When I was 15, I desperately wanted to be gourmet. I read Michael Ruhlman’s books like fantasy novels, plumbed the depths of MFK Fisher and Waverly Root, and took over the kitchen to prepare elaborate family dinners. Gourmet was my bible, my textbook, my travel guide, my daily devotional; one Thanksgiving, inspired by a Gourmet recipe, I proposed an alternative turkey stuffing, something fancier than my dad’s usual stovetop invention. Met with firm resistance, I surrendered, shamed at my affectations of sophistication and snobbery. “Discerning, not discriminating,” became my mantra after that Thanksgiving fiasco, and I continue to consume high and low without preference or moral judgment.
Besides an interest in pretentious cooking, my 15-year-old-self expressed a fascination with fine dining. After pouring over Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef four times, I fell in love with The French Laundry. Ruhlman describes The French Laundry Experience in mystical terms; Thomas Keller figures as a demigod, a Zen master, a new philosopher for the modern cook. I incorporated Keller’s maxims into my daily life; I sought to emulate his “sense of urgency,” to pursue perfection in every movement. A family vacation to San Francisco offered an opportunity for pilgrimage, and my parents agreed to a Yountville day trip with enthusiasm.
In my still relative youth, it is strange to look back on years past with sharp nostalgia. Growing up is a matter of growing apart from our past lives. At 15 I, like so many others, lived in a state of intense ignorance. “Memory believes before knowing remembers”—so I occasionally fetch that younger self from his cramped closet corner. He sits there with my box of treasures: a collection of my grandmother’s buttons, 10,000 baseball cards, a desiccated starfish: he reminds me to try, so hard, to dismiss cynicism and give thanks. My greatest misfortune, however, is not to play the cynic, but rather to possess an acute consciousness of my self-estrangement. “Solitude can become loneliness; this happens when all by myself I am deserted by my own self,” Hannah Arendt writes in “Ideology and Terror.” I have not yet lost myself—the danger remains though that I will desert that child in my memory.
An immobilizing fear of growing old follows from the suspicion that every year gone-by diminishes the potential for change. “Every limit,” George Eliot proposes, “is a beginning as well as an ending.” Middlemarch articulates this anxiety well in its fundamental irony. The novel asserts its interest in “middleness” even while it focuses on its characters’ early adulthood. Dorothea, Will, Ladislaw, Rosamund—these characters, caught somewhere in their twenties, should have a lifetime of potentiality before them. Yet, there is a pervasive sense that these years— post-adolescence and pre-adulthood—constitute the real “middle” of life. In Middlemarch, the choices made as a twenty-something determine the course of a lifetime. While I do not necessarily accept Middlemarch’s internal logic, I worry about the “was,” the “do-over,” and the “past recoverable” as much as any Eliot character. To contextualize the problem of the past in Middlemarch, one of my professors quoted Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove:
“I’ll marry you, mind you, in an hour.”
“As we were?”
“As we were.”
But she turned to the door, and her headshake was now the end. “But we shall never be again as we were.”
This passage stinks to me of melodramatic hooey. Despite my doubts, I will not, cannot, live in regret or nostalgia. Each day must begin anew. Among Hannah Arendt’s many endearing turns, her paraphrase of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” ranks high on my list—she concludes “Ideology and Terror” with the affirmation that “there remains also the truth that every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce.” Jimmy Eat World’s classic song of teenagedom, “The Middle,” starts with a similar sentiment—“Hey, don’t write yourself off yet”—because “you’re in the middle of the ride.” Clearly, George Eliot failed to study ‘90s rock with appropriate vigor.
If you haven’t seen it, definitely check out the music video for “The Middle”—the piece features a raging underwear party worthy of ogling. A fully clothed teen makes his way through the mass of writhing flesh, uncomfortable with the whole strip proposition. Finally giving in to peer pressure, the kid heads to an empty bedroom and starts dropping trou’—but he makes eye-contact with a girl stuck in a similar dilemma, partially disrobed and obviously disconcerted. Together, they decide that clothes-on can be just as fun as clothes-off and leave the party hand-in-hand. The moment of recognition exceeds its immediate meaning. The two teenagers experience an epiphany in which they realize that self-identity should not be disciplined by conformity. In this instance of (romantic) fellowship, the subject’s point of view radically reorients; the world no longer appears the same; old systems of knowledge no longer hold true; life will not, cannot, be lived as before. What “The Middle” makes explicit is that the epiphany, contrary to Greek and Christian definitions, is both a frequent and universal occurrence, especially during adolescence. In fact, adolescence consists of a series of epiphanies. At the end of “growing up,” past selves seem distant and estranged because the settled self has been so thoroughly transformed that it barely recognizes old variations. This returning to the boy in the closet, this cycle of disillusionment and reillusionment, and this synthesis of new epistemologies form a natural pattern of “growing up.”
