Pre-amble - Tropes, Trends and Tales
For those with a guilty compulsion to gorge on all things culinarily televised, it is impossible to miss the professional chef's prevailing conceit of recent times.
I'm not talking about the ubiquitous foraging, petals of purple and yellow showing up everywhere they shouldn't, or of the commendable though often misjudged commitment to the hyper-local and hyper-seasonal. Nor of 'desconstructing' - the callous destruction of a classic (for a reason) dish into a lesser sum of its parts. Wit and whimsy intended, but delivered with not a whiff of either.
More omnipresent than all of these, the food trend of the 21st century is, conversely, anything but modern. Without doubt, it is the shoehorning of narrative and nostalgia into every dish.
Buzz-phrases like 'childhood memories of holidays at the seaside' are flaked over dishes more liberally than Maldon rock salt. From Massimo Bottura's 'memories of a mortadella sandwich' to Restaurant Andre's 'memory dish of foie gras jelly and black truffle coulis', under-seasoned can now as equally refer to a lack of story as to a meal devoid of flavor.
Rather than expressing brand-new, cutting-edge ideas, modern day haute-cuisine, with all its tropes and trends, appears to have regressed. Us chefs are now drawing inspiration from a task which, much like the modern day dining experience, is in equal parts insightful, labourious, infuriating and downright entertaining. Yes, I'm talking about feeding a baby.....
A La Carte'nt Be Bothered
A chef's exploiting of the meal to act as a vehicle reversing into childhood starts with the menu.
A restaurant opening with designs on the bestowal of tyre-based awards is not interested in you choosing your dishes. You'll get what you're given. The 'tasting menu' permeates every corner of the current culinary landscape. The appeal lies in the removal of responsibility.
Strapped into your chair, there is pleasure in losing autonomy over your consumption. Burdens of choice and tempo lift and you resign yourself to simply being fed. The more avant-garde (see 'expensive'), the more liberating all of this becomes - you are implored to 'eat with your hands', 'enjoy it from left to right', and even on an appropriate time to visit the bathroom. A huge feed followed by a long nap, all of this adds up to a very silly, very infantile experience.
Ants on a Shrimp
Observing the familiar, comedic ritual of a baby's initiation into a new food group or flavor informs a restaurant's need to challenge and question. The journey etched on the little one's face; trepidation as the spoon approaches, grimace while the tongue makes its search for context or reference point for this new taste, and finally, more often than not, a reverberation of glee which shudders like electricity through the body.
We all know a similar, familiar drill in a restaurant of cuisine not yet rendered public property by mass-marketing. A journey, too, of childlike curiosity, piqued by the exotic or obscure on the menu. Eyes widen as the familiar and foreign interplay. Relieved laughter offers conclusion when it turns out to be delicious.
It could be my beloved nephew's first taste of avocado; equally, the infamous live ants on a live shrimp dish at Noma. The journey though, tells the same anecdote.
Esculent infancy can be found everywhere. A baby's desire to put anything in their mouth, be it a remote control or the finger of a loved one, could be termed foraging with the right application of poetic license. As we move into our twos and threes and toddle into the garden, foraging instincts become stronger, with mud, ants and insects all fair game. The culinary elite are following suit.
Distraction techniques, theatre and the element of surprise
Running with a theme, fine dining's diversion techniques owe much to the more primitive forms of distraction and theatre fine tuned in the feeding years.
Whether it be El Bulli's 'Iranian caviar'; passion fruit disguised as the most luxurious of food items, or Heston's famous meat-fruit; a trick of the eye whereby a chicken liver parfait perfectly resembles a mandarin, or simply the pureeing of vegetables into something more palatable, distraction and surprise are an integral feature of the narrative arc of the modern meal. For anyone who has fed a baby, 'here comes the airplane' or the pulling of amusing faces serve the same function.
Cooking with Love
Call it fancy, fantasy or call it highfalutin, but great cooking, at home and in a restaurant, always boils down to the same essence; the desire to cook and feed with care, love and affection. If we all approach food and feeding with the same childlike curiosity of a great chef and baby, our relationship with eating will continue to excite, intrigue and thrill.