Nobody ever comes up to me and asks, "What's old?" They always want to know what's new.
Nobody ever comes up to me and asks, "What's old?" They always want to know what's new.
New, new, new. After 20 years of professional eating, I'm a walking museum of gastronomy. I can tell you who cooked what, where and when, and what I drank with it. But yesterday is history. Everyone wants to know about today, with half an eye on tomorrow. In this game, you're only as good as your next meal.
So I tell them what's new, perpetuating our desperate, driving need for the fresh, the original and the unexpected. It's as if we want to return to the state of infants, for whom everything is new and filled with wonder.
But why? Perhaps it's because our daily food is generated from an ever-changing display of fresh, new, seasonal produce. Perhaps it's because today's pop culture and its high boredom factor has also infected our attitude to what we put in our mouths. Or perhaps it is because mankind simply cannot leave well enough alone. We take an apple fresh from the tree, and before you know it, we turn it into a caramelised tarte tatin its own mother wouldn't recognise.
We don't eat from dishes any more, but from fashion plates, subject to the whims and fancies of designer chefs forever looking for new ways to catch media attention with their artistic urges. Heaven forbid you may want to eat the same thing twice. I can't even make my favourite Thai green chicken curry at home, since my wife referred to it as "so last century". I'm telling you, it doesn't pay to get too attached to your entrÃ©e these days. Or your restaurant, or your chair, or your dining companion, for that matter. Nothing is surer than the fact that sooner or later - usually sooner - they're all going to be replaced by The Next Big Thing.
Food fads have been with us ever since Stone Age man (well, probably woman) bopped his/her first mammoth over the head and dragged it back to the fire for a groovy new hot-rock barbecue. Without them, in fact, we would still be sitting down to stone-bashed, rock-seared mammoth every night. Mankind went its merry way for a few millennia, each generation being marked by an innovation or two that, together, spelt evolution.
For this generation, The Big One was dropped on October 1973, in an issue of the French Gault-Millau magazine, when Henri Gault and Christian Millau proclaimed "Vive la cuisine nouvelle FranÃ§aise". In it, they praised a lighter, redefined form of French cooking as practised by a group of rising star chefs including Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers and Michel Guerard.
Life up to that point had been blissfully simple. Remember the Italian spag-bol dolce vita of the Sixties, with its red-checked tablecloths and candles stuck into chianti bottles? Then came the early Seventies as interpreted by Robert Carrier, complete with iced avocado soups, terribly sophisticated vol au vents, the as-exotic-as-we-wanted-to-get beef stroganoff and the dinner party darling, beef Wellington.
After that, along came nouvelle cuisine, and French food was promptly sent where it had never gone before: into a food processor. We happily mulched and moussed and terrined, until we were eating like geriatrics, straining our dinner through our teeth. Nouvelle cuisine succeeded in making the word ubiquitous, ubiquitous; as in the ubiquitous crossed-chive garnish, the ubiquitous beurre blanc and the ubiquitous raspberry vinaigrette.
Its basic tenets were admirable enough - no cream, no flour, no rich, heavy sauces. But then they took it one step too far - no food. When the menu said quail breast, boletus mushroom and broad bean, that's exactly what you got: a quail breast, a boletus mushroom and a broad bean. As the servings grew smaller and simpler, the plates themselves grew bigger and busier, framing the portions of food in a kaleidoscope of patterns and colours that the French could not see were bordering on the kitsch.
Then came disaster. The French chefs moved away from the highly detailed patterned plates to dramatically black, glossy plates. I used to think these plates were actually made with that distinctive fingerprint motif around the rim - rather like the Australian aboriginal "hand-print" signature on cave wall paintings - until I realised that no two patterns were ever quite the same. It could well have been the fall-out from nouvelle cuisine that helped us reduce our Francocentric dining ways and look beyond the formal, codified French dining practices to Asia and the Mediterranean.
Thai food became The Next Big Thing, and we lapped up our tom yam goong, som tum and mee grob by the brass wokful. Even people who, two months earlier, couldn't take a sprinkle of chilli powder in their food were ordering their jungle curries "Thai hot" and scouring Asian food stores for those explosive little chillies known as nam prik, which charmingly translates as "rat's droppings".
