Of all the things that worry us about going to expensive European restaurants, the one that used to worry me the most was the plate.
Oh, not the plate itself, though often it was a large, black, geometrically-designed ceramic piece on which four small squares of meat had been arranged. That was crazy enough.
But around 20 years ago, somebody decided that chefs should be judged on how beautiful and complicated their plates were. So, a typical, prize-winning plate would be 1) large 2) would have only a small quantity of protein 3) would have a tiny portion of its accompaniment and 4) would be distinguished by scattered powders and brushstrokes and smears of sauces.
The chef would tell you that everything on the plate was edible and that you should mix the ingredients.
This led to a fresh level of trauma.
If the chef had served, say, a piece of lamb with an olive powder, a smear of mustard, another smear of chestnut extract and a small side of crushed potatoes, all relaxing next to a pool of brown sauce, how were you to eat the damn thing?
The chef and the waiters were no help. Yes they had told us that everything on the plate should be eaten. But if you ate the lamb on its own, you seemed like a bit of an amateur. True foodie pros whispered to you that the chef wanted you to cut just a little piece of the lamb, dab both the sauces on in it, rub it in the powder and then combine it with a small slice of the potato.
At famous restaurants, a decade ago, I felt sorry for the cooks. The chef had made, say, lamb medallions . But the cooks were kept busy making sides of potatoes, perhaps with rosemary and pancetta. Somebody else was dehydrating the olive powder. Yet another person was getting the mustard just right for the smear. Two other cooks were discussing the reduction of the brown sauce.
And pity the poor waiter who had to explain it all to the guest!
I felt most sorry, though, for the guest. We had to eat this stuff, always in a state of nervousness. Did we get just the right size of a forkful of lamb? Did we remember to take a bit of the mustard smear? What about the main sauce? Did it glisten moistly on the spoon? Did we manage to fit just enough of the side-dish on the fork for each mouthful to be balanced in the way that the chef wanted?
The tension was too much, especially at fancy Michelin star restaurants. If we didn’t like the food, we were told, it was because we hadn’t followed the order set out by the chef or not eaten all the drips and dabs in the right way.
That style of cooking is on its way out now, thanks be to God, and I would cheerfully strangle any chef who put guests through the eat-my-little-smears-in-the-right-order routine.
The point of good restaurant food is that the chef is paid large sums of money to create it. But, all too often, chefs try to shift the blame, arguing that because we missed a puddle of fermented grape juice or ignored a slush made from fermented carrot mash, we never quite got the point of the food.
These days, when chefs come to me with their powders, their sludges, their glops, and their nasty little smears, my first reaction is to tell them to go back to school.
Most of them attended cooking classes. So they know their job is to make good food not to design obstacle courses for guests or to test our patience by talking us through their smears and powders.
Besides, I think modern chefs have got saucing wrong. When the French invented saucing, they chose sauces (most of them classics by now) that would complement each meat.
They did not design a pretty looking crossword puzzle for guests. They were too busy trying to make food tasty.
So why do so many chefs waste their time with these needless complications?
Many reasons.One: this is the age of Instagram where chefs are always being taught that presentation is everything. Guests can’t taste your food on Instagram so make it look good and when they see it on their phones punters may imagine that it was tasty.
Two: a chef who includes so many elements in his plate (powders, sauces, smear, droplets, smokes, airs, etc.) is, at the end of the day, a coward. He simply does not have enough confidence in his dish.
Sadly, even insecure modern Asian chefs, whether Indian, Thai or Japanese will try and plate their food to make it look hugely complicated. There will be constructions full of smears, powders, pickles, jellies and needless sauces along with ‘rare’ or ‘just-picked ‘vegetables . If they are very silly, they will then impose smoke or foam on top of the dish.
When you are ready to eat the damn thing, the dish is so confusing that you are no longer sure what the point originally was.
I am not the only one who feels this way. A few years ago Daniel Humm, the three Michelin star chef of New York’s Eleven Madison Park, decided that he would simplify the presentation of his food. Daniel’s plates now consist of one intensely flavoured central item. Heston Blumenthal is more interested in how we reach to the food experience so he has no time for the poncy sauces and smears. Massimo Bottura creates complete dishes that celebrate simple Italian classics. There is no Frenchification of the plating and there are no sauces or sides to help him hedge his bets. You either like the food or you don’t.
In India, we are somewhat confused because when we eat in a thali we eat many things all at once. But each dish in the thali is complete within itself. It does not need smears, air and powders.
Indian chefs discovered in the 1990s in London that you could charge more money for Indian food if you made it look complicated. Inevitably, the urge to show off with over designed plates took over. It took a strong chef like Vineet Bhatia to insist that there would be no more than four flavours in each plate.
Since then, London has changed too.The Sethis, the current kings of the London scene, will serve Indian food at all their restaurants the way it is supposed to be: without any frippery or sauce smears. Their influence has changed the way Brits look at Indian food.
But I always think that the true counterpoint to the chefs who create incredibly complicated plates is Gaggan Anand. Each plate (often not even the size of a full dinner plate) has just one dish, there are no extras. You may or may not like his tonkatsu made from vindaloo. But that is what it is. He is not going to spray a mustard stream down the side or top it with a foam. This is not food that is simple to make. But it is extraordinarily simple to eat, with no frippery and no pretension.
So what’s the difference between Gaggan and today’s modern chefs?
One word: confidence.
Once he creates a dish, he puts it out there without excuses or fall-backs.
Cooking at the top level is about confidence. You create single dishes and you send them out to the world. You don’t take out insurance policies by packing your plates with many flavours in the hope that guests like at least one of them.
If your dishes are good they will pass into legend. If they are needlessly complicated, they may create a small sensation on Instagram.
But nobody will come back to eat them.
Jun 19, 2019 11:28 IST