A Caesar salad tossed before your eyes may have gone out of fashion with linebacker shoulder pads and junk bonds, but as Karen Pinchin learns, dining with a dose of drama is back in vogue
At the young and much-lauded Toronto restaurant La Banane, the Ziggy Stardust Disco Egg arrives at the table with a large golden spoon. The gilt cutlery catches the room's moody lighting almost as much as the dessert's hand-painted geometric-patterned surface does. The cutlery is a tool, provided so diners can smash the chocolate egg, which serves four, to smithereens. According to La Banane's chef Brandon Olsen, many a patron has hit it so hard that the shell and its decadent truffles have ricocheted across the table and onto the floor. "They had to order a second one," says Olsen with a laugh.
Last Easter, when 100 eggs sold out in three days at his chocolate chop CXBO, Olsen suspected he had a hit on his hands. La Banane opened at the beginning of 2017 with the $50 egg on the menu (the first version was filled with single-origin truffles and embedded with apricots, ancho chili and coffee beans) and the restaurant now goes through 80 a week. Photos and videos of the egg quickly went viral on social media and, lately, wait staff have been heard offering patrons tips on tagging posts.
"If you look up the geotag for La Banane, it's all pictures of disco eggs," says Olsen, who insists he didn't invent the egg for clicks. But in a food-crazed era where the more extreme a dish looks, the more traction it generates online, Olsen has stumbled into the next wave of Insta-genic cuisine: dishes that photograph well and encourage a performance, designed to create buzz that reaches far beyond the envious diners at the next table.
Two years ago, while lambasting a $60 Caesar cocktail garnished with a whole deep-fried chicken, hamburger, mac-and-cheese hot dog, pulled-pork slider and a brownie, Vancouver food writer – and Globe and Mail contributor – Alexandra Gill decried the increasing existence of headline-grabbing dishes. "Gimmick food has become a social media phenomenon," she declared. "Why? Why? Why?" This was long before the recent foodie phenomena of Starbucks' rainbow-bright unicorn Frappuccino or the raindrop cake, one of the year's most 'grammed dishes from New York City's Smorgasburg market. The transparent, jiggly "cake" made of spring water, sugar and agar agar looks like a breast implant and, unsurprisingly, tastes like simple syrup.
As this movement evolves and as video becomes increasingly prominent on social media platforms from Facebook to Snapchat, diners want to be more than merely an audience. Increasingly they crave the spotlight, so restaurateurs are pulling out some theatrical tricks from fine dining's past. A fan of old-school steakhouses, "where the waiter has been there for 30 years and can make a tableside Caesar salad with his eyes closed," La Banane's Olsen says he's an old soul, and inspired by playful and performative French classics like Crepes Suzette, flambé and cheese carts. In that way, he sees his egg as a modern take on a timeless technique: encouraging diners to be hands-on with their food.
For millennia, dining rituals have been used to demonstrate wealth, whimsy and power. In the 1744 painting The Banquet of Cleopatra by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, the Egyptian queen holds a giant pearl, "the largest in the whole of history," above a fluted glass of vinegar as her Roman lover Marc Antony looks on. As Pliny the Elder recounts, Cleopatra dissolved the pearl in the glass and drank the liquid, thus winning a bet that she could spend a fortune of 10 million sesterces on a single meal. The queen understood the power of a good story (one can only wonder what clout she would have wielded with an Instagram account).
Theatre has always been present in food, from "restaurants with singing waiters or exploding volcanoes," to the rituals of the Jewish Passover meal, wrote the late British hospitality professor (and community-theatre thespian) Michael Morgan in his 2008 article, "Drama in the dining room: Theatrical perspectives on the food-service encounter." The difference is that today's restaurant is "a stage on which the customer is the star, and the staff the supporting cast," he writes.
On a daily basis, food pictures dominate our digital feeds, from aerial photos of perfectly composed salvers to close-ups of crumbling pastries and dripping ice-cream cones. These images are powerful and pornographic in how they capture and hold our attention, fixating us with hunger, envy and awe. As diners preserve fleeting, once-ephemeral experiences on social media, they transform from mere eaters to culinary actors.
In high-end dining, the line between gimmicks and pyrotechnics from acclaimed chefs like Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal can be fine. In making that distinction, Vancouver's Gill likes to use the fashion industry as a metaphor. Those chefs, she says, are necessary, boundary-pushing contemporary artists who are crafting couture. "Somebody has to be working at that high level in order for food and technique to evolve," she says. "And the ready-to-wear chefs in the rest of the world are going to take bits and pieces of it." While some chefs might be tempted to go the gimmicky route to elicit social media chatter, just like an Internet date the exercise will likely be futile if the experience of consuming the end product doesn't live up to its online profile.
These days, La Banane's primary problem with the disco- egg dessert is that diners keep stealing its golden spoon. Olsen says he's confident the dish will have staying power, and hopes it will still be on the menu – albeit with different flavours and fillings – two decades from now. "It's a good chocolate bar," says Olsen. "That's the difference between something being a fad and something having a legacy. I think the disco egg will have a legacy, because it's tasty."
Photography by Daniel Ehrenworth
Styling by Alon Freeman for Judy Inc. Grooming by Wendy Rorong using M.A.C Cosmetics/Plutino Group. Model: Sadiq from Elmer Olsen Model Management
Shot on location at La Banane in Toronto
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