Eating & Drinking: Remember when food was flat?
Sunday 25 April 1999
The whole room watched its progress from kitchen to table, and you could hear the gentle expelling of breath as the tower made it intact to the table next to mine. The recipient looked at it, looked at his companion and looked at it again. He picked up his knife and fork, then put them down again. He looked around, vaguely, as if seeking help. We all turned away, suddenly intent on our conversations, our wine, and the little bits of fluff on our sleeves.
Then he came to a decision. He picked up his knife and fork with some degree of vigour, and used them in a fast criss-cross action to completely flatten the entire construction. Prawns scattered, leeks imploded, and bits of avocado (did I mention the avocado?) ended up around the rim. Then, calmly, he began to eat his dinner.
What is this craze for giving us meals so constructed that they're impossible to eat? Playing with your food in such a fashion is surely the chef's equivalent to cosmetic surgery. You only do it when you're bored and you've spent too much time thinking about yourself.
Plating, as chefs call the art of putting food on a plate, is getting out of hand. Entrees are turning into edible Towers of Babel, main courses are turrets, footballs and hockey pucks, and desserts are a collection of Pollock-like splats, spires, and coffins.
Gravies are backdrops, sauces are squiggles, soups are cappuccini, and leeks are tinder-dry little crisplings to pop on top of everything, like a mad woman's hat. Even risotto now comes in a pyramid. Spare me. Risotto, according to the Venetians, should be all'onda, like a wave. You can't pile a wave into a pyramid.
Remember when everything was flat? When the highest thing on your plate was a scoop of mashed potato, and the height of creativity was forming a ring of white rice around a pool of chicken a la king?
These days chefs need a degree in architecture, a background in civil engineering and the eyes of a post-modern artist. Dinner can no longer be a roast, a stew or a grill, but it is an installation.
Is there someone we can blame? Thank heavens, yes. You can blame the high-rise fad on Alfred Portale of the Gotham City Bar and Grill, in the city that begat the Chrysler building, the Empire State building and the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. Portale treats his ingredients as if they were members of an acrobat troupe from Shanghai, placing one upon the shoulders of another to spectacular effect.
He claims his architectural style was born of necessity. In order to keep cooking time down on a fish dish, for instance, he would cut the fish in half, cook it quickly, and stack it on the plate. You can also blame nouvelle cuisine for causing the desire for a Japanese aesthetic to run head-on into the French rococo style of Gallic classicism. Some of the dishes of the late Seventies and early Eighties can make a Where's Wally? spread look like something by John Pawson.
I once watched the acclaimed Joel Robuchon arrange his Assiette belle- de-mer a l'homard with back-breaking intensity, using a tiny pair of tweezers to place 22 pea-sized balls of tomato, apple and avocado around the rim of the plate, as if stringing a necklace of pearls. He then added 65 tiny dots of sauce around the outside, turning the whole thing into a Tag Heuer.
Mind you, I ate the thing, but I still think there is something morally repellent in a dish that takes twice as long to plate as it does to eat.
The great Careme may have defined the work of the pastry chef as "the main branch of architecture", but even he wouldn't go so far as to turn food into a little boy's fantasy of a construction site. There are sand boxes for such things.
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