But what of the epiphany that not only makes living as before impossible, but any living at all untenable? In Madame Bovary, the reorientation of perspective brings into sharp contrast practicable living and a “better,” finer world. The epiphany then makes mere bourgeois boredom unlivable; it creates an insatiable need for romantic excitement. Thus, Madame Bovary treats “growing up” with immense ambivalence—on one hand, the novel attacks provincial vulgarities as juvenile, and on the other, suggests that epiphanies lead to greater ignorance. With each successive reorientation, the individual falls deeper into a labyrinth of simulation and fiction. Whereas the epiphany might otherwise lead to a more penetrating comprehension of the world, for Emma Bovary, an adolescent epiphany provokes a degenerating journey into utter delusion. At a ball—a rare social event for the Bovarys—Emma learns of an alternative to her dreadfully provincial and bourgeois life:
Suddenly she thought of Les Bertaux. She saw the farm, the muddy pond, her father in his smock under the apple trees, and she saw herself in earlier days, skimming cream with her finger from the earthenware milk pans in the dairy. But, in the dazzling splendours of the present moment, her past life, always until then so vivid, was vanishing completely, and she almost doubted that she had ever lived it. Here she was, at the ball; beyond it, now, everything else was veiled in shadow. Here she was eating a maraschino ice, holding in her left hand the scalloped silver-gilt saucer, her eyes half-closed, the spoon between her teeth.
Sophistication, and more specifically, sophisticated pleasures, substitute for the vulgar and the agrarian. From the farm and its “muddy pond,” “apple trees,” and “earthenware milk pans,” Emma moves to the ball with its refined indulgences. Emma’s transit of consciousness follows from a quite literal illustration of the country-chateau divide. To let air into the stifling ballroom, “a servant climbed onto a chair and broke a couple of panes; at the sound of the shattering glass, Madame Bovary looked round and saw, in the garden, pressed against the window panes, the faces of peasants staring in.” Emma, who is essentially a peasant, gazes at herself; or rather, Emma gazes at her past selves. In Emma’s epiphany, identity evolves from a differentiation between self and the non-self, the other, the world absent ego, or in this case, the discarded past self. The culminating moment of the epiphany is the taste of maraschino ice, a sensation that leaves Emma luxuriating in a moment of hedonistic repose. Therein, the experience of the maraschino ice, which occludes the world beyond the spoon, mirrors the experience of the epiphany, which too leaves the “world before” “veiled in shadow.”
I experienced an epiphany when I ate at The French Laundry. In its form my epiphany resembled Emma’s, if not in its substance. Thomas Keller’s most famous creation is “Oysters and Pearls,” a combination of tapioca, savory sabayon, plump oysters, and a generous helping of caviar. Thanks to my Michael Ruhlman reading, I knew what to expect; The Soul of a Chef provides an exhaustive description and analysis of the dish. I was not, however, prepared for the first bite. Six years later, I still remember the burst of caviar set against the smooth undulation of mollusk and tapioca. It was the first time I tasted real caviar, the first time I ever ate with a mother-of-pearl spoon; but more importantly, it was the first time I experienced a world of luxury far removed from my mundane suburban existence. I sensed a plane of reality so separated from my own as to be indescribable by my known vocabulary. Over the course of meal that included “foie gras en terrine,” lobster tail with morels, and a “degustation” of Bellwether Farm Spring Lamb, I developed a radically new understanding of material potential: I never knew how liver could taste, how pork or bass or malt could feel, how life could be carried out to an extreme of splendor! For Madame Bovary, it is maraschino ice; for me, it was a Hayden mango sorbet, a cold distillation of everything a mango meant. At the ball, “chilled champagne was served. Emma shivered all over when she felt this sensation of cold in her mouth. She had never seen a pomegranate, or tasted a pineapple. . .” I had never tasted mango before The French Laundry. And so, in its symphonic beauty and its magical command of the essences of things, The French Laundry showed me a new way to live and a new way to experience life.
For the last two years, I have strenuously avoided eating at Per Se. Thomas Keller’s New York outpost, recipient of three Michelin stars and four New York Times stars, is The French Laundry’s urban counterpart. I wanted to preserve my memories of The French Laundry—to prevent any contaminations. Yet, on October 23rd, I found myself outside Per Se’s blue doors, replicas of those at The French Laundry. An old friend suggested the dinner, and I, operating on intuition, blind faith, and complete disregard for my bank account, agreed. It felt like the right time; Sam Sifton had just named Per Se the best restaurant in New York, and I had just recovered from a bad stomach bug. Circumstances had converged on one decisive moment: the step inside Per Se.
