Bespoke is best

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The Independent Culture
ALL THINGS come to he who waits. Especially risotto. At Giorgio Locatelli's restaurant, Zafferano, the daily special of nettle risotto caught my eye. "I'm sorry," said the very nice waiter, "but the risotto will take 30 minutes". "How wonderful," I said, and promptly ordered it, safe in the knowledge that my risotto would be prepared properly from scratch, with all the necessary stirring, coddling and coaxing that separates a risotto from a limp pilaf.

Sure enough, when it came to the table, the grains of rice were cooked to just the right puff-chestedness, with the tiniest al dente heart. They were cloaked in a creamy film that just stopped short of being soupy, and that tasted like a living, breathing thing. This is not a kitchen that utilises the bain-marie. While "Mary's bath" was originally an alchemist's term, it became the name for a utensil used for keeping sauces, soups or mixtures warm, and for a method of cooking delicate foods gently and slowly. It now seems to be the catering equipment of the moment, which worries me silly.

I see an over-populated future world in which the only way to feed the masses is from huge food-warming trays. But food from a bain-marie is extremely limited, in gastronomic terms. It is neither hot nor cold, neither fresh nor stale. The warming tray or bain-marie is something that seemingly only Indian food can survive. I'm not sure what that says about Indian food, but it has nothing to do with Indians themselves and their ability to put together a meal, so please don't write in.

If it was a truly good idea, we would have one at home. But we're too smart to cook something hot and delicious, put it in a tray, suspend it inside a larger tray of heated water and leave it for a few hours. If we're going to go to the bother of cooking, then we want to eat it at its best: freshly prepared. That's why what we do is called home cooking, and not mass catering.

There is simply nothing better than food cooked a la minute, or to order. Many foods deteriorate visibly every minute of their existence. The Japanese devised the sushi bar so that diners could sit as closely as possible to the source of the food, with many dishes being consumed within seconds of being made.

Then there are dishes that cannot successfully be pre-cooked. Correct Italian pasta can only be cooked espress or espresso, to be worthy of the name. Cooked in such a manner, it requires very little by way of extras, as it seems to have its own life essence intact.

The Chinese have their own equivalent in the "breath of the wok", or wok hei. The essence of the Cantonese stir-fry hinges on throwing only the freshest ingredients into a searingly hot wok, and allowing them to be imbued with its "breath". There is no wok hei to be found in your steamy oriental take-away food, or in warming trays of corn-floured sadness. "Never kill a beast twice", warned the ancient Chinese. They could not have imagined a third, slow, lingering death in a stainless steel tray.

There are some dishes that don't lend themselves to spontaneous preparation. If you order tripes a la mode de Caen, you don't expect the chef to start blanching the tripe, before simmering it in cider and sealing it up in a big stockpot and baking it in the oven. You could run out of dinner conversation - or Martini capacity - in the 10 hours that it takes to finish the cooking.

We all go light and fluffy over souffles because they are made on the spot, for us alone, and last but a moment under our spoons. The person who invents a souffle that will keep warm for three hours in a bain-marie is a person who deserves to be shot for disservice to dining. Far better to order a savoury or dessert souffle, and then wait a minute or two as the order goes into the kitchen. Within seconds, you will hear the tinny snaredrum rhythm of whisk against egg whites in a copper bowl, marking one of the great moments of dining.

Who knows? In the future, science may well find a better way to cook than a la minute. But it's going to take a very long time.