn't inject itself into my daily life, encouraging me to unknowingly burden myself with all the expectations and unseen costs of a complicated, luxurious act. The cruise ship, the command performance, the complete collection--usually unnecessary, almost always wasteful, rarely as good as anything you couldn't do more humbly on your own terms. But a bit of fine cashew cheese cake now and then--that's craftsmanship, and I was blessed with the chance to draw up a chair and watch them do their work. An expensive blessing, to be sure; Picasso may not have worked entirely alone, but he didn't need nearly as complex an economy and organization around him to do his work as Charlie Trotter does. Still, given that we live in a world where such resources abound (and sometimes oppress), putting them to work in an artistic way, wherein the food really does matter as much as the feeding, perhaps Trotter's aim is more simple than it appears.

Orwell ended Down and Out by resolving, among other things, to never again "enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant." "That," he concluded," is the beginning." He may be right to think so; maybe the complicating costs and distractions of pursuing great food in even as careful and admirable an environment as Charlie Trotter's just can't be justified. I'm not sure. I know that the artistry of food doesn't call to me the way it calls to so many others, and I'm fine with that. As with most every act of cultural consumption, the gains have to be weighed against what that cultural practice depends upon, and what it encourages. It'd probably be much, much better if all of us stuck with eating simply and humbly. But for those who want a good honest show, if only once, I know a great place in Chicago I'd recommend in a heartbeat.


Anonymous said...

Droooooooooooooooooooool! Wow, that sounded amazing and how cool that you have links to show so many of the dishes you ate! 

Posted by danithew

Anonymous said...

Russell, I've got some $300 toilet paper to help you clean up after such an exensive meal. Sure, its expensive TP, but top of the line, worth every penny! 

Posted by Rob