Do we really eat with our eyes?

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: Sep 10, 2016 22:16 IST
Good enough to eat: Today most chefs like retaining control of the plates. So the food will always come prettily plated from the kitchen

There is one question chefs tend to ask me: what do you think of my presentation? It is a question I hate answering because I have quite strong views on the subject.

If you are as old as I am then you probably remember something called nouvelle cuisine. This was a movement launched in France in the late 1960s that really came of age in the 1970s. Though it was caricatured at the time as a revolt against rich food, it did not, in fact, cut down on butter or cream (there would be no cuisine in France without dairy products). Instead, it eliminated the flour-thickened sauces of old, reduced the protein content in dishes, went easy on starches (such as potatoes), and tried to preserve the flavour of the original ingredients.

But this, as we tend to say these days, was only the screen-saver. In reality, what the nouvelle cuisine chefs did was take power away from the dining room and put it back in the kitchen. The old silver service, where waiters brought serving dishes to the table and put food on to plates was abolished. So too were dishes that the maître d’hôtel finished at the table by flambéing them or whatever.

Instead, the food went out already finished and plated from the kitchen. The chef decided how large each portion would be, exactly what vegetables you would get with the dish (and how many) and what the right proportion of sauce per dish should be. (In the old days, when you were being served at the table you could ask for more vegetables or extra sauce.)

Because chefs had taken control of the plates, they competed to make them look prettier. So the plates became huge. Often they became black rather than white. Portions became smaller. The sauce rarely went on top of the meat. Instead, it went under the meat/fish/chicken. Because starchy vegetables were frowned on, unusual fruits (Kiwi fruit was one nouvelle cuisine cliché) came to adorn the plate.

By the late 1980s, nouvelle cuisine had become such a joke that eventually the chefs felt ashamed enough to return to normal-sized white plates, to stop importing Kiwi fruit and to resume pouring jus or sauces over the meat. With the exception of Michel Guérard, none of them had made particularly light food anyway and some – like Paul Bocuse, even in the days when his restaurant served good food – had probably kept hundreds of dairy farmers in business.

But even now, chefs like retaining control of the plates. So the food will always come prettily plated from the kitchen. Somebody (a chef presumably) invented the cliché ‘people eat with their eyes’. (So shoot me, pal. I eat the normal way.) And every second-rate chef will quote it back to you to explain why, even though his food is rubbish, his plate is pretty.

In my view, the French take this stuff about pretty plates much too far. I once asked Alain Passard, one of France’s greatest chefs, why he stopped cooking meat at his three-star restaurant. “It is because I wanted colour,” he said. “How can you get colour on the plate with meat? With vegetables, there is so much colour to make the plate look beautiful...” (Try and imagine all this said in a French accent.) It didn’t last of course – Passard is back to cooking meat.

The truth is (or used to be – but more about that later) that you only look at a plate for a minute or so before you start eating. After that, it is about taste, not beauty.

All the best meals I’ve had recently have been cooked by chefs who’ve moved beyond presentation and focused on flavour (Getty Images)

The next big revolution after nouvelle cuisine took several decades and it came from Spain, not France. Influenced by Ferran Adrià’s elBulli, chefs started using science to play with form. So, what looked like a whole olive dissolved into a liquid essence of olive once you popped it in your mouth. Instead of a squeeze of lemon, you got a lemon ‘air’. No slices of truffle but a truffle foam. And so on.

I had hoped that the “molecular gastronomy” revolution (though Adrià hates the term; it was coined by Hervé This) would end this obsession with pretty-pretty plates. In fact, it has made things worse. In Adrià’s world, presentation was only about wit, not prettiness.

But now the mixture of Adrià’s molecular technology and Frenchified pretty-pretty presentation by lesser chefs has begun to drive me mad. Chefs will create a “soil” (a fancy term for some granular powder), will scatter freeze-dried fruit around the plate (freeze-drying was popularised by Adrià), will smear dabs of a lurid sauce around the plate, will top it all with some kind of foam and then serve the plate in a cloud of dry ice smoke.

My real objection to all of this is that it might just about make sense (though I doubt even that) with Western food but it makes no sense at all with Asian food.

Asian food is meant for sharing. When we go to restaurants we do not say, “I will have the chicken korma and my wife will have the sabzi”. We expect that all of us will share everything. That, after all, is how we eat at home.

So I have a problem with the plating of Indian food. If you don’t plate food in the kitchen and let it come to the table in serving bowls, the way we do it at home, then, of course, the whole question of presentation does not arise.

But more and more Indian chefs like plating. When Indian food went upmarket in London in the 1980s, restaurateurs realised that Brits liked ordering individual dishes and did not necessarily enjoy the Indian concept of sharing. So many Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi chefs began plating their food.

The useless ones ignored taste and flavour and just concentrated on poncy presentation. I have no real problem with that (as long as I don’t have to eat the food – some of it was quite vile) because they were catering to a foreign audience which expected Frenchified presentation at expensive restaurants. (I minded later when they started claiming that London was the capital of Indian food and that this was how all Indian food should be served, but that is an old story.)

My worry is that too many Indian chefs (that is to say, chefs who cook in India), are now falling into the presentation trap. I sometimes want to shake them up and say, “Why don’t you just learn how to cook and leave your pretty plates and your canisters of foam behind? Unless you have the imagination of say, Vikramjit Roy, leave that liquid nitrogen alone.

A platter at the iconic Noma , Sydney (Getty Images)

It is nobody’s case that a plate should look bad. And all the best meals I have had recently have been cooked by chefs who have moved beyond poncy presentation and focused on flavour, while retaining a certain basic aesthetic: at Steirereck in Vienna, the Clove Club in London, the Noma residency in Sydney, Narisawa in Tokyo, Masala Library and Indian Accent in Delhi etc. Even the great Gaggan Anand, who knows a thing or two about molecular gastronomy, has moved away from fancy presentation to simpler, starker plates.

And all would be well – except for one thing.

You guessed it: Instagram.

All chefs will now acknowledge that almost the first thing most customers of a certain age will do is take pictures of the food. Even before a single mouthful is consumed, the photos will have been Instagrammed around the world and throughout the meal, diners will keep checking their phones to see how many likes their photos have got.

I pass no value judgements about this. It is a fact of life and to varying degrees, all foodies do it. And most big-name restaurants recognise that Instagram is an important (and free!) way of getting recognised and talked about.

My worry is that we have now gone full circle again. Just as we were getting away from needlessly fancy presentation, chefs are now under pressure to turn out plates that photograph well.

We may not really eat with our eyes. But all too often, chefs are being judged visually by people who never eat their food but only see photos of it on Instagram.

So here’s my answer to chefs who ask what I think of presentation: I think too much presentation is a complete waste of time. Focus on food that tastes good, not food that looks good.

But hey! This is the 21st century, the century of Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and whatever comes next.

So pay no attention to me. Just do what the times demand!

From HT Brunch, July 31, 2016

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