Among chefs, it’s accepted wisdom that: ‘You eat with your eyes first’. That’s why, like anxious designers sending a collection down the catwalk, they fuss so much over the finished article.
Their aesthetic obsession with outré crockery, micro-herbs and sauces applied with a painterly eye is appreciated by diners, too – at some level. There’s a historical precedent for prettifying food, and even a scientific justification. Fundamentally, no-one wants to be served a slop of greige food. It looks lazy, unhygienic, and unappetising.
That’s why the upper classes have always titivated their food in 101 fashionable ways. Think apples in the mouths of roasting hogs, glittering Parisian spun-sugar work, or that bizarre Victorian obsession (revived by the 1950s middle classes) of setting everything from sardines to strawberries in aspic jelly. This urge to finesse food is, it seems, natural to us. There were probably aspirational Neanderthals who served scorched haunches of giant elk with a scattering of juniper berries.
There is, moreover, scientific evidence (often from Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory), that gussied-up dishes are perceived to be better. Chefs will tell you that an odd number of items on a plate always look more dynamic than an even number. But the boffins have gone further and begun to establish that neat, ornate plating adds perceived monetary value to a dish and that (get this!) foods with pronounced tips should be served pointing away from the diner, to stop the asparagus spears feeling threatening. The Crossmodal crew have even shown that complex, irregularly artistic plating (it served a salad mimicking a Kandinsky painting) heightens activity in the brain’s reward centres, making the dish a more pleasurable experience.
Perhaps you already knew that intuitively? Take Noma’s famous radishes buried in edible soil as an example. A perfect balance of concept, design and flavour, it’s a dish of breathtaking audacity. Which is why, for all its entertaining LOLZ, I cannot support @WeWantPlates. From warm bread served in felt bags upwards, there’s nothing wrong with novel serving methods. In fact, they can enhance food, as long as they’re practical. A world that used only round white plates (which, interestingly, are thought to heighten perceptions of sweetness) would be very boring.
The problem is that in professional kitchens, visual wow-factor is often prioritised over flavour and any practical consideration of how easy (or not) a dish is to eat. Dishes can be beautiful impenetrable confections and, consequently, muddled in their flavours.
Think of the towering stacks of the 1990s that toppled at the first fork prod. Or those elegant dots of gel, smeared sauces and cuckoo-spit foams that characterised noughties fine dining, and which frequently left you with scant lubrication for your neat, rectilinear tranches of sous-vide meat. At the same time, in Britain’s gastropubs, things which had happily functioned together on plates (pies, chips, vegetables, gravy), were suddenly split up and served in tiny brass pans, mini Le Creuset cookware or dinky frying-baskets. It was a trend that romanticised British working class food, in a hugely pretentious, over-complicated way.
The 2010s are all about (ostensibly) ceding control to nature. Plates are less angular now, there’s less phallic elevation, but problems remain. Dishes come hidden beneath forest-floors of (in)edible flowers and pine needles, banked in drifts of horseradish snow on plates – rustic, handmade – that don’t allow your cutlery to rest comfortably and are therefore regularly aren’t fit for purpose.
Such over-elaboration isn’t simply down to chefs being desperate to impress. It’s more cynical than that. To create food that thrills people in flavour is difficult. As a chef, it can take years of patient application to develop your craft. It’s hard work. By contrast, any chef with the right tableware and bought-in garnishes can create a pretty plate by copying what others are doing. That’s why so much restaurant food doesn’t taste half as good as it looks.
We domestic cooks are guilty of this, too. Blame Instagram (according to Waitrose, 39% of us take greater care over presentation than five years ago), but many of us now cook with visual impact in mind as much as flavour. We’re living in an #instafood era of MasterChef and Great British Bake Off-inspired display, where bright colours, fat stacks and photogenic bowls drive food trends. Would freakshakes exist without Instagram? Would doughnuts be this big? Are brown stews too ugly for a web 2.0 world?
Sure, a beautifully presented plate is a wonderful thing. I’ve had my mind blown by high-flown conceptual dishes. But too intense a focus on food’s appearance is, ultimately, shallow.
Fundamentally, food is about flavour. Focussing on cooking delicious, nourishing food from seasonal ingredients is more admirable (more mature even) than our ballooning obsession with beautifying it. In Italy, a country whose food we revere for its honesty, presentation is an afterthought (to an extreme degree: who wants to eat a cowpat-splat of dun risotto?). But, day-to-day, who’s eating better? Flashy food gives us a brief buzz, but it’s flavourful food that satisfies the soul. We should be as proud of our dumpy, delicious sausage ‘n’ mash as we are our dazzling cakes.
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