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Share my plate at restaurants? I don't think so
I was at a dinner with five friends the other week at the Grill, that temple of prime rib and larded squab in the former Four Seasons space in Manhattan, when the waiter uttered those dreaded words: "We recommend sharing." As anyone who has dined out in New York, Los Angeles and other cool cities in the past decade knows, sharing is in.
Small plates, large plates, starter or main - they're all meant to be sampled tablewide. The shift is most evident at those b[W_TEXT][/W_TEXT]uzzy restaurants that feature tattooed servers, craft cocktails and lots of sunchokes and grass-fed beef. But it is not limited to them.
Mass-market restaurants, where entree portions tend to be big enough to feed an NBA starting five, are getting into the sharing craze, too. Applebee's, for example, designed its "2 for US$20" menu (two entrees and an appetiser) with "sharing top of mind," said Stephen Bulgarelli, the company's chief culinary officer.
Sharing, the argument goes, is more communal, lets diners taste more dishes and is more in tune with the way large swaths of the world eat. So who could possibly be against it?
Well, me, for starters.
It has gotten to the point where my wife, Joanna, has to apologise on my behalf before virtually every meal these days, to both servers and table mates, sheepishly explaining, "He doesn't like to share." Leaving aside the possibility that I am either tone-deaf or a selfish jerk, let's take a look at how we got here in the first place.
Continental-style dining, in which dishes are brought to the table sequentially and served individually, is known as service à la Russe, and spread from Russia to Europe, and eventually to the United States, starting in the late 18th century, according to Ken Albala, founder of the food studies department at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California.
The tradition held sway on these shores for generations, a ritualised affair that underscored hierarchies and borders. Diners were walled off from other diners psychically by high-backed booths, dim lighting and oversize menus, their imagined place atop the social ladder reinforced by silver-haired waiters in cropped jackets who murmured in Jeeves-like tones of deference.
Deviations were frowned upon. If you wanted to share, say, a Caesar salad, the restaurant might charge for an extra plate. As recently as the 1990s, many Americans thought to share courses only on visits to Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern or maybe the occasional "family style" red sauce Italian joint, said Krishnendu Ray, chairman of the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University.
Never mind that much of the rest of the world ate that way, and found "elite Western norms of eating absurdly cold, isolating, peculiarly self-consumed and uncivilised," Ray said.
Those norms broke down as American food literacy exploded in the 1990s, with the rise of cable food networks and foodie blogs. Savvy diners came to understand that the appetiser section was where chefs often took the most risks, so they began to order starters en masse, to share among the table and to get in touch with "the true identity of the chef", said Jordana Rothman, restaurant editor of Food & Wine.
This sensibility led to the rise of small plates meant to be shared.
The goal was soon to experience as many flavours as possible, an impulse nudged along by visionary chefs like Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Per Se, who argued that the palate became bored after a few bites. The solution was the tasting menu featuring, say, nine courses, each containing just a few sumptuously varied bites.
Less stratospherically priced restaurants accomplished the same goal with shared plates.
At the influential Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia, restaurateur Steve Cook and chef Mike Solomonov modelled the menu after the traditional Middle Eastern meal, where everything is shared. The idea, Cook said, was that a table of four "could leave the restaurant conceivably having tasted 24 different dishes".
Jason Tesauro, the food writer behind the Modern Gentleman series of advice books, said, "The chef gets to showcase her taste-making range, and the diner gets to spin the wheel of curiosity without going all-in."
The restaurant meal was no longer a hushed, isolated experience; it was a party. It's also a party fuelled by social media, especially on Yelp, the user-review site, and Instagram, where self-appointed influencers soon learned that shared plates translated into more photo ops.
Nonprofessional eaters were suddenly dining the way critics did: Order a bunch of dishes, dip a fork in each, and push aside those that do not immediately delight.
"We're all food writers now," said Jeff Gordinier, the Esquire food and drinks editor, who was a reporter at The New York Times.
Who could argue with that? I nervously raise my hand.
Well, OK, I won't "argue" with it. I get it. All of it. I could even push the argument further and build a graduate-thesis-ready argument that this emergent mode of shared eating represents the imminent collapse of the elitist, patriarchal order.
