Forget complicated ingredients, many top chefs are returning to plainness on a plate

Restaurant food? It's complicated, thanks to show-off chefs, daft extras and too many ingredients. Christopher Hirst has had enough - plain fare is the sign of a really good cook

Christopher Hirst
Friday 29 May 2015 00:23 BST
The production of a meal consisting of a dozen oysters, followed by carpaccio of beef, might not make nail-biting viewing, but it's exactly what Christopher Hirst wants to eat
The production of a meal consisting of a dozen oysters, followed by carpaccio of beef, might not make nail-biting viewing, but it's exactly what Christopher Hirst wants to eat (Corbis)

Despite being a food writer, I find MasterChef unbearable to watch. Run by yapping martinets ("C'mon guys! You've got FIVE minutes left!"), it transforms the enjoyable experience of cooking into competitive torture that makes grown men cry. But the main cause of my antipathy is the basis of the show. I'm simply not interested in the fancy food that the participants sweat over.

The expression in culinary circles for such demanding, multiple-ingredient dishes is "cheffed-up", whereas my favourite food involves the least possible culinary intervention – dishes where the quality of the ingredients is allowed to speak for itself. I admit that the production of a meal consisting of a dozen oysters, followed by carpaccio of beef, might not make nail-biting viewing, but it's exactly what I want to eat.

Bizarrely, to my mind, cheffed-up stuff wins the Michelin stars and sells glossy cookbooks. To take an extreme example, the recipes in Heston Blumenthal's latest tome require upwards of 30 ingredients and gadgetry such as a sous-vide machine, which he believes will be "found in almost every domestic kitchen... in a few years time". Nevertheless, simplicity characterises not only our own cuisine, with its deep-rooted tradition of roasts, but also the everyday food of France.

Many British visitors must have shared the bafflement I experienced when first eating in the French heartland. The meat course arrived in solitary splendour, so I waited for accompanying vegetables. And waited. And waited. Eventually, the penny dropped. I should add that the pared-down meal was memorably excellent. Thirty years on, I recall every course.

Despite the strange allure of fancy-pants cooking, I have some distinguished company in preferring simplicity to complexity in the kitchen. The celebrated motto of Auguste Escoffier (1836-1935), known as "the king of chefs and the chef of kings", was "faites simple" (do it simply). Quoted admiringly at the start of Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking, it is explained as "the avoidance of all unnecessary complication and elaboration". Another great book about French food takes the same approach. In Richard Olney's Simple French Food (ironically, a far-from-simple book), we learn that one of "the very great delicacies of the table", described as "the softest of barely perceptible curds held in a thickly liquid, smooth, creamy suspension", is scrambled eggs. Olney rails against any tarting up of this classic. "The complication of such rich garnishes as foie gras, game or lobster… seems only to detract from the purity of the thing."

Christopher would like to start his meal with a dozen oysters
Christopher would like to start his meal with a dozen oysters (Alamy)

Flying the flag for simplicity on this side of the Channel is the influential chef Alistair Little, who has now forsaken restaurants for a highly regarded deli in west London. In his 1993 book Keep It Simple, he maintained: "Keeping it simple means being pure in effect – finding natural rhythms and balances, allowing food to taste of itself. Simple food does not hide behind a sauce of concealment, nor is it a contrived picture on a plate." Hurrah! How my heart sinks in a restaurant when a plate arrives bearing a clichéd artwork of smears and blobs. I wouldn't want to hang it on my wall, so why should I let it take up residence in my stomach?

Jeremy Lee, a distinguished alumnus of Little's restaurant who is now chef at Quo Vadis in Soho, continues the tradition of the uncluttered plate. Seething about "the dark forces of embellishment and other indecencies", he told me of his love for "the simplicity of beautiful produce, which induces an air of comfort and bonhomie in the recipient". The little sandwich of smoked eel with horseradish cream in grilled sourdough that has topped his menu for two decades could scarcely be simpler.

"The less fuss, the better," insists Lee. Another of his perennial favourites is Piedmontese pepper, a snack made famous by Delia Smith, where a bisected red pepper acts as a tiny, edible casserole for tomato, anchovies, garlic and olive oil. "Not perhaps for daily fare," Lee concedes, "but, as an occasional treat, served as nature intended, what a joy." So what else would he recommend? "What would you say to a plate of turbot, Jersey Royals and a pool of delicate butter sauce? Pissaladière (a French pizza)? Artichoke vinaigrette? A beautifully roast leg of Southdown lamb with a gratin of potato, celeriac and chard?"

Whatever a chef puts on the menu for punters to eat, you can often find that he or she will be tucking into prawn mayonnaise after lunchtime service. Once asked what would be his last meal, Lee came up with langoustine mayonnaise, cold roast grouse, with raspberries and cream to follow.

Another advocate of plainness on the plate is Russell Norman, who has built up a five-strong restaurant chain following his success with Polpo. From his tasty book of the same name, queen scallops with lemon and mint dressing and moscardini (baby octopuses in a spicy marinade) make a regular appearance on our dining table. Norman is blunt in his opinions about the cheffed-up tendency. "I have always had a severe allergic reaction to over-complicated food in restaurants," he told me. "I loathe foams, hate smears and can't abide towers. I honestly think that there should never be more than four ingredients on a plate. Even better if it's three. I lay the blame at the front door of Michelin-starred restaurants where there has always been a tendency to attempt to reinvent the wheel."

Norman maintains: "There is a an inverse relationship between the quality of ingredients and the preparation time of a restaurant dish. If your ingredients are simple but exceptional, you need do less to them. Inferior ingredients require more fuss and bother." The same applies to presentation. "The more a dish looks stage-managed, set designed and worked on, the less appealing it is to me. I like food that looks thrown together."

Smple dish: Norman uses torn basil leaves in his Caprese salad
Smple dish: Norman uses torn basil leaves in his Caprese salad (Alamy)

Exactly. You want food that looks like food not a photo shoot. Asked for a favourite simple dish, Norman came up with Caprese salad: ripe heritage tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, torn basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil and large flakes of sea salt. "I could happily eat this dish every day of every summer," says Norman.

The importance of simplicity was echoed by Giorgio Alessio, chef at Scarborough's Lanterna restaurant, described in one rave review as "deeply splendid". "Simplicity allows a chef to show how good his ingredients are," he told me. "Having a huge number of ingredients is just showing off. I recently saw a chef on TV who took 15 minutes just to give the ingredients. Amazing."

Alessio is trenchant about the dire influence of television. "The complication you see on TV is not professional. It's about entertainment, not food. People come out of catering college and want to be super-chefs, but the basics are missing. They take little interest in provenance. They're obsessed with technique rather than sourcing great ingredients."

He starts every day at Scarborough fish market. "Though 80 per cent of the food sold in my restaurant is fish, I never go with a preconceived menu. I only buy from day boats, not trawlers that could have been out at sea for a week. If fish is fresh enough, it is a shame to do anything but the very simplest cooking."

One of his favourite fish is Dover sole. "I love to cook it with the skin on, it's better than any foil. Slash it in the middle on the white side. Brush a drop of sunflower oil over the fish to protect the skin. Cook it white side up (where the meat is thinner than the black side) under a medium-high grill for 5/6 minutes. Don't flip it over. At the end add a nice knob of butter or olive oil as a condiment. Serve with the skin on. No need for anything else."

Actually, Alessio serves his heavenly fish with a plentiful accompaniment of vegetables. The concept of less is more has yet to gain traction on the Yorkshire coast.

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