Monday, February 18, 2013

Two Cookies Stacked Against The Empire

The "Chocolate Chunk" cookie from Bouchon Bakery.
This is both absolutely preposterous and completely justified.

It is 5:07PM in New York City, and I am standing in the front foyer of The Shops Of Columbus Circle, a three-story upscale mall not unlike the Water Tower in Chicago.  On the third floor of the mall, there are a number of restaurants and eateries, included among them Bouchon Bakery (with cafe) and Per Se (which might have been a floor higher--I never did see it).  

These restaurants may not mean anything to you.  Both are outposts of the Thomas Keller empire, Keller being, perhaps, the most highly-regarded chef in America right now.  Kelley's methods and innovations are legendary, his standards exacting.  His original restaurant, The French Laundry in Yountville, California, would likely be the most amazing dining experience most of us could imagine in this country, could we get there, get a seat, and afford it.

I had not encountered one of Keller's restaurants before, and I may not again, since I am rarely in New York City or Northern California, so I decided that this was my chance to find out what the man can do.  I decided to test his skill by purchasing two cookies.

That's right: America's greatest contemporary chef would judged by two cookies--an oatmeal raisin and a chocolate chip.

My thinking?  If you are that good, then the humblest of your offerings had better be that good, or else, why are you offering them under your name?  

If you are Thomas Keller and your signature dish is something called "Oysters and Pearls," what one diner described as "warm oysters, smooth tapioca, a rich eggy custard and a good scoop of caviar," and if a table of two is going to drop over $1000 for a 14-course meal that will last four hours at a restaurant that has menu save a chef's inspiration, the your cookies should be more than pretty good, right?  Stellar?  Exceptional?  One-of-a-kind?

You think, dear reader, that I'm setting him up to fail, don't you?

The cookies cost $2.95/each.  The cookies were sold cooled off, so I decided to test them cooled off.  I asked two people to taste them with me, and I tried to rely on their observations more than my own.  

We tried the oatmeal raisin first.  The tasters thought it was "weighty" and didn't question the price.  They noted the "high quality cinnamon" as the dominant taste, also finding it "buttery" and "chewy with some crispness."  But they wondered if "you can blow someone away" with an oatmeal raisin cookie, since "it's a homely cookie."  They thought it was really good, though not necessarily the best they had had.

Of course, there wasn't anything left of either cookie.
The chocolate chip did not fare as well.  Though butter was the "first taste," they said that " nothing else rises to the surface" and that the "dough is lacking".  Oddly, though the cashier corrected me when I asked for chocolate chip ("One chocolate chunk coming right up"), there was little mention of the chocolate in the cookies, despite Keller's penchant for top-notch ingredients.  It didn't matter. My tasters  wondered if the cookie needed more salt or more vanilla, and though it was considered "good," they called it "no better than homemade" and one said "I've made made better."  

And indeed she has, as I know from experience, having tasted a laborious multi-day recipe she baked last spring.  Kind of like the work-intensive recipes a chef like Keller is known for.  And maybe that's the point.  Maybe instead of trying to put their brand on everything, including things we do pretty well, they should stick to their stellar culinary inventions we don't have the imaginations to fathom or the skill to carry out.  Do I really need Wolfgang Puck's sandwiches at a kiosk in the airport or Emeril Lagasse's chicken broth in the supermarket when those items are pricier but virtually indistinguishable from other brands?

Maybe instead of building empires based on comfort foods and home-like cooking for masses and a diluted all-reaching vision, a chef like Mr. Keller could put his time into his more superhuman creations that we mere mortals can only dream about and aspire to.  Basic cookies?  We've got those covered.

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