But I am not sure you have to be a cultural reactionary to say, "Hold on a minute." Let's start with the most basic issue: pacing. You could argue that the old model - one starter, one main, one dessert - is plodding and restrictive. But there is a mathematical elegance to the three-part meal. Good things do tend to come in threes (except for celebrity deaths).
Scrambling to sample everything
A classic American meal has a discernible beginning, middle and end - a story arc, to put it in Hollywood terms. What happens to that arc when everyone is scrambling to sample everything on the table? The meal becomes a jumble; too many characters, too many conflicted motives, too many fractured moments - basically, Robert Altman at his worst.
Perhaps I am overly sensitive about pacing because, yes, I am the slowest eater I have ever met. From my vantage, a shared meal means sitting by and idly chewing, while the food on the table vanishes like a time-lapse nature video of an ant colony devouring a dead bird.
My wife's family in England has a term for dining in this manner: a "smash and grab". This is the way the family eats on those nights where everyone is sick of shopping or cooking, so we just empty the refrigerator - a half chicken here, some salad fixings there - and have at it.
Pay top dollar to recreate feeding frenzy
A "smash and grab" is a communal dining experience in the sense that a piranha feast is communal. Somehow, everyone ends up fed. But I'm not sure any sane person wants to pay top dollar to recreate that feeding frenzy at a restaurant. But I have also seen the opposite. In polite circles, the etiquette of shared dining sometimes serves as a progressive tax on the hungry, since good manners dictate that everyone nibble like a Preakness jockey when sharing.
Indeed, the etiquette of the shared meal necessitates its own form of Kabuki. Each person at the table must make grand theatre of his generosity of spirit, being careful not to overconsume the best dishes, and finishing off the duds because, you know, someone has to. We have all seen that last shrimp, sitting forlorn on the plate, because everyone is too polite to snag it.
In theory, that's wonderful, a way to strengthen the bonds between us. Proponents of shared plates, like Tesauro, the food writer, say you end up sharing not only food, but also enlightening observations about the food, quips, memories from meals past. To him, plate sharing "is one of the few remaining analog community hubs". Maybe. But I'm not sure a meal becomes a Davos-like exchange of ideas just because you pass plates. Actually, I find that sharing inhibits free-flowing conversation.
Perhaps it is because I am a slow eater and a big talker, but when I'm sharing with a group, I feel as if I am left with two choices: chat or eat. You can't do both, especially when you're racked with anxiety at seeing the fried baby artichokes disappear out of the corner of your eye while your story - wait, what was I talking about? - starts to run on a little too long.
Not to mention the fact that before the meal even commences, you need to agree on ground rules. Is anyone vegan? Does anyone not eat shellfish? A shared meal is a committee meeting, and committees are about compromise. That may be great for Capitol Hill, but I would rather not run my dessert order through Ways and Means.
By contrast, when you retain sovereignty over your order, the meal comes to you. You can talk and eat as luxuriously lazily as you like. Then there's the cost. When you're ordering for yourself and splitting the bill, you tend to inhibit yourself from ordering anything too lavish. You basically don't order anything involving lobster, for example, just because you don't want to be that guy.
I secretly wanted the pork chop
That sense of inhibition flies out the window when ordering in a group. It's akin to the tragedy of the commons idea that individuals, when sharing a limited resource (say, the town cattle pasture), will eventually deplete that resource by acting out of self-interest. It is easy to justify ordering the US$90 Kobe beef because, hey, it is for everyone.
Even in the best of circumstances, when sharing you are probably going to end up with a little of what you do want and a lot of what you don't want.
At a recent dinner at Popina, a wonderful new Dixified Italian joint in Brooklyn, I secretly wanted the pork chop, but Joanna wasn't into it, so we decided to share the cavatelli and the hot chicken Milanese, which turned out to be too hot (meaning, spicy) for her, so I ate the whole thing.
It was good, maybe great, but also left me wondering how the meal may have turned out if I had ordered what I wanted.
Maybe I just think that way because I am wired for a form of culinary monogamy. My heart wants what it wants. If I want to finish an entire pork chop by myself, does that make me selfish, or loyal? NYTIMES