When Cod Semen Is Served

Chef's dishes are getting more complicated. How to handle a confusing menu.


Photo by dumbledad/FlickrCC

Last month, Stephanie Pierson and Barbara Harrison kicked off their eating etiquette column, What To Do...?, by offering expert advice for how to act around celebrity chefs. Here, they give counsel on how to react to the food world's increasingly confusing dishes.

The economy seems to be forcing restaurants and chefs to be more creative. But what a thin line between creative and confusing.

What's on the menu? Complicated combinations of ingredients you're pretty sure you won't find at the local Piggly Wiggly (Madai with Yuzu Gelée? Shiro? Bacon Dashi?), heaped on a platter of hyperbole and accompanied by a dash of droll (Foie Gras Loco Moco.)

Maybe your dish is trying too hard. (Grasshopper Mint-Chocolate Salad.) Or not trying hard enough. (Menu item at David Burke at Bloomingdale's: "Yesterday's Soup.") Or trying to be something it isn't. (Lentil Sliders.)

It's all very...trying.

Does "gee-whiz" molecular gastronomy trump an Apple Pan Dowdy?

SITUATION: If you haven't heard of half of the ingredients in a dish, does that guarantee it will be more special? If the ingredients are new or exotic, does that make it worth more?

"I'm a sucker for things I haven't heard of, especially if they're expensive. I figure that I know a lot about food, so if I'm not familiar with something and it's on a fancy-pants menu, then it must be extra special. Weird combinations also get me. I can pair beets and goat cheese at home. But if someone is whipping up roasted nettles in a pomegranate reduction, it's kind of intriguing.

"Of course, this has backfired on me in the past, most spectacularly with Sara Jenkin's red wine infused spaghettini when she had her restaurant at 50 Carmine. It was so spectacularly horrible I had to send it back. Even my friend who will Hoover down anything to avoid the horror of having to send back a dish couldn't face it. I guess this is the danger of any creative endeavor: one woman's art is another woman's ick. But you never get to experience joy like banh mi if you're not willing to risk the occasional red wine infused spaghettini."
-Andrea Scotting, founder of the food site The Best Bite.

SITUATION: Is it appropriate to ask a chef to work with ingredients that might be in the bottom of your garbage--like unlaid chicken's eggs and stinky tofu...or on the bottom of the sea --like jelly fish or sea cucumber? Would you even want to win this Next Iron Chef 'Fearlessness" Challenge'? Would you want to be a judge and have to eat it?

"In cultures and cuisines where every single ingredient is used--Eastern Europe and China come to mind--it's really just 'nose to tail' cooking. And I would absolutely eat it. It's just hard to be a chef or a judge if you have no frame of reference for these ingredients."
-A New York cookbook author and editor

SITUATION: The special is "Cured Tasmanian Trout, Gougere, Soy and Wasabi Marshmallow, and Carrot Soup with Vadouvan." And that's one of the simpler dishes on the menu.

"The way I deal with overly creative or deranged chef experience is dependent upon my expectations for the event. Mother's Day brunch with all three generations of family including young children is not the time for a brunch with that kind of menu. We actually found ourselves in that situation last year. Brief family conference resulted in our quick departure for the wonderful and much more appropriate Pancake House. A good time was had by all!"
-Ray Menard, Stage Manager, The Metropolitan Opera; subscriber to Gourmet (RIP) since the age of 18 and Lifetime member of the WGBH Julia Child fan club.

SITUATION: Does "gee-whiz" molecular gastronomy trump an Apple Pan Dowdy?

"Rarely. It lacks sensuality.To me, the intellectual pursuit is interesting; anything that advances art is admirable. But that kind of gastronomy is very 'head'--it doesn't really satisfy the soul."
-Melissa Hamilton, co-author with Christopher Hirsheimer of Canal House Cooking.

SITUATION: The tasting menu includes "Cod Semen Chowder." You don't know what to make of the price--shouldn't cod semen be cheaper than say, a fillet of the fish? Is it hard to extract? Do they have to go to a lab to get it from a sperm donor? Is it creepy to order on a blind date?

"As part of a dish, eating cod semen is no more bizarre than eating caviar. If it said 'milt,' would it make you feel better?"
-Sydny Miner, Vice President, Senior Editor, Simon & Schuster.

SITUATION: Is something that's taken apart more impressive than something that's put together? Do you want your pumpkin pie or carbonara deconstructed?

"What is so wrong with actually making food? Make an amazing carbonara and do it absolutely perfectly. I just want real food. I guess I suck at being a foodie."
-Das Ubergeek Chowhound blogger

"Deconstruction is just another form of inspiration for the chef; in the hands of a good chef, a reinterpretation of a classic can be great, while a mediocre or worse chef will do a banal deconstruction without adding anything new."
-Bob Levine of New York and Paris, who blogs at Bobby Jay On Food.