4/09/2013 10:30:00 AM

Tasting Menus: Are You Getting Ripped Off?

Alinea; Image via Flickr/banditob
Tasting menus are a hot topic these days. Ever since Corby Kummer’s piece decrying their ‘tyranny’ came out, it seems that some pricey fixed-cost menus are getting called out for their shocking stickers. Recently Joshua Skenes of Saison in SF wrote to blog Inside Scoop to defend criticism of his $298 price point, explaining how much it actually costs him to source his ingredients and run his restaurant. So are $300 tasting menus actually a bargain sometimes? To get to the bottom of things, we talked to chefs like Grant Achatz, Jason Neroni and Kevin Sbraga about food costs and tasting-menu pricing. Turns out, once you get past the dollar signs, there’s a lot more value than you might realize going on in many of these menus. In honor of the impending Tax Day, we asked chefs some nosy questions about tasting menus and money - check out their thoughts below.


  1. Tasting menus may be costly to produce, but that does not make them a good value. On two occasions, once in New York and once in Barcelona, we tried top rated tasting menus. In both cases we walked out unhappy. Out of, say, 10 dishes maybe we really loved two or three, liked two or three, and did not like the rest. So we did not have enough of good dishes, and way too much we could have passed. Sure, it is a matter of taste, but we will never do another tasting menu. Just plain bad value.
    Chefs also need to understand the difference between setting a price based on marking up cost, and setting a price that makes for good retail sense. That is ABC of marketing...

  2. If you want to "taste" and "sample" I suggest starting or joining a monthly potluck dinner club with friends who like to eat and cook. Buy all your food from upscale eateries like Whole Foods, splurge on things like "truffle oil" and you can re-create the feeling of an upscale tasting menu right at home, for less than half the cost of one meal!

  3. Sergi Arola once told me..."It takes a lot of food to make a small dish." The other side was was a course at Oxford that explained the strength of markets. "If the market will bear it, then that's the end of the story." Honestly, there will always be people that will rise to the monetary challenge, and who will crucify the chefs if they don't deliver. That's the feedback loop that (hopefully) protects most of us.
    All that said, I agree with both of the above posts. You accept that a chef is trying to cover his costs, you don't accept someone doing a vegetarian tasting and cranking up into the mega-markups. Likewise, if you really want a good tasting menu, go to your foodie friends' home for a meal. They've probably paid the $300+ per head, and can recreate what was done. And it might well be better.

  4. I recently enjoyed the most amazing tasting menu at Andre's French Restaurant in Las Vegas from Chef Chris Bulen. Not only was the price fair at the mid-high range (expected w/ French Fine Cuisine) but the experience and unique flavors were phenomenal. I would agree that with higher prices should come top quality food and a superb overall experience with service, atmosphere, etc.

  5. Last year, at Little Palm Island Resort, my wife and I finally got to try an "in the kitchen" tasting menu. It was the best dining experience we have ever had. It was the most expensive meal I have ever eaten but the experience was worth every penny. The chef took time to explain each course, the ingredients and how it was prepared. If I have another opportunity I will splurge again.

  6. I had tasting menu at French Laundry(Napa), Masa's(SF), Saison(SF), Benu(SF), Coi(SF), Ubuntu(Napa), Commis(Oakland), Eleven Madison(NY). I had a wonderful but painful experience at French Laundry, Eleven Madison and Benu. The rest are not even worth to mention.
    First, all tasting menu serves too much food. At the end of the meal, my gut hurts. Why can't the chef put a lower price five or seven course menu?
    In addition, the chefs use the most expensive ingredients. Do the dishes show off the taste of the food or the skill of the chef? I think a real good chef shall be able to use simple ingredients and make a tasty meal. Using exotic is just a gimmick and create a wow factor but does not really show the skill of the chef.
    Daniel Bowein for Mission Chinese Food, David Chang for Momofuku and Jenhangir Mehta for Graffiti use basic ingredients and create incredible and tasty dishes. That is the real showcase of a good chef.

  7. What a load of garbage. Are Tasting Menu's worth the price? Lets ask chefs who are doing tasting menu's. They will make an honest appraisal. Why don't you ask food critics or do you fear honest appraisals?

    Personally, I think they are ridiculous. I go out to dinner (sometimes four times a week) to enjoy myself. I don't want to sit in the kitchen; I don't want to be told what I have to eat and I am certainly not going to pay upwards of $300 for something I am told to eat.

    What makes a good chef? Today, he or she has to have his or her own show on one of the many food channels on TV. What happened to the days when the chef was in the kitchen supervising and literally touching every plate? It has reached a point where chefs like Bobby Flay, Mario Batali and other so-called celebrity chefs, probably wouldn't be able to get to their restaurants if they didn't have a chauffeur and limo to take them there.

  8. It really depends on the tasting menu. Let's say a restaurant sells 3 courses ala carte for around $80. They might sell a 5 course tasting menu using a sample of regular menu items that included 2 half portions of appetizers and two half portions of mains and a dessert and charge $100 for the same amount of food that costs $80 ala carte. But since staff have to prepare and deliver extra plates and you occupy the table longer, that is pretty fair.

    Other restaurants might do a similar 7 course tasting that adds an amuse bouche and another half appetizer and charge $160 for it. Then you have lost a lot of value.

    Still other restaurants fill their tasting menus with higher end dishes not available on the regular menu and then the $160 price tag (or up to double the regular cost of a meal) might be worth it.

    But at some point, above double the regular cost of a meal (and some tasting menus approach three times the regular cost of a meal), the food costs and extra labor and table time simply cannot justify the added expense (unless it is a white truffle or fugu centered meal or adds paired wines). At that point it is just a premium paid by new-experience junkies to get their fix or braggarts to have something to talk about at the club or on the trading floor.