Death of the degustation

I’m thinking of throwing the towel in. Degustation menus get the better of me every time. I get to the end of say the fourth small course (out of anywhere from six to eleven) and typically feel full.

And then there are all the additional tidbits thrown in for free. An amuse bouche, or selection of canapés to get the ball rolling; a palate cleanser or two to keep things ticking along; then a pre-dessert and petit fours flanking the central dessert course sandwich style. It all adds up to far too much food, frankly.

With several courses still to go, I become a bit blasé – unappreciative even – about the dishes that bring up the rear. Which is not the way you want to feel when paying for a top-end meal (prices typically range between $150 and $250 in Australia).
I haven’t dared invest in the higher priced matched wine degustation for years, knowing from experience that you fill up even faster.

I’m petite in height and build and when I see blokes who are double some of my dimensions tucking into the same degustation menu I realise that I am way out of my league.

Even fasting for a full day before a degustation dinner, or at least foregoing breakfast before a fixed-course lunch, doesn’t seem to help. Clearly, there is only so much food I can eat in one sitting – no matter the pre-emptive action I take.

I get what degustation menus are about: these tasting or sampling menus of multiple courses are a showcase the chef’s talents. Diners are served the house specialities. By putting ourselves in the chef’s hands we are looked after, intimately. As such, these menus – often served over two, three or four hours – are widely believed to be worth the high price.

Those I’ve indulged in did appear to offer good value, in terms of the amount – and of course, the quality – of the food provided for the price.

But the chef has more than the diner’s best interests at heart. Set price menus allow for more efficient, economical and streamlined kitchen preparation. If a restaurant has 100 diners booked in and they’re all locked into a degustation menu – the kitchen knows exactly how much food to cook, cutting out wastage. It also enables kitchen brigade to cook – where possible – in bulk, which saves time (and stress) behind the burners.

Professor of marketing and an expert on psychology and consumption of foods at Cornell University, Brian Wansink, also argues that accepting constraints on a fixed price meal often encourages diners to “trade up” by purchasing an extra course or a bottle of wine. Indeed, it’s not unusual for degustation menus to include ‘supplementary’ items or additional courses, which diners can order at additional cost. Chefs bank on at least some diners trading up.

I’m no degustation diva; for me these are not weekly – even monthly – events. They’re special occasions, usually booked for a birthday, anniversary, or some other celebratory affair. As such, they’re worth the splurge. Or, are they?

Is it good value if you end up forcing yourself to eat for the sake of it? Or nibble somewhat nonchalantly at the final courses? Would I appreciate the menu more, if there was less of it? I suspect so.

Next time I think I’ll stick to the a la carte menu – if there is one. But there’s the rub – oftentimes an up-market restaurant doesn’t offer a choice. If you don’t want to partake in the degustation, then dine elsewhere. Some offer degustation menus of different sizes, but the choice ends there.

So, I think my degustation days are over. I just can’t guarantee i’ll be this disciplined, when push comes to shove.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Death of the degustation

  1. Sometimes I’d have to agree with your view on degustations. It ‘s hard to find those that balance the fine line between tasting and gluttony. One that came to my mind when I read your words was an experience that took 4 hours for 12 courses, had me slumped over in my chair and my boyfriend trying to sneak in a nap between courses. Pleasure or punishment?

  2. Pleasure or punishment, indeed! Although i really do enjoy a good degustation i always feel as if it could have been trimmed back a course or two. People with bigger appetites will disagree, i am sure. I wonder if i can resist, in future.

  3. In my opinion degustation menus are a way some chefs pander to and help perpetuate food snobbery, akin to a art critic insisting the art you are both looking at (that you think is rubbish) is in fact ground breaking. I once saw a degustation menu entitled
    “The Emperor’s New Clothes”….which I think was taking a poke at the food writer diners. It goes without saying that the event was sold out.

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