Then we became obsessed with finger food. First it was Italian antipasto, followed by Greek mezes. Then tapas flamencoed its way into our lives, and soon most of us had forgotten how to hold a knife and fork. By then we were hooked. We wanted new, and we didn't care what language it came in, so we wolfed down nouvelle Chinoise, nuevo Latino and nuova cucina.
For a minute there, Cajun was ragin' and we finally had an excuse for burning the fish and overcooking the rice. It didn't last. At one point, it seemed these new-to-us cuisines blurred into a sort of Cal-Ital-Pac-Rim-Mod-Med-Pol-Pot culinary regime that changed at the drop of a soufflÃ©.
The flavours of Morocco swept over us like a desert storm. Out went the packets of arborio rice, instant polenta and Sardinian fregola, and in came the instant couscous. Out went the bottles of sweet Thai chilli sauce, pirri pirri and Tabasco, in came the jars of hot-as-Hades harissa.
Then came the silliest food trend of all, as East met West. Who said East really wanted to meet West in the first place? Does North ever meet South? Can East-Northeast have a passing fling with West-Southwest?
The philosophy was originally born of a genuine desire on behalf of European and American chefs to add life and vitality to their cooking, with the exotic fragrances and sparkling freshness of Asian ingredients and techniques. At the same time Asian chefs began looking for ways to refine and adapt their traditional flavours by incorporating the rich produce and classic skills of French cooking.
While precious few chefs (America's Nobu Matsuhisa, New Zealand-born Peter Gordon and Australia's Neil Perry) have succeeded in producing dishes that are original, fresh, balanced and self-contained, many succeeded in cooking dishes that were just plain silly. These people expected us to eat racks of lamb with chopsticks and slippery rice noodles with a knife and fork. The eminently sensible Jeremiah Tower, of San Francisco's Stars restaurant, pointed out at the time that before attempting East meets West, chefs should first make sure that they were either solidly French based, or Asian based. "You should come from one classic base or the other," he counselled, "You can't just take the two concepts and slam them together."
But slam away they did, creating an orphaned cuisine with no roots and no place to call home. Just as nouvelle cuisine and cuisine minceur were Magimixed out of existence a decade before, we had to live through a rash of misguided young chefs who threw coriander into our country pork cassoulet, stirred cream and nutmeg into our wok-seared bok choy cabbage and slipped star anise into our pommes purÃ©e.
And they're still doing it. East meets West has now headed north to Scandinavia, where it is known as cross-kitchen cuisine. Okay, so maybe it's possible to tire of herring and vendace roe for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but is that any excuse to combine Moroccan meatballs with lentils, couscous, mint tzaziki and bok choy cabbage, as served at Helsinki's Pravda restaurant? Let me answer that: no.
There is some debate in polite foodie circles as to where these trends and innovations come from, with one side of the table arguing that the glossy food mags' monthly spew of gorgeously photographed theme pages is the source of all ideas. I tend to agree with the opposing side, however, who credit (blame?) the chefs of the world, those restless artists who seek always to perpetuate the glory of their names - or just get more bums on seats - by doing something new.
Take the current trend for high-rise food. Before this, the only time that food rose from your plate was when it was on your fork. Faced with the limitations of the rim of the dinner plate, however, chefs soon began to reason that the only way was up. Midway through the Nineties, food began to tower over us in precarious multicoloured columns that defied gravity, tried the waiter's patience, and terrified the diner.
The spiritual home of the culinary high rise was, of course, New York. At the Gotham Bar and Grill, chef Alfred Portale began constructing reach-for-the-sky creations that rocked the Big Apple to its core. Roast lobster, beet couscous and baby bok choy cabbage perched on one another's shoulders like acrobats. Red snapper, baby clams and merguez sausage played stacks-on-the-mill with one another, while a colourful herb salad erupted from a pyramid of tuna tartare like a bad hat at Ascot.
