Natural Selections and Food Chains

I remember watching "Mutual of Omaha's 'Wild Kingdom'" as a child and how it all seemed so cruel and unfair. A lion would stalk an hours-old, baby of some variation of "deer" and when the parent was even the slightest bit inattentive, the lion would storm in and kill the animal, often under the helpless gaze of the parent. The fact that the prey was cute didn't help the matter. (Cuteness seems biologically designed to amplify sympathy.) Why didn't the film crew step in and stop it? How could they just allow such a brutal death? The reality, which I couldn't understand at the time, was that while one cute baby animal died, a few other cute animals (cubs of the lion) would be fed, along with mom. As an ironic bonus, the parent of the sacrificed animal wouldn't be passing such inattentive genes on to the next generation. Lessons about "survival of the fittest" and "natural selection" and "food chain" wouldn't be clear to me for some time.

Restaurants, too, have eco-systems and life spans. Some spans are as short as a bait fish, 99% of which only serve to feed other animals, while other restaurants have the longevity of George Burns or redwood trees.

One of my favorite restaurants on earth, which happens to be based in New York, "Veritas" has very good "roots". It's a restaurant borne out of an abundance of wine (by a very serious collector) and that collector's passion for it. It features a menu created for the wine list (rather than the other way around), it's in a great location, and is a tiny, efficient space staffed by the most attentive and considerate professionals. They've always managed to offer familiarity and recognition without ever breaking character, armed with both knowledge of and passion for the contents of plates and stemware.

In September, Veritas closed "for minor renovations".

Granted, restaurant closings happen out of need (such as repairs to plumbing or ventilation), but they must choose wisely when and for how long they close. I've learned over the years, when a restaurant shuts, it never reopens quite the same way. There's always a tweak to the menu, a slight (or complete) change of staff. When an animal in the wild stumbles or falls, it alerts predators. When a restaurant stumbles, it alerts other restaurants willing, if not anxious, to feed the patrons of the failing one. News of "illness" in the business spreads quickly.

Granted I'm not a local, and can't tell you what (if any) subtle changes have occurred at Veritas in the 5 months since I last visited, but the feel is decidedly different. The mechanism seems a bit more sluggish, rattles a bit more, and sometimes backfires.

First, there was room on a Saturday evening. In September. At the bar. This is rare. There are - at most - 40 seats in the entire restaurant, and some people like to just stop by for an appetizer or dessert and the bar is the best place for it. (You also bypass the requisite prix-fixe menu at a table.)

The second sign of trouble came when I ordered the skate wing. When prompted for a glass of wine, the bartender asked if I wanted red or white. The sound of screeching tires in my head was combined with the sounds of an impact and breaking glass. My heart sank. Red? With skate?

Wait, I'm in Veritas. Surely I am the one who is missing something. I glanced at the menu again to check the preparation. No, red was wrong. Rosé may have been close, but red was wrong. When questioned, she (wisely) conferred with the sommelier. He looked at her for just a moment too long, presumably also in disbelief about the question, and whispered something back. She returned with two suggestions, ones I would have chosen on my own.

This was a seemingly-minor setback, but spoke volumes. Three years ago, this well-intentioned but clueless bartender wouldn't have made it past the second round of interviews. Now, she was "speaking for" the restaurant.

Having taken note of this incident, but not jumping to conclusions, I soldiered on with my first course. While I hate whining about portion sizes, the starter was insultingly tiny, like two soup spoons worth of food. Pasta is cheap to make. There could have been more of it. A pattern was emerging.

When I asked about the familiar staff, one person had left, the other was in Hong Kong. I sensed "job interview".

Still, natural selection works hand-in-hand with evolution; you can't have one without the other. I hope Veritas is simply evolving, adapting to the newly-stingy economy on which it depends. But I fear that its breathing is labored and pulse is slowing; they may be simply waiting out their lease.

Sympathy for a single animal seems pointless in a herd, all of whom are destined to become part of a bigger food chain. But when you get to know one very well, it's hard to say goodbye. I'll continue to visit and monitor progress, but I'm realistic. It had an amazing run, and if it has since gone to restaurant heaven by the time I go back, I know that it will have lived a happy life.

Veritas may not be alone. Others in the herd may be stumbling.

Ferran Adria broke the news that he plans to shut down El Bulli for two years while he re-evaluates what they're doing, and determine whether or not they'll continue to do it (at least in its current incarnation). For perspective, this is a bit like Bono declaring that U2 would stop making music at the peak of their career, or Steve Jobs declaring that he's going to go build canoes for a living.

Closure of the flagship restaurant only slightly decreases my chances of eating there; 2,000,000 requests for 8,000 seats per year, but it would still be a great loss. While there are rumors of health issues with either Ferran himself, or a member of his family, and others speculate that he is simply running out of ideas, or maybe all of those things. I suspect it's the food.

Yes, the cuisine he invented or simply refined invites speculation, criticism, emulation, displeasure, and - at times - disgust. (Deep-fried rabbit ears come to mind.) His food, his methods, his focus for 6 months of the year on developing the menu for the remaining 6 months, his kitchens (both test and restaurant), all provoke and invite envy of efficiency and resources. And herein lies the problem.

The food is not very satisfying.

Is it "good"? Yes. Is it well-cooked? Yes. Is it unique (at least for a while) in all the world? Yes; but it's lacking that pleasure you get from eating a pizza after you've moved furniture all day. It's the psychological equivalent of "umami"; deeply satisfying without a particular sensation. "Satiated" is perhaps another good word to explain what you don't feel after this kind of meal.

Take the restaurant "WD-50" in New York. Wiley Dufresne worked for Ferran but wanted to take the chemistry set to the next level. The first time I dined at WD-50, it was an amazing experience; having someone tinker with your preconceptions and perceptions about food leaves you giddy. The second time, it was fun, but not as earth-shattering. After the third time, I walked away barely full and not at all satisfied. Molecular gastronomy seems to cause you to spend so much time thinking about what you're eating that your senses never get a chance to simply enjoy.

What El Bulli has done will change food forever. While not every restaurant will suddenly specialize in foamed sea cucumber sperm, some will tinker with texture and flavor a bit more knowing that the world respects the source of inspiration. They became rock stars by showing the creative potential of food and never (visibly) letting their fame interfere with their mission. Going out on a "high note", and perhaps each doing something individually may lead to something bigger.

We can no more slow or halt the demise of a restaurant than a photographer can halt the food chain in the wild; nor should we. It's all part of a process.

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