TGIFood

GASTROTURF: Trends and Tendencies: The death knell for pretentiousness on a plate

There’ll come a time, and it won’t be too long now, when we will look back at this era of foams, gels and boil-in-a-bag (sorry, sous vide) the way we scoff about former foodie fads such as the Nouvelle Cuisine phase of the 1960s and onwards which, though it was meant to celebrate the lightness, freshness and simplicity of a plate of food, dissolved into an excuse for restaurateurs to put as little on your plate as possible while in no way reducing the price of your meal out.

The thing about a trend is that it is a trend, and trends dissipate, like a whiff of vapour sprayed over a plate, as quickly as they come. There is no getting away from it. For any food trend to stick around, it has to transcend itself, to make itself perceived as something worth keeping, worth revisiting and hoarding away like a beloved heirloom you don’t want the burglars to find. We won’t be hoarding the smoked coriander leaf foam, though, or the little orange sphere of anise-infused salmon roe gel, or the egg that has been cooked sous vide for eight hours and swooned over by tongue-swirling, up-themselves critics for its delectable just, just so, sooooo... what’s the word... soooo... but there isn’t a suitable word, is there, because if said critics hadn’t been told it had been poached in a plastic bag in water for eight hours they would have thought it was just a bloody egg. A little context is always necessary: and this is not stated to boast – I got lucky. I do eat and admire these very fine things, and have been privileged to dine at tables by chefs from Brett Graham (The Ledbury, Notting Hill) and Heston Blumenthal (Dinner by Heston, Mandarin Oriental, Knightsbridge) and Pierre Koffmann (the former Koffmann’s, Knightsbridge) to the Reuben Riffels, Bertus Bassons, Luke Dale Robertses, Richard Carstenses and Peter Tempelhoffs of the Cape’s idolised eateries. Some, but not all, of whom indulge in matters molecular from time to time. Peter T dabbles with such things as part of the greater dish, but they aren’t the dish’s raison d'être. LDR takes it further, but his dishes are always, always, first about texture and flavour. At The Ledbury, one of the world’s greatest restaurants, you will find a “soil” and other such modern fun-making on a plate, but the food, the food, is just gloriously cooked. Reuben, bless him, was given to such gimmickry in his early years in the 1990s (fresh from under Carstens’ wing) but came to his senses and moved on to good, honest cooking. Bertus B, meanwhile, always had a particular way with anything on a plate, whether a foam, a gel or a bloody fine piece of meat. With his dishes, everything is always balanced, every element there for a reason. And that reason is never to be pretentious. An aside: Dining at The Ledbury a few years ago, without us knowing it the concierge at the Milestone hotel, opposite Kensington Palace, had learnt that a “food critic” (I don’t answer to the term, I write about what interests me) was in the house and had phoned the restaurant to warn them. This only became clear after we had ordered our three courses and the first arrived. Within seconds, three other starters were brought. (“The chef would like you to try this, sir... and this... and this.”) Then came four or five mains, as many desserts. Ridiculous. Generous, sure. Unnecessary, yes. Embarrassing, undeniably. What must the others punters have thought of us? (Sid, ‘ave yer seen what them two are eatin’?) No, we didn’t eat it all. A taste of this and another of that. It taught me something about how hotels and restaurants inter-relate in London, and was a peek into the world of a canny concierge. Heston, would you know, with his slavishly admired (especially by MasterChef Australia contestants) “molecular gastronomy”, is in fact somewhat embarrassed to be associated with the term. It’s like being famous for having a way with a brilliant sauce, and no one ever noticing that the meat and vegetables you’ve served with it are no less impressive. This from Wikipedia:

Despite their central role in the popularisation of science-based cuisine, both (Ferran) Adrià and Blumenthal have expressed their frustration with the common mis-classification of their food and cooking as ‘molecular gastronomy’... On 10 December 2006 Blumenthal and Harold McGee published a ‘Statement on the New Cookery’ in the Observer in order to summarise what they saw as the central tenets of modern cuisine. Ferran Adria of El Bulli and Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se signed up to this and together released a joint statement in 2006 clarifying their approach to cooking, stating that the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ was coined in 1992 for a single workshop that did not influence them, and that the term does not describe any style of cooking.”

Blumenthal, in any event, was 22 when the term “molecular gastronomy” was termed in 1988 by Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti and French physical chemist Hervé This [Wikipedia]. He wasn’t to open The Fat Duck for another seven years. My suspicion is that what the likes of MasterChef Australia contestants perceive, when reading about their “idol” Heston, is what they’ve read and imagined he and his food to be. But guess what was on the menu when finally I went to dine at Blumenthal’s Knightsbridge spot, Dinner by Heston, for lunch? Partridge. With a fine, wondrously reduced gravy. (Oh sorry, jus). There was nothing molecular about anything on the plate. There wasn’t a blob of anything, no foam in sight, no spheres or gimmickry of any kind. Just good, old-fashioned perfectly crisp-skinned yet succulent partridge, so beautifully sauced. That is good cooking. If the MAus contestants had been briefed to cook “Heston’s partidge” without being given a recipe, you can imagine what they would have come up with. The poor bird would have been set upon by wild-eyed would-be-chefs, torn apart, eviscerated, whizzed, blitzed, smoked, jellified, and the little round and square blobby things on your plate would bear no resemblance to the poor bird whose life had been so cruelly wasted. Let’s not mention the pool of vapour (dry ice) hanging over the plate so you can’t actually see your food, or the whiff of something sprayed in the vicinity of your face by the contestant – a whiff which really should come from the food on the plate. Food does have its own aroma. That vapid habit gives new meaning to pretentiousness. Dining at Koffmann’s, also in Knightsbridge, a few years back (it has since closed) was as much of a joy. Pierre K being the chef who most inspired the likes of Gordon Ramsay and even Marco Pierre White before him. Again, just glorious food, well-made, beautifully seasoned, cooked with love. And it made me realise that even the most “molecular” of chefs, when it comes down to it, just like making a decent plate of food that they’d like to eat themselves. Even Heston. So much for trends then. A tradition, though, is another thing altogether. A tradition remains, or can remain, a tradition while trends whip past like trains in the night, off to faraway places and never to be heard from again. Remember stacking? In the Nineties, everything on a plate had to be placed in the middle in a cutlery-defying stack, so that to get to the thing at the bottom (which was generally out of sight) you had to stab your fork into the top whereupon everything would squelch out all over the plate and look more like catsick than something you’d want to eat. If “stacking” can so quickly be replaced by squidges and squodges of unrecognisable spheres and wobbles, I shudder to think what the next trend is going to be. Have I eaten and enjoyed, even admired, a foam or a gel or a piece of meat cooked sous vide? Hell yes. In the hands of a chef who understands that the point of the dish – the essence – is the texture and flavour, not pseudo-molecular frippery. Am I going to admire these techniques any more than I admire a sauce reduced three or four times to make it just so gorgeously more-ish, or a breast of quail or pigeon cooked perfectly pink and fall-apart tender? Nope. And don’t turn that quail into a thing its mother wouldn’t recognise. DM

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