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food / travel

Time To Stick A Fork In The Cult Worship Of Chefs

Restaurants are places for eating, not genuflection.

Chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park
Chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park

-OpEd-

What's the best restaurant in the world? According to the World's 50 Best Restaurants, the award goes to the Eleven Madison Park in New York. My sincere congratulations. But I hope to never visit you.

Don't get me wrong: It's nothing personal. I do believe in your excellency. I believe, as critics say, that your "modern French cuisine with a New York twist" is perfectly comparable to the 72 virgins of the koranic heaven. But I'm tired of the religion of chefs. You know the one: It consists of raising cooking to a metaphysical, transcendental, celestial level. Every week witnesses the appearance of yet another chef, with his own church, presenting you the menu as if it was the holy scripture.

The ingredients aren't ingredients. They're "elements." A meal isn't a meal. It's an "experience." And the food, obviously, isn't food. It's a "composition."

I've already found myself in several of those sanctuaries. Whenever the food arrived, I never knew whether I was supposed to try it or pray. My sacrilegious worries were made worse by the waiters who, as they placed the plate on the table, revealed in a low voice the miracle resting in front of me. "Smoked duck with tomato petals and jasmine essence."

I would listen with reverence, say a "thank you" that sounded like an "amen" and approach with a trembling fork, afraid to disturb the delicate balance between the "petals' and the "essence."

In rare cases, his holiness the chef would appear at the end. To bless the commensals. I understood one day, after I'd kissed the hand of one of them, that I'd have to apostatize.

And when they're not saints, they're artists. A piece of meat isn't a piece of meat, it's a "challenge." It's the Sistine Chapel ceiling waiting for Michelangelo.

The religion of chefs, with its evil charm, devastated the restaurants of my city.

I checked Eleven Madison Park's website. Since April 11, they've been doing a "retrospective" (I swear it's true) with the best 11 dishes of the past 11 years. A "retrospective." There you have the evolution of the history of Western art: the cave paintings of Lascaux, the statues of the Greek sculptor Phidias, the stained-glass windows of the Gothic cathedral in Chartres, Caravaggio's baroque paintings, chef Daniel Humm's egg quiche tartlet.

I like to eat. I like food. These two sentences are ridiculous because, hey, I'm Portuguese. And it's precisely because I'm Portuguese that I'm an atheist when it comes to "elements," "compositions' and "essences." The religion of chefs, with its evil charm, devastated the restaurants of my city.

One of them, just around the corner from where I live, used to make "octopus filets with rice" that was so good it had become the barometer of my love life. Whenever I was going out with a girlfriend, if I would start to think about the octopus filets, I knew it meant our romance had come to an end.

Eleven Madison Park's dish tete de cochon with pickled vegetables — photo: Krista/Flickr

A few weeks ago, I returned to the place after it had closed for renovations. Something was odd: There's was ambient music and dim lighting similar to the one in Thai massage salons (note: Honey, if you're reading this, I swear I've never been to Thailand). I sat at a table. When the octopus came, I looked at the plate and asked the restaurant's owner whether he hadn't forgotten something. "What's that?" the insolent man asked. "The microscope," I replied. He laughed out loud and explained. "It's the chef, sir." "What chef?" I insisted. He shrugged and answered, visibly ashamed. "Agostinho." The old cook had turned into a chef and my octopus into squid.

Unfortunately, this cancer has spread all over my beloved homeland. I've already written about it in the Portuguese press, but nobody joined my weeping. It's the ambient music that replaces the natural murmur of conversations. It's the brothel-like lighting prevents you from distinguishing between an olive and a cockroach. It's the chic habit of never leaving the bottles on the table, meaning that the waiter only notices our thirst in extremis, when shaking and other signs of alcohol withdrawal start to show. My God, where will this end?

I don't know. But I know I've already taken some precautions. I'm going to learn how to hunt. Anything goes: partridge, jackrabbit, wild boar. And after that, with a fire and a skewer, I'll cook my meat like a caveman. The pinnacle of civilization is now Daniel Humm's egg quiche tartlet? Then the time has come to go back to the Lascaux cave.

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