Per Se is located in the Time Warner Center, which is essentially a luxe shopping mall that overlooks Central Park. In fact, reaching the restaurant requires an escalator ride past Samsung and Armani Exchange. The interior space is well disguised; it is placid, dark, decorated with a fireplace, comfortable, serene, and aware of its urbanity. Windows offer an expansive view on Columbus Circle. Per Se is at once perched above the cityspace and intensely of it.
At Per Se, the food did not provoke an epiphany. “’Queequeg,’ said I, ‘do you think that we can make out a supper for us both on one clam?’”— at Per Se, more than at The French Laundry, the mechanics of the tasting menu are evident. Instead of an organic, elegant expression of the season, the Per Se menu feels formulaic; it depends on the structure expected of “the Thomas Keller tasting menu”—small compositions, just enough to leave the diner wanting one more bite. “Oysters and Pearls,” salad or foie gras, fish, lobster, fowl, meat, cheese, sorbet, dessert: thus a Thomas Keller meal unfolds. This strict adherence to formula would not feel so disappointing if the replication was sincere and successful. Yet, Thomas Keller’s signature aesthetic seems lacking at Per Se. Where is the wit, the whimsy, the intelligent reference to nostalgia and Americana—the playfulness? The magic is gone. In its place, the meal relies on the machinery of expectation. The artfulness of The French Laundry has disappeared, and now, the mechanical realities of dinner are laid bare.
Despite my disregard for my own “no Per Se” rule, I still requested alternatives for “Oysters and Pearls” and the foie gras terrine. Those memories would remain sacred. Avocado, Melba toast, and caviar replaced “Oysters and Pearls,” but the construction was clunky; mixing all the components together proved inordinately difficult. Seared foie gras seemed lackluster as well, conceived without effort, as though the request, “hot foie gras prep,” prompted a mechanical reflex in the kitchen (as it surely did). I enjoyed a piece of lubina crusted with potatoes and served with hen egg emulsion and mustard: unoriginal but impeccably prepared. Matsutake mushroom porridge—I declined the lobster too—edged closest to epiphany. Thin shavings of bonito perfumed the rice porridge with concentrated, musky seashore foam; hunks of mushroom brought the dish back to shore. Unfortunately, a roulade of guinea hen tasted spongy—not everything needs sous vide. I adored a nugget of slow roasted lamb neck, rich like fall afternoons clear and silent. Dessert flopped—a too deconstructed and definitely unpleasant rendition of “s’mores” and a schizophrenic attempt at “purple cow” (grape and vanilla, two great tastes that taste great together). For me, the meal’s highlight arrived with the mignardises: Thomas Keller’s “Coffee and Doughnuts”: cappuccino semifreddo with cinnamon-sugar doughnuts. I read about “Coffee and Doughnuts” in The Soul of a Chef and in The French Laundry Cookbook, which I received for my 16th birthday; I salivated over the idea and wished to sample the dessert in real life, just once. To risk a little melodramatic hooey: at the end of my Per Se meal, an epoch in my life came to a close. I had tasted the end—and oh, how bittersweet.
There it was, the epiphany, not in the food itself, but in a revised understanding of my place in the fine dining world. Leaving Per Se, I suddenly realized that, despite my appreciation for fine dining, fancy restaurants no longer stir my soul like the prospect of barbecue, doughnuts in Connecticut cafés (crunchy and glazed in chocolate), chili five-way, Sonoran hot dogs, cinnamon rolls bigger than chubby cheeks, brain sandwiches and egg foo yung, snoots sliced thin, red hot tamales and fried whiting, dim Mississippi mornings sticky with Delta fog, John Lee Hooker, blue highways, the blues, Warren Zevon, Mark Twain, Manhattan chowder, ecstatic rhapsodies of endless succotash, trout grilled in tin foil, luncheonettes, bob’s coffee and video, peanut butter sandwiches, guavas bought cheap, coffee in tin cups, hay, rusty school buses, and the discovery of good lives in America. It is banal and a hipster platitude, this assertion of authentic American experience as rooted in the rural, the country, the poor, the rustic, the traditional, the pioneer, the frontier, the South, the suburban, all reconfigured as revolutionary in the face of post-industrial capitalism. Still, I intend to find an escape hatch from the society of spectacle, from the closed loop of consumption that entraps us in fatuous journeys searching for meaning in the face of infinite hypocrisy. To live in this world, I must find a way to generate, not regenerate, to produce, not recycle, to live aesthetically, not aestheticize life. Thomas Keller’s cooking used to be a powerful vehicle of American meaning. I fear that the food at Per Se cannot conduct that electric force.
When I was 15 I wanted to be a gourmet, but today, I want to be a poet. If this is the middle of my life, then I am determined to evade George Eliot’s logic. I will live my middle poetically, seeking tomorrow as yet another articulation of the present. I will remain open to the epiphany. I will forever reorient, in relative degrees, to glimpse reality in all its geometries. I will seek the beginning as a promise of the end of history.