Joyce Goldstein, San Francisco chef and author of one of my favorite cookbooks, launched a rant last week that seemed to sum up the current state of (some) restaurant cuisine. About a recent dining experience she writes:
Once again I was served carefully selected, gathered and foraged ingredients arranged in a line in the middle of the plate. So precious! All soft colors and plays on texture. These were compositions worthy of an artist’s canvas or a cookbook photograph, almost feminine in the delicacy of presentation, some entrees starting to look like desserts. The reality is that no matter how new and stylish the venue, I had seen these plates before in the last six hip places where I had dined….I am tired of seeing undulating ribbons of zucchini or beets or cucumbers sinuously entwined around fragments of seafood or vegetables, topped with little leaves, herb sprigs and flowers placed just so. And surrounded by those damned dots of sauce….Something crucial was missing: a unifying flavor theme that would bring them together in a harmonious and delicious way.
Lots of pretty dishes of well-sourced ingredients but no unity, no sense of aim or purpose behind the flavors of the dish.
This is the problem with the current fascination with the origin of ingredients—good ingredients are a necessary but not sufficient condition for good food. What you do with the ingredients counts as well.
The farm-to-table obsession with origins has been with us for some time and signs of overuse are are not surprising. Me-too-ism afflicts not only the edible arts but any art form, especially in the age of instant communication. When someone has a successful approach to music or the visual arts, it is instantly communicated around the globe, and the temptation to capitalize on the trend is more than up-and-coming artists looking for an angle can resist. Chefs are no different.
But I suspect there are financial reasons for excessive conformism in the edible arts. In the increasingly low-margin, risky, restaurant business playing it safe might seem like the prudent approach, especially given the conservatism of diners and the vagaries of appealing to critics.
Jody Eddy, in September’s issue of Food Arts reported on some recent trends that might perk up Goldstein’s palate. Increasingly, younger chefs on much lower budgets are dropping the traditional framework of fine dining and seeking greater self-expression in their work.
In spite of the odds, more and more chefs are choosing to explore the genuine nature of themselves and their cooking in idiosyncratic ways that free them from the shackles of pandering and conformity. At Saison’s chef’s counter in San Francisco, the 33 year old Joshua Skenes offers a $498 22-course tasting menu to four people each night. Elements such as a 21-day aged wild duck boldly paired with persimmon, pomegranates, and olives reflects Skenes’ desire to give guests a spontaneous experience.
Taking risks and surprising diners with unusual flavor combinations will attract attention, although pairing duck with fruit is hardly revolutionary. But is this the harmony of flavor and unity of purpose Goldstein seeks? Can a 22-course meal exhibit unity?
Much of the innovation on which Eddy reports is in the form of a transformed dining experience. Gone are the linen and crystals, stuffy waitstaff, and overdressed clientele. These are being replaced by small, casual, downscale venues with earthy, inviting decors, and more informal interaction between kitchen and dining room. The emerging cooking style is eclectic, from rustic, home-style to dishes intended to surprise and challenge diners.
The new formula seems to be self-expression minus the pretense of upper class snobbery equals authenticity. As an example of a new, recession-constrained political economy, this is all to the good. And the emphasis on personal self-expression aspiring to excellence brings cooking much closer to the activity of the fine arts. But does this formula give Goldstein the flavor summit she seeks?
This question poses a real dilemma for cooks aspiring to be artists aiming at self-expression. In the visual arts, self-expression accompanied by an interesting idea in a compelling package is enough to attract notice. A work needn’t produce sensual pleasure—vile, disgusting, or disturbing works are common in exhibitions of contemporary art. (A kind of intellectual pleasure in the sublime is more common.)
However, chefs cannot dismiss the demand to produce sensual pleasure. It is one thing to view something unpleasant, quite another to take it into one’s body. In this, chefs are like musicians. If they want an audience, their work must gratify the senses. Although some musical works have received notice despite being difficult to listen to—I have in mind the modernist avant-garde works of the mid-20th century—their audience was tiny and largely restricted to academics. Sound, like food, enters the body and our response is similarly visceral.
It thus remains to be seen whether diners are seeking authenticity or just a good meal.