Arnold Wesker’s play The Kitchen and Harold Pinter’s final play Celebration are both set in restaurants — there must be something about taking meals in public that has the seed of drama. Most recently this drama can be found in the trio of series that Gordon Ramsay hosts on the Fox network: MasterChef, Hell’s Kitchen, and Kitchen Nightmares. Ramsay is an artist of a quite different sort than Wesker and Pinter, but the real indication of his art is in his restaurants rather than his antics as a public figure or television character.
Marilyn and I will be returning to his flagship New York restaurant, Gordon Ramsay at the London, next Tuesday night for a long-anticipated repeat aesthetic experience. The last time we were there was in 2010; that visit I chronicled below. I repost it today to whet my appetite. My apologies in advance for the solemnity of the essay, but it is about important matters. When it comes to the art of dining — the title, by the way, of a 1979 Tina Howe play as well — the proof is in the pudding (to abuse my right to cliche), especially at these prices.
If contemporary theatre criticism looks for performance outside the four walls of the studio space or auditorium, it may be worthwhile to consider dining as performance. The restaurant is a unique site of artifice and, in better restaurants, elegance; if we are now to think of ourselves as “consumers” of an aesthetic experience, then why can’t gustatory consumption provide aesthetic experience as well? Certainly as theatre takes the quotidian elements of experience to render them something unique and meditative, the restaurant serves the necessary food to quell the inescapable appetite.
The restaurant meal as aesthetic experience, then, is as capable of providing a meditative and contemplative experience as theatre. I often mention elegance as a necessary component of the powerful theatre production, and certainly this is as valid in the restaurant experience. My wife Marilyn Nonken and I recently paid our second visit in as many years to Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant in New York, Gordon Ramsay at the London, and it too provided considerable food for thought. Ramsay is probably best known as the foul-mouthed, violently demanding ex-footballer on shows like Hell’s Kitchen and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, and this is how most of his audience sees him. But most of this audience, I’m sure, does not have the opportunity to enter a Gordon Ramsay restaurant themselves (even though his restaurants may be found around the world — there’s even a “Gordon Ramsay Plane Food” restaurant in Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5). It is only there that the true theme of Ramsay’s television shows, and where they differ from Top Chef and Iron Chef, becomes apparent — they are not about Ramsay’s personality (however overpowering that is), but about the discipline, skill, collaboration and talent required to render the dining experience itself an aesthetic product. The dining experience is Ramsay’s true calling — and he is as much an artist here as Giacometti in painting, Howard Barker or Richard Foreman in theatre, and Morton Feldman in music.
Like theatre, there is the playing space (the restaurant itself) and backstage (the kitchen); a fine meal requires a clocklike efficiency between the two arenas. Gordon Ramsay at the London, under the supervision of chef de cuisine Markus Glocker and designed by David Collins in emerald and timber panels, presents a quiet spacious area for relaxation. The waitstaff, attentive but unobtrusive, performs on a thin tightrope between formality and the casual, wearing dark suits but not tuxedoes (the restaurant notes that the dress code for patrons is “smart, with jackets preferred for gentlemen, but not required”). They are personable and friendly, but not familiar, and there is much to be said about the elegance in their gestures themselves: wine is poured and dishes are served with quiet efficiency but a great deal of attention to the angle of the bottle and the way the wrist is turned, the precise ease with which the dishes are placed before the diner. (I know of theatre directors and performers who pay far less attention to the appearance and grace of their bodies as they perform.) It is also interesting to note that, during both my visits to the restaurant, not one cellphone or pager was heard to beep through the entire meal.
Indeed, at Gordon Ramsay at the London, the dining experience is one of intimacy within the high-ceilinged arena; despite the relatively small room, it is arranged so that each table continues to possess a quiet privacy. This is unlike Daniel Boulud’s Daniel, which with its multiple levels and dining areas renders the diners both spectators and spectacle, part of the scenery rather than a private individual (appropriate in a restaurant in which it may be important to see-and-be-seen), or Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50, which offers a more casual, diner-like Lower East Side atmosphere (appropriate for a Lower East Side restaurant).
Dining at a restaurant like Gordon Ramsay at the London is a leisurely experience; serving the seven-course tasting menu takes a little less than three hours. The role of time and rhythm in taking a meal is akin to the role they play in music: nothing rushed or fast, time enough to linger over the taste of a dish (or a sound or sequence of notes), to relish and contemplate it. Time and rhythm in another sense is key to the menu itself and the sequence of dishes and wines. For there is a rhythm to the tasting menu, make no mistake about that: beginning with a light amuse bouche (and a glass of champagne or sparkling wine), the meal progresses from lighter to heavier dishes, and similarly at Gordon Ramsay at the London these are accompanied by wines that progress from lighter whites to fuller reds. A tenderly sauteed slice of fois gras, its creaming density leavened with the provision of a brightly-sliced plum, is followed by a single scallop accompanied by curried cauliflower, pressed mango and spiced chickpeas, and only then do the main dishes arrive: a turbot (amusingly presented; slicing into the center of the turbot, one is surprised by the right yellow of an organic egg yolk that pours from the fish) and, for me, lamb cooked to the precise definition of “medium,” pink in the center and growing progressively more done as towards the edges. (And here the reds are served.) And a decrescendo follows in the form of first a pre-dessert in the form of a light lime sorbet and then a final dessert, for me of a light Concord grape cream and yogurt sorbet.
It is essential to note that Ramsay’s form of French cooking partakes of that most generous trait of any good host: entertainment just to the point of satiety and not beyond. There are times at even the best restaurants when you can have too much of a good thing (this was my experience at Daniel and, more especially, at WD-50). What is most poetic about Ramsay’s cooking is its restraint, not only in flavor (which engages and tempts the palate but does not overwhelm it) but in portion servings as well. On both occasions I’ve dined at Ramsay’s restaurant in New York, I wasn’t left wanting more, but on the other hand I didn’t have a feeling of overindulgence either. The key to Ramsay’s sensitivity is in his measure of quiet, modest excellence. Similarly, because eating is as much a visual as gustatory experience, the minimalist plating, with a careful eye to color, space and placement, provides just enough for the eye to see and doesn’t overwhelm the visual sense.
What we eat, and how we choose to eat it, tells us a great deal about our culture — as much as the plays it chooses to see and the music it chooses to listen to. Artists like Gordon Ramsay also can tell us through their creations about the world that presents itself to us: we are inclined and encouraged to be more demanding of our everyday experiences, not to take for granted the pleasures of eating and appetite. They provide, like dramatists, painters, poets and musicians, a new way of looking at the environment around us — and remind us that we cannot take that, either, for granted.
All photos from the Gordon Ramsay Web site here.