Portale insists that this was not the work of a sculptural artist gone mad, but that of a pragmatist in a very busy kitchen, maintaining in his Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook that the innovation was born of necessity. "In order to keep the cooking time down to facilitate the production of certain fish entrÃ©es, we began cutting the fish in half," he explains. "Rather than placing the two fillet halves on a plate, we stacked them."
But the death knell might be ringing for the sculptural approach. Much-lauded New York chef Jean-Gorges Vongerichten was recently quoted as saying, "Once you start piling things up, making a skyscraper out of food, there's a lot of manipulation and it doesn't become food any more." Vongerichten, you see, is more of a geometrist. "The motif of my restaurant, Jean-Georges, is based on the square," he notes. "When we designed the restaurant, first we looked at the windows, which are square, and now we have squares everywhere - even the food on the plate." So now you can lunch on Vongerichten's olive oil-marinated tuna, a chequerboard of light and dark flesh.
At least it's not a triangle. Remember when chefs went mad with those triangular moulds? It was OK for Marco Pierre White and his disciples to turn chocolate into triangles, but on one memorable occasion I was presented with triangular risotto, which is not a good thing to do to risotto. To make matters worse, it came topped with a tiny fuzz-ball of deep-fried, julienned leeks, another of the endearing innovations of Nineties' culinary design.
Generally credited to chef Alain Senderens of L'Archestrate and Lucas Carton restaurants in Paris, the technique is simple - shredding leeks into fine filaments, then deep frying until they resemble crisp golden tumbleweeds. At one point, you couldn't order a main course in a top restaurant in Paris, London, Sydney, or San Francisco without it arriving with a frizzy, ill-fitting toupee.
Almost as omnipresent nowadays is the capuccino sauce (or "foam" as it is known in America), whizzed at the last minute with a hand-held blender in the pan until frothy.
Gordon Ramsay, who tends to make a habit of getting whipped up into a lather, has been leader of the fluff pack with his (exquisite) capuccino of haricots blancs with morels, and another of roasted langoustine and lentils.
One British glossy recently traced the use of foamy sauces to Marco Pierre White, which is a little like tracing bubble-and-squeak all the way back to Jamie Oliver. Had they done their homework, they would have found that Alain Chapel was serving a capuccino soup of mushrooms at his Mionnay restaurant by the early Eighties.
That's the thing about innovations. For every original, there are thousands of copyists. Chefs make the perfect copyists, often sending out a facsimile that surpasses the original, which annoys the originator no end. New York chef David Burke stunned the gastronomic press recently when he legally trademarked his pastrami-style salmon and swordfish chop in an effort to curtail plagiarism.
It's a good thing Pierre Koffmann didn't copyright his famous boned pig's trotter stuffed with chicken farce, sweetbreads and morels, or every second restaurant in London and Sydney would find themselves short of a main course. In his book White Heat, Marco Pierre White says of Koffmann's appropriated trotter, "It's simple and earthy, but it's also elegant and intelligent. You can't take it any further, it's a complete meal; it's not a recipe for talking about, it's a meal to be eaten."
Yet so much of what we are served in restaurants is made more for talking about than actually eating. It's as if the proprietors know we really have nothing to talk about, so they give us a few conversation pointers to break the ice.
Like the fad for pour-on soups, where a few miserable little mussels and a bit of diced tomato are brought to the table isolated in the middle of a huge, bare, shallow bowl. You've just picked up your spoon thinking it's all a bit mangy, when a waiter appears from nowhere with a little copper pot and pours a bisquey, creamy broth all over it. It takes all your self-restraint not to stand up and start applauding, as much from relief that you will have something to eat as anything else.
To really come off, the innovative must contain an element of surprise, so that we, like excited little kiddies at a birthday party, can squeal and laugh with sheer delight. Break open that innocent-looking boiled egg, and - surprise - it's full of truffle or caviare; break open that salt crust and it's a perfectly steamed chicken; tear away the bread dough and it's pinkly cooked salmon; crack the clay shell and it's an entire guinea fowl; tear away the banana leaves, and it's a spicy cutlet of fish.
