Chefs are the definitive straw men of the age. They are constantly, wilfully misunderstood in arguments they did not invite, by people who they would not choose to eat their food. TripAdvisor is full of such complaining diners who, despite the thousands of restaurants out there more suitable to their tastes, find themselves suffering 18-course menus of tiny dishes using ingredients they have never heard of, baffled that the cultured butter (“Whatever that is!”) was served on a huge pebble. “What,” they ask, grimly, “is wrong with Lurpak?”
Restaurants come in various styles. Choose one you might like. Otherwise, this online whingeing is the equivalent of a jazz fan going to a hardcore punk gig then loudly hating it online. No shit, Sherlock.
Some chefs are at peace with this cosmic unfairness. It drives others mad. But this general low-level harrumphing at contemporary cooking and new ideas must be particularly galling when it comes from an educated insider who you might assume was on your side.
Last month, at the Hay Festival, Prue Leith could be heard having her cake and eating it (Bake Off pun intended) as, while conceding that some modernist cuisine is “wonderful”, she railed against “drizzles, foams, jellies… little lollipops of crackling”. Leith dislikes long tasting menus and thinks many chefs are too in love with machines: “Water baths, cappuccino frothers, dehydrators and powder makers. They forget what really matters is flavour and texture.”
Has Leith eaten out in the past decade? Because, in this era of creative but naturalistic New Nordic cooking, she still seems to be fighting against molecular gastronomy; a movement, incidentally, which encouraged chefs to use technology to enhance flavour and texture. Some chefs do go OTT. Technology can encourage gimmicky cooking. But, on that point, surely Leith shares some blame? She was a Great British Menu judge for 10 years, a show whose themes have helped perpetuate the worst kind of conceptual grandstanding on the plate.
In Britain, where fear of pretentiousness runs deep, there is always someone extolling ‘honest’ food (an empty concept), against some imaginary new threat. Last year, The Good Pub Guide 2019 was launched with a broadside against ‘Masterchef-mad’ pubs serving ‘kabsa, katsuobushi, matbucha, tataki’, a claim as small-minded as it is misleading given the predominant food style in most UK pubs is still broadly British (with a side order of Thai, Indian or Chinese). The guide scoffed at ‘carrot fluff’ and ‘edible sand’ on menus yet, at the time, I could find only one reference for each of those in the whole country. Hardly a ‘swanky’ food epidemic.
Going further back, Marco Pierre White spent most of the noughties decrying ‘soulless’ molecular gastronomy as a marketing ploy. In the 2010s, Delia Smith took up the mantle, weighing-in against ‘thimble’-sized portions. In 2017, she wailed: “If I get one more plate put in front of me with six dots of sauce on it, I will go mad.” She was sick of ‘theatre on a plate’, misunderstanding (as @wewantplates does), that restaurants are about entertainment.
Yes, in plating, form must follow function. Flavour is paramount. But how dull would life be if ambitious chefs did not try to innovate and improve within that framework? It is risky. Some of their mistakes will be spectacular and funny. But better that than stasis.
If you loathe cutting-edge restaurants, avoid them. But, generally, such chefs are sincerely trying to broaden the spectrum of pleasure that can be derived from food. That deserves not cheap scorn, particularly from people who claim to love restaurants, but a modicum of respect.
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the July issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.
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