Reader Soapbox

28 July 2004
Reader Soapbox

"He's like Picasso on a plate," a restaurant owner proudly told me of his chef not so long ago. Well, I've seen Picasso's early stuff - he could really draw. He understood what the fundamentals were, he learnt his craft, mastered it and that gave him the foundation to start doing things differently. He had earned the right to innovate.

Later, as I sat in the same restaurant regarding a geometrically precise but predictably tasteless "medallion" of beef, accompanied by a tricolour of truly horrible poster-paint sauces, it was all too obvious that the chef was indeed some kind of artist. But Picasso? Cook me a decent steak b‚arnaise, then we'll talk about Picasso.

When you see a perfectly cooked piece of fish with bright opal-white flakes, fresh vegetables that look crisp and bright, these things are sending out a signal that they're going to taste as delicious as they appear. And, while I don't deny that the way things are arranged on the plate can add to the appeal, you can't make up for deficiencies elsewhere by making pretty pictures on a dish.

Too many restaurant kitchens devote time to fiddly presentation when their energies would be better spent elsewhere. What they end up with isn't good food, just bad food in fancy dress.

It's this kind of thinking that has gifted us some of the most pointless trends in restaurant food. The compulsion to build towers out of food is one of them, as are the fetish for spun-sugar cages (like eating cacti), fruit and vegetables carved unconvincingly to resemble wildlife, and the need to finish a dish off by putting something on the very top - be it a tiny tomato or a physalis - as if everything has to resemble one of Mr Kipling's cherry Bakewells.

Which brings us to a related and especially virulent bug: the random use of red berries. They get everywhere - strawberries sliced into fantails, redcurrants on the vine, raspberries placed like pert nipples on mounds of just about anything. Nine times out of 10 they're not very good examples of the particular fruit anyway, and almost always bear no relation to any of the other ingredients in the dish.

Once, an oval plate was put in front of me bearing a whole baked trout, with the head and tail intact - except that the eyeball had been scooped from its socket and a raspberry put in its place. At the time it was bewildering. Thinking back on it now, it has come to resemble an inspired piece of comic surrealism.

Maybe I was missing something. Perhaps I had overlooked the Ren‚ Magritte of the kitchen.

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