Anyone who has gone out for a meal in the last 10 years has likely come across at least one restaurant serving dinner in the form of a tasting menu.
A tasting menu is a collection of several chef-driven dishes served in small portions over the course of the evening. The goal is to create a unique dining experience, allowing a restaurant’s chef and staff to show their creativity and skill. It follows the idea that a good meal should go beyond simple sustenance; a diner’s palate should be dazzled, their taste buds titillated, with dynamic plating and a touch of showmanship that has led some critics to call it “food as theatre”.
From the Alinea in Chicago to Restaurant Tim Raue in Berlin and perhaps the most famous, the award-winning Noma in Copenhagen, the tasting menu is considered by many the pinnacle of a restaurant dining experience – and often with the price point to match.
Like many restaurant trends, however, there is much more to the story.
A Brief History of the Tasting Menu
While the current iteration of tasting menus dates back only a few decades, the idea of the Western multicourse menu is much older than that.
According to noted culinary professor and food historian Beth Forrest, “You can go back… to medieval times with three large courses, but upwards of 25 dishes per course. The drama that you see is because you had so many plates on the table at once.”
The current century trend of tasting menus, cooked by chefs increasingly defined by their celebrity as much as their food, began (where else?) in France. Led by such culinary icons as Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Michel Guérard and the Troisgros brothers, dinners of six, seven and eight courses, with smaller portions, became common in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Mainstream diners were introduced to the tasting menu in the 1990’s. World-renowned restaurants like Chef Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli in Spain, and Chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, in Napa Valley helped elevate the Western tasting menu to an international stage.
Tasting Menus: Posh and Practical
Tasting menus are now generally associated with fine dining and wealthy diners. This is not without reason, of course, as many of the finest tasting menus will run into the hundreds, and even thousands, of pounds, euros, dollars, etc.
Tasting menus are thus found mostly in large cities, where eager diners, tourists, and the wealthy clientele can be found in abundance.
Amanda Cohen is one such chef. The chef-owner of vegetable-focused Dirt Candy in New York City switched to a tasting menu model after the pandemic. “My food costs changed dramatically, dropping from 26% to 12%,” she told Restaurant Business in January of 2023. “I know exactly how much food to order now, the format saves time and labour, and there’s no waste.”
But a higher price point isn’t the only incentive for a chef to create a tasting menu. Restaurant margins are notoriously tight. As the chef now knows ahead of time what their guests will be eating, they need only order specific ingredients in specific amounts. Providing a dinner experience this way thus saves money and helps with budgeting on the back end.
Tasting menus are also becoming increasingly affordable – or affordable restaurants are increasingly offering tasting menus, rather – and many chefs have looked for ways to introduce tasting menus the average diner can afford.
The sudden prevalence of affordable tasting menus even left af&co + Carbonate’s Hospitality Trends Report to call “two-digit tasting menus” a top trend to watch in 2023, describing the manifold benefits for chef and diner: Affordable tasting menus allow creativity to flourish in the kitchen while helping chefs control costs, as customers enjoy a memorable and dynamic dining experience without worrying too much about the check.
Challenges You Can Taste
Like with anything in the restaurant industry, tasting menus offer unique challenges as well. Diners with specific tastes often complain when a course is not to their liking or fail to understand the chef’s vision when the bill arrives.
The biggest challenge – or the one that most needs accommodating – is food restrictions and allergies. A set tasting menu established before a diner sets foot in the door cannot, of course, be built around the intolerances of specific diners.
According to Josh Hopkins of Empire State South, however, this does not need to be an issue. Having things on hand to cater to dietary restrictions and limitations is simply part of preparing a menu. Allergies “…are something we’ve never had a problem dealing with. We’re always able to accommodate.”
Many people also prefer to order a la carte, choosing for themselves what kind of food will end up in front of them. To this end, many restaurants offer both options, allowing diners to choose the tasting menu or order individually from the separate a la carte menu.
This is what Chef Alain Ducasse does for his three-Michelin-starred The Dorchester in Mayfair. While the tasting menu is where the magic happens, as he says, “…if you have the perfect wine pairing with a perfect tasting menu, you have a perfect picture of a place,” he also acknowledges that many diners simply don’t have the time for a sumptuous three-hour dinner.
It is the chef’s job, after all, to ensure every diner ends their meal satisfied, happy, and full.