Five Great Egotarian Restaurants in NYC
GQ's food correspondent Alan Richman recently decried the increasingly common practice of male-helmed kitchens orchestrating what he calls "Egotarian Cuisine:" Chefs turn out ever-stranger dishes meant to showcase their inspirations, banking on culinary orgasms via mental masturbation. "What makes the food different is that every chef is seeking to express himself in an incomparable and triumphant manner," he opines. "The food is ingenious. It's occasionally brilliant. Too often, it's awful."
Richman focuses on several chefs around the country, many of whom are young and all of whom are male, and he defines Egotarian Cuisine's food as dishes "that express the inspirations of the chef...what appears before you are compilations of ingredients never previously compiled. This is the first food development in America that exists not because customers are eager for it but because chefs insist on doing it."
Ultimately, this describes a rather large swathe of modern cooking. Richman is fine being titillated by unconventional compositions from dictatorial chefs as long as he knows he's in good hands that have extensive training and experience.
On that last point, we can agree: Part of what we pay for when we dine out is the promise of excitement weighed against the likelihood of failure. That could easily be said of any restaurant meal, but for diners at progressive restaurants whose chefs play a game of cerebral chicken, the ratio is considerably more precarious. A more seasoned chef with a foundational background might have an easier go of this kind of improvisational cooking. It's like jazz. To riff brilliantly, you've got to master the basics.
And we'll concur, too, that bravado of this sort can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Richman is right to bemoan the movement for encouraging an atmosphere of self-importance. (Though the food media certainly helped move that ball along.)
But it seems irresponsible to discourage gastronomic exploration. Sure, the way may be fraught with obscure micro greens, but while Richman seems to have nibbled upon one too many pig's blood crackers, experimentation is kind of the point of this particular breed of restaurant, and it's very much part of the fun. What else are today's soul-searching chefs to do? All cooking is an expression of identity, and what inspires one chef may be anathema to another. If we agree that dining culture is built on more than just old stalwarts like Brennan & Carr or Delmonico's, then you can't blame Atera's Matt Lightner or a young Paul Liebrandt for wanting to create new culinary traditions, even if it meant, in Liebrandt's case, having guests lick food off women's backs at Papillon. (Don't try to lick anything off of anyone at Brennan & Carr -- you will get kicked out.)
As Adam Platt pointed out, part of the problem with being an avid eater in any great dining city is that on a national scale, there's a lot of stylistic overlap of esoteric plate compositions and casual atmosphere. As a result, it's hard not to get jaded, which is why restaurants like the ones Richman maligns feel exciting simply by virtue of being quirky. Critics will chime in on these places, and, ultimately, diners will decide whether they're willing to put up with the peculiarities. We're lucky to live in a town that can foster such a diversity of ideas (yes, even pizza cones), even if the success rate is dicey at best.
At their core, Egotarian restaurants are provocative. Whatever you want to call these types of hyper-curated experiences, they're undeniably compelling, and there should be room for them -- especially in this city.
On the next page, five of our favorite places to stroke the chef's id.