One of the most recent innovations obviously sprung from the fact that our chefs feel they have run out of new and different ways to cook everything. Now they have found new and different ways not to cook everything. They merrily sashimi, gravlax and ceviche everything in sight. They carpaccio not just beef, but everything from salmon and swordfish to beetroot and even pineapple.
When they can't invent new dishes, the truly inventive chefs simply invent new courses. So we now have a pre-appetiser - a little nibbly of something that somehow manages to wedge itself between the amuse-geule and the entrÃ©e, and, perhaps the wackiest idea of them all, a pre-dessert. This one really has me stumped.
You've just had two courses (well, five, including the amuse geule, the pre-appetiser and the between-course sorbet), but before you can go and totally indulge in some fantasy of cream and pastry and sweetness, you are first presented with another, lesser vision of cream and pastry and sweetness. Oh, goody, now I'm REALLY looking forward to my dessert. And I'm sure to be able to scoff all the petits fours with coffee, as well.
Not content with adding courses, really inventive chefs are now doing away with courses altogether, preferring to send out a number of tastes on little plates. Pierre Gagnaire in Paris and Michel Bras in Laguiole led the way by sending out two or three containers at a time, perhaps a soup in a glass, a terrine on a slab of granite and, say, a salad in a finger bowl, for our amusement.
Meanwhile at the Waldorf Astoria's Peacock Alley restaurant in New York, chef Laurent Gras further deconstructs traditional dining, offering a "tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte" menu of seven different tastes, each composed of two ingredients. All you do is order baby spinach or sea scallops or rabbit chop, and you'll get what he thinks goes best with it. "Consider these dishes as pieces of a gustatory mosaic you create; each large enough to make an important contribution, but too small to complete the design." And you thought you were just ordering dinner.
In an effort to get more of us to spend our hard-earned money on their food, clever restaurateurs have turned to seducing us with a mix of tribal bonding and showtime theatrics. Dining was once an almost private experience, swathed in velvet drapes, concealed in booths, and kept discreetly quiet with carpet and soft-footed retainers.
This idea was officially put to rest on 14 February 1993, when Sir Terence Conran opened the 400-seater Quaglino, and in one opening night dished out more old-is-new-again innovations than we had witnessed in the previous 10 years.
In came the grand entrance, the rotisserie, the crustacea bar, and even the cigarette girl. Back came the Sunday roast, fish and chips, simple grills, stews and pavlova. With it all came a new job security for the restaurant industry. At every service, Quaglino employed a manager, two first head waiters, 10 head waiters, 10 chefs de rang, 12 runners, three barmen, three bar waitresses, one cashier, four receptionists, two cloakroom attendants, a shop assistant, a doorman and three telephonists, not to mention the cigarette girl.
Quaglino is now but a shrimp on a Conran crustacean platter, as restaurants have ballooned into gastronomic auditoriums on the understanding that if you can't get better, you can always get bigger. This is, in turn, leading to the next trend, for small, private, club-like dining rooms, in which we can get away from the crowd, swathe ourselves in velvet, and discreetly order from soft-footed retainers. So what else is new?
Future-thinkers suggest we have a lot on our plate to look forward to, such as transdermal food patches, intravenous energy drips and heat'n'serve food stations in places of public gathering. Then there will be the new "nutraceutical" foods, nutritionally altered to combat various diseases; animal products simulated from soybeans and aquatic cryptogams (seaweed), with restaurant menus "personalised" to our preferences, medical profile, age and income bracket.
Oh, sure, future-thinkers. You have forgotten one important thing, and that's us. The eaters, the consumers, the patsies, the punters. If we don't like it, The Next Big Thing put forward by an ambitious restaurateur will also be The Last Little Thing they do just before going out of business. After all, our palates and tastes were formed over centuries, and food remains an integral part of our collective memory. Muck around with that too much, and you're off the menu like yesterday's special. Food, in the end, is all about desire; a longing for deeper experiences, sensory pleasures and a sense of control over our own health and happiness. But there's nothing new about that.Reuse content