The overwhelming tasting menu was dead to me after our experience at French Laundry back in the 1990s. Don’t get me wrong, that meal was an incredible show, the food was inspiring, and I’m so glad I had that experience (way back when), but all of the shortcomings Mr. Wells describes in his article were there. I would have loved to have the El Bulli experience as well, and may well find a tasting menu that doesn’t beat me into submission some day, but I agree with Mr. Wells that in the hands of a non-genius, the Big Tasting Menu (BTM) will be lethal.
As Wells points out, often the food is incredible; the problem comes in the ritual that denies a diner any bit of the normal restaurant routine. To me, the BFM is a front-of-the-house construct, often initiated by people who really don’t know what “service” means. It’s hours of “look at me, look at me!” as if we were a passive audience at a theater performance. Dining can include elements of theater, to be sure, but dining by definition is the act of sharing food with people, not “experiencing” food by ignoring your fellow diners.
Still, I take issue with people who equate BTMs with the GastroTech dishes (foams, airs, etc.). That’s the mistake of using El Bulli as your main example of both. when, by all accounts, the El Bulli meal was NOT overwhelming, and there’s a reason that Adria’s techniques are now used around the world — the techniques are just that, no different from turning egg whites into foam with a wire whip. They worked very well in Adria’s hand, but not every chef is Adria…
Also one should not equate a BTMs and fixed menus, as at Chez Panisse. I’m very comfortable with a chef having confidence that you will come to their restaurant no matter WHAT they serve, but he/she better deliver. The BTM is more about intimidation than it is about satisfying hunger and curiosity.
It can be a pleasure to put yourself at the hands of your favorite chef/restaurant and have them truly “serve” you the experience they fully intend. Some of my favorite meals in restaurants have folded the tasting menu concept into the a la carte meal by allowing you to order your dishes off the menu, and then offering tastes and teases from the kitchen that compliment what you are about to eat, or what you have just eaten. Restaurants that offer the BTM beside their standard a la carte menu have the right idea: let the GastroDouche have his ShockAndAwe experience at the hands of his personal Top chef, but allow his dining partners to get what they want if they choose. And let the people at the table eat, and talk, and drink and make merry. The focus should always be on the diners, not the service and food alone.