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How we react to good food often depends on the back stories

A spectacular meal at Noma in Sydney got Vir Sanghvi thinking about responses to great food, if they depend on tastes alone or the stories behind them

brunch Updated: Apr 02, 2016 19:12 IST
Sometimes, a dish is nice enough to eat. But it only becomes exceptional when you realise what goes into its creation
Sometimes, a dish is nice enough to eat. But it only becomes exceptional when you realise what goes into its creation

It was while eating at Noma Australia that I began to wonder what we looked for in restaurant food. René Redzepi, the chef-proprietor of Noma, came to our table with a live abalone, a shellfish that is popular in Japan and China, but which most of us have never seen raw.

Did we like abalone, he asked. I hummed and hawed. Redzepi said that most people he spoke to were unable to say what it was that they liked about abalone because it was, in reality, quite a tough (in texture) fish.

I said that I knew that the Chinese took the abalone out of the shell and then battered the hell out of it to make it fit to eat. Even then, it was never tender, which I guess is okay in China where texture is the sixth taste.

Exactly! He said. So he had set himself the challenge of making abalone delicious and tender. Unlike the Chinese who keep hitting it with a cosh (well, almost!), he had first slow-cooked the abalone till he got the texture he wanted. Then he began to hit the cooked abalone until it was tender. Only then, had he declared it fit for his dishes.

As he spoke, his chefs served his abalone dish. It was an abalone schnitzel, so it looked like a Wiener schnitzel (or a chicken cutlet), with breadcrumbs on the outside. The filling was abalone, and Redzepi was right. It was the most gorgeous, tender abalone I had ever eaten.

But even as I bit into it, I began to think. What if the dish had been served to me without the story about how he tenderised his abalone? What if I did not know how tough abalone could be? What if I did not know what abalone was?

Would I still be so amazed by the dish? Or would I have just regarded it as a fish cutlet made with an unusual fish? It was nice enough to eat. But it only became an exceptional dish when you realised what had gone into its creation.

Redzepi is, by universal consent, one of the world’s greatest chefs. The original Noma in Copenhagen came to global attention after it topped the silly but influential San Pellegrino list of the world’s best restaurants for several years. Noma is credited with changing attitudes to food and because not many people can make it to Copenhagen, Redzepi has done pop-ups in such cities as London, Tokyo and now Sydney.

At the Sydney pop-up, Noma also served an adaptation of the classic Australian Rum Lamington for dessert (left); a platter of local clams, cockles and mussels was one of the courses served at Noma is Sydney recently.

For the Sydney pop-up, which lasted ten weeks, all seats were sold within five minutes of the opening of booking. It was the same in London and Tokyo. Now that Ferran Adrià no longer cooks, Redzepi is the world’s hottest chef.

To his credit, he does not merely reproduce the dishes that made him famous. Redzepi’s philosophy is that he does not want to simply cook dishes to standard recipes. Instead, he wants to go out into the neighbourhood, find local ingredients and create dishes that show off the flavours of those ingredients.

By itself, this is not particularly new. French chefs have been talking about market-driven menus for years. Except that Redzepi takes it to extremes. The abalone was actually one of the least adventurous dishes on his menu. In the original Noma, he was famous for using live ants (from the neighbourhood no doubt); a dish that shocked London when he did a pop-up at Claridge’s during the Olympics.

The restaurant that comes to you: Redzepi, by universal consent, one of the world’s greatest chefs, has done Noma pop-ups in London and Tokyo before Sