By Luke Chavez
The Times 

Tasting, Tasting, 1, 2, 3...


Luke Chavez

From my time in the trenches of fine dining: Chef Dustin Ronspies and his wife Shannon Van Horn, plating up pan-seared marbled king salmon with morel mushrooms, part of a 9-course spring tasting menu at their Seattle restaurant Art of the Table

Having worked as a server at some of Seattle's best restaurants, I've had the honor of working for some of the finest chefs in the city. The more time you spend with great chefs, the better you become at identifying a chef's culinary signature, especially when it is your job to sell their creations. Beyond mastery of technique and selecting favorite ingredients, a good chef must develop a distinct point of view to help them stand out in a very crowded field. I am quite positive that in a blindfolded tasting, I would be able to identify dishes prepared by some of my former employers.

While regular diners may not know all the technical and stylistic details behind the scenes, they certainly can tell when they have had a meal prepared by a great chef. Eye-opening meals can lead to favorite restaurants and sometimes even following chefs as their career grows from one restaurant to the next. If given the opportunity, a great way to learn more about a chef's style is by ordering an offered tasting menu. Recently, I saw a posting from The Weinhard Café in Dayton advertising an upcoming special tasting menu by chef Daniel Rossi. While I always enjoy meals prepared by Rossi, I am excited to see what he will present in this format.

So, what is a tasting menu? Put simply, a tasting menu is a grand showcase for a chef's talents and specialties. It is less of a meal and more of an orchestrated dining experience. Made up of multiple small plate courses, each one a beautifully composed sensory experience, tasting menus are a snapshot of a chef's current inspirations. The antithesis of "have it your way" dining, ordering a tasting menu, is sitting back and giving in to the whims of the chef. While a traditional "full course" meal can be made up of three to four courses (starters, entrée, dessert), a tasting menu usually starts at five courses on the small side and can push well past ten courses on the large side.

Often, tasting menus include an option for wine pairings, consisting of small tasting pours of selected wines to accompany each course. A beautifully paired wine will harmonize with the plated ingredients, bringing out the best qualities in both. Before accepting a server position at Art of the Table in Seattle, I sat down to a life-changing nine-course tasting menu presented by chef/owner Dustin Ronspies, featuring only the finest seasonal and local ingredients. I can still recall the vivid revelation on my palate sparked by his pan-seared black cod with matsutake mushrooms in a dashi broth perfectly paired with a crisp and dry Alsatian Riesling.

The modern tasting menu, not surprisingly, has its roots in French culinary culture where it is called a menu dégustation. Like haute couture in the fashion world, menu dégustation developed as the highest level of expression in the culinary arts. Today tasting menus are found in fine restaurants at culinary capitals around the globe. In cities like Paris, Tokyo, New York, and even Seattle, there are restaurants built solely around tasting menus. These dining destinations have garnered almost cult-like followings, a notch in the belt for savvy traveling diners.

Over the years, at such restaurants I have served politicians, syndicated food critics, wine makers, tech entrepreneurs, and a smattering of celebrities, most memorably a surprise reservation by the captivating Cate Blanchett. What draws them in goes beyond the food alone, with the allure centering around the style and personality of the chef. Many of these restaurants play this up by offering premium seating at chef counters, allowing diners to watch the master at work. The six-seat chef counter at Art of the Table was consistently booked out six months in advance. All this edible artistry does come at a higher price point, as the creation of a tasting menu requires extra work in the kitchen and extra attentive service. Remember, you are paying for the full experience. Perfect for a special occasion, enjoying a tasting menu will also take longer than a typical meal, sometimes lasting up to 3 hours. Decadence should never be rushed.

Our friends Vicky and Chef Daniel at The Weinhard Café are preparing to add a tasting menu soon. As space is limited, reservations will be required and can be made by calling them at (509) 204-3207. Keep your eyes open for future dates.


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