Often it is the simple things in life that are the best. The pure, uncomplicated moments – a walk in the sunshine, a splash in the surf or a quiet night at home with a loved one.
The more complex and involved our plans are, the more likely they are to backfire or disappoint us – when our expectations and stress levels are too high, it can be quite difficult to enjoy the fruits of our labours.
The same is true of dining experiences. There is certainly such a thing as “trying too hard” when it comes to creating dishes. With a wealth of amazing ingredients available to chefs and home cooks alike these days, and when fuelled by unbridled creativity and enthusiasm, there is potential for both genius and disaster in equal measures.
The combinations of flavours to be experimented with are endless. Ever searching for unbelievable new marriages made in heaven, there are no holds barred in the kitchen. And the boundaries of tradition – the segregation of sweet, savoury, spicy, hot, cold – you name it – are no longer a barrier to invention.
Anything goes, so it’s no wonder that sometimes the real point of a dish can get lost in the excitement of its creation.
It’s like a room full of voices all talking at once – it is impossible to hear what everyone is saying, let alone who, if anyone, is actually saying anything of any importance or interest!
And that is where we need to hark back to the simple things …
The pure, uncomplicated fact that you have an amazing piece of fresh produce in front of you – if it is cooked with skill and precision, it doesn’t actually need that much done to it. The flavours inherent need to be allowed to shine. It, in itself, is the hero.
There is much skill in knowing when to hold back in cooking, to allow a single ingredient to be the boss – to use other ingredients to support and complement, rather than compete with.
And in addition to the discipline required to exercise restraint comes the requirement for absolute perfection with simplicity – the fact that there is nowhere to hide, nothing to mask a multitude of sins. Each element of such a wonderfully simple dish needs to be perfectly prepared, cooked and presented. In many ways, it is the true test of the skill set of the chef – just the ingredients themselves, the most subtle accompaniments and the knowledge and precision required to conjure up the magic that makes flavours sing and turns a meal into a somewhat transcendental experience.
In this world of sensation overload in general – smartphones, hectic schedules, Skypeing, blogging and just trying to fit too many things into a day – it is important to hold on to some form of simplicity.
Freshly shucked Sydney rock oysters with just a squeeze of lemon, anyone? A piece of beautiful fresh fish, with just a squeeze of lemon and some handmade chips perhaps – or even just some humble and infinitely delicious cheese on toast?
Perfectly executed examples of dishes such as these can be as life affirming as the most incredible items found on menus of hatted and Michelin starred restaurants.
There is no doubt that there is a time for complexity and artistry in the culinary world. But there is an equal mastery of the craft in knowing when to hold back and when to let the beauty of the bounty of incredible ingredients there is to offer speak for themselves. Such amazing fresh produce only needs a skilful yet delicate touch to shine extremely brightly on its own.
Less can indeed be more!
This column was from issue 117 of Greater Port Macquarie Focus.