I think that you could generally categorise people as one of several types of diners. There are those that are fussy eaters and will always gravitate to their familiar favourites. There are those that are adventurous eaters and love to try new foods and taste experiences. And then there are those that eat just to satiate hunger and think that fine dining is a complete waste of time and money (very sad in my opinion).
It’s not rocket science to then determine for whom the degustation appeals. Having 6, or 8, or 20 smaller courses (in the case of the famous Noma of Copenhagen) stretched across many hours is often not for the faint-hearted, or those short of cash. The menu is generally pre-determined, with the only minor adjustments for allergies, so the experience is either an exciting food adventure if you’re that way inclined, or an unappealing loss of control of your own dinner if you’re the other way inclined.
There seems to be a recent backlash against degustations, with food writers such as Corby Kummer claiming that a diner is now a “quivering hostage in thrall to the chef’s iron whim”, and Marco Pierre White claiming that a degustation is “18 courses of tepid knick-knacks”.
I think it’s a shame that it has come to this, since the purpose of a degustation was surely the show the wide range of culinary talents of the chef and exciting produce to a diner, a bit of a gallery or showcase if you will. Sure, you had no control over what you ate but, hey, if you wanted control you would be chowing down your own spag bol in the comfort of your own dining room, where you didn’t have to listen to tedious elevator music either (except if you were in a David Chang restaurant).
If you are someone who is absolutely unfussy with food like myself, who typically struggles to choose just one entree, one main, and one dessert from a list of so many delicious options, it’s actually quite nice for those difficult choices to be taken away from you, and to sample a variety of different tastes so that you don’t have to feel like you’re missing out.
So there are definitely upsides to degustations, and the big downside for me is the inevitable massive outlay. However the cost can be justified if you think of the amount of preparation that is required for all those different dishes, and the higher quality of service that is usually offered at these sort of establishments. And if it’s for a special occasion, what’s wrong with splashing out every now and then for a 35 course feast (as was formerly the case at Ferran Adrian’s ex-El Bulli)?
If you are one of those people that don’t want to relinquish control of what they’re eating to the guy behind the scenes, and you don’t fancy coughing up a few hundred dollars for dinner (each, without wine!) then hey, there’s a multitude of other restaurants that would gladly offer you a meal at a fair price.
* Vanity Fair, February 2013