Palate Fatigue


The other day, in its weekly run of food stories, the New York Times printed a pair of pieces that, while about different topics — one an incisive assessment of the shortage of rank-and-file cooks that serve as the foundation of every kitchen in restaurant industry, the other a review of a highly anticipated and incredibly hyped pizzeria in the East Village — ultimately both point toward a similar conclusion: Maybe the food in the most talked-about restaurants has been less good lately?

Of the effects of the junior-level cook shortage — driven by, among other things, the profession’s infamously cruel wages in exchange for anonymous, grueling labor at a time when a teen can open his own restaurant and charge a hundred and sixty dollars a head — Julia Moskin writes:

For some, it has even affected their food, forcing them to simplify dishes, to focus on basic, scalable restaurant concepts like pizza or burgers, and to hire virtually anyone who walks through the kitchen door. “I have given up expecting that every single one of my line cooks will be able to season correctly or understand heat,” said Hooni Kim, who owns Danji and Hanjan in Manhattan, where he has added dishes that he can cook himself, in advance, so that his line cooks need only heat and serve. … For diners, this gap between what the chef wants to do and what the cooks can execute explains why many new places offer dazzling menus but disappointing food.

And of Bruno, a pizzeria opened by a pair of acclaimed young chefs in July, whose high-concept dough is impossible to ignore, and whose bread appetizer won breathless adoration from people fortunate enough to try it, Times restaurant critic Pete Wells writes, in a rare zero-star review:

Bruno has a few problems. It’s only been open since July, so maybe it will work them out eventually. I hope so. I don’t want to convict the restaurant’s chefs and owner for these problems because the real killer, as O. J. Simpson would say, is other people. More accurately, it’s a small group of people like me whose approval can lift some restaurants from the teeming primordial swamp of contenders, and whose premature praise and willingness to play down discomfort and inconvenience enable problems like Bruno’s. … Bruno is one of many new places where building flavor seems less important than composing an image that can rocket straight to the digital billboards. It’s hard to explain how great something tastes, but easy to show how great it looks, and in the short run, contemporary food media rewards the latter.

So, these are just two pieces, and they’re talking about a relatively small set of restaurants, but there definitely seems to be something happening in the New York restaurant scene writ large in recent months to the effect that things feel… off? Some informal polling of several people who go to restaurants professionally (or close enough!!!) or work in food revealed that while one person, a critic, disagreed vehemently, everyone else I talked to also felt like things are, like, kind of blah out there; another critic remarked that there’s a lot of “spiritless execution” happening right now.

This is maybe partly due to growing numbers of lesser line cooks and dishes that are not so much cooked as they are designed. But it’s hard not to suspect as well a growing, if nascent, fatigue with the current restaurant scene, inflicted by the vast sameness of capital-f Food Culture — — not of dishes or cuisines or flavors, but of sensibility — and its bounty of eight-dollar ethical fried chicken sandwiches, chef-driven chains, classic cocktails with a twist, nigh-infinite grain bowls, and cultured butter for the bread portion in tonight’s Nordic-inspired, five- or seven- or ten-course tasting menu and the attending machinery powering its expansion in recent months and years.

Maybe what’s being detected here is a temporary funk in the restaurant scene, or like a particularly lame moment before something truly incredible happens. Or maybe it is the beginning of a widespread palate fatigue, the collective sense of taste of the restaurant-going crowd finally beaten into grim, mostly comfortable numbness. But also like, no one on Instagram actually cares how anything tastes.