The Coldest Winter

…this is my first visit to Thomas Keller’s temple of haute cuisine in Yountville, California, and I can’t wait to see whether it lives up to its reputation.  More importantly, however, my dining companions are three outstanding chefs from Sichuan province, a heartland of Chinese gastronomy…None of them has ever been to the West before, or had any real encounters with what is known in China as "Western food," and I am as much interested in their reactions to the meal as my own.

Driving down HIghway 29 to the restaurant, I had prepared my guests by casually remarking, "You’re very lucky, because we are going to visit one of the best restaurants in the world."

In the world? asked Lan Guijun.  "According to whom?" I warm up to the pleasures of this utterly satisfying dinner, I can’t help noticing that my companions are having a rather different experience.  Yu Bo, the most adventurous of the three, is intent of savoring every mouthful and studying the composition of our meal.  He is solemn in his concentration.  But the other two are simply soldiering on.  And for all three of them, I realize with devastating clarity, this is a most difficult, a most alien, a most challenging experience.

They find the creaminess of the sabayon offputting, the rareness of the lamb unhealthy, and the olives to taste like Chinese medicine.  Don’t ask about the cheese, and they are amazed that "a bowl of soupy rice" [risotto] could cost so much.  A few days of dining later, they find eating salad to be barbaric (it is raw), and sourdough bread to be tough and chewy.

Yu Bo, to my great satisfaction, is pleasantly impressed with the first raw oyster of his life, and even ventures to take a second.  When I ask him how they taste, he nods furiously in approval.  "Not bad, not bad; a bit like jellyfish."

That is from Gourmet magazine, August 2005 issue.  Here is my previous post on inaccessibility and large cultures.


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