Palate Pleasures – Smoke and Mirrors

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A drizzle here, a smear there, perhaps a squiggle of foam or a shiny bead of something caviar like …

Flourishes of unbridled artistic expression appear on a white porcelain canvas. In the kitchen, culinary Picassos delicately pick baby leaves, julienne symmetrical slivers, choose from a variety of fine brushes in order to place on a plate – a single delicate smear in feng-shui fashion.

The ‘plating up’ of a dish is equally as important as the ingredients and preparation of the food itself. In a modern kitchen, the chef is able to express creative and aesthetic impulses previously limited to the domain of those in the visual arts fields.

Restaurant food is no longer just about culinary skill; it’s about making plates look extremely pretty. And there’s no limit to methods employed in order to achieve that ‘wow’ factor.

This column has touched on the whole Molecular Gastronomy thing in the past – the deconstruction and re-assembling of foodstuffs using somewhat experimental and scientific methods to do so – such as liquid nitrogen to snap freeze, or thermal immersion to intensively slow cook.

Food preparation fashion has left the temples of cutting edge cuisine such as El Bulli in Spain or Noma in Denmark and found itself at a restaurant near you.

Trendy food phenomena such as foams, smears and soils, as well as blackened things, spherifications, emulsions and dehydrations, have found their way into the mainstream, buoyed up by our current obsession with cooking shows such as Masterchef, or Heston Blumenthal’s Mission Impossible.

Techniques, ‘til only recently the domain of multi-hatted or Michelin starred chefs, are scrutinised by the general public on TV and are now served up in many neighbourhood dining establishments.

The artistic impulses of the chef are enhanced by the employ of these techniques. The ‘palette’ available for ‘plating up’ is considerably broadened with colours, textures – all manner of weird and wonderful approximations of what once were ordinary ingredients.

The expectations for the chef and the diner alike are heightened. All the five senses are employed, primed for enjoyment. Sight of the masterpiece awaiting, smell and taste, of course, go without saying, touch – it’s ‘mouthfeel’, perhaps the slippery sensation of an oyster, or the salty explosion of ‘caviar’.  Sound? Well, that would be the buzz of rapturous dining surrounding you.

It’s an extremely theatrical environment, hugely transcended from the idea of food as fuel. It seems as if extravagance knows no bounds in today’s restaurant world, that chefs and restaurateurs are going to increasingly amazing lengths to wow their customers – with technical wizardry; indeed, the kitchen can be seen to be closer to a laboratory, or for that matter, an art gallery … the diner daring, only under the influence of extreme hunger, to cut into the masterpiece at hand and actually take a bite.

What does it all mean? Or, moreover, does all this intensive preparation and extravagant spectacle translate to a darn good feed?

Sometimes, like many ridiculously stylish and good looking things … dare I say they lack substance?

The culinary geniuses of the world who pioneered all the techniques mentioned above have spent years perfecting their arts. They run the world’s best restaurants and employ a massive entourage of human and scientific resources.

Does the modern chef and restaurant owner have such a playground to play in? I think not. The pressures attached to running a restaurant have an intellectual ‘gastronomisty’ of sorts. It’s hard enough dealing with multiple personalities – try finding decent suppliers and ingredients at the right price, having enough money to pay the staff, keeping those bums on seats and most importantly, plating a meal with precision and care … PHEW, I am exhausted!

Certainly, amazing new culinary innovations, ideas and excellent dishes which not only look incredible but taste incredible come from small kitchens and not-so-famous chefs from a restaurant near you. And when they do, we should celebrate their talent and give them as much support as we can.

But sometimes there might a bit of experimentation at play, lacking essential knowledge and experience. So, is the customer happy to be experimented on?

Somehow, I think not. At the end of the day, we just want a darn good feed. If it looks pretty, that’s great! But if it tastes great … well, that’s what keeps us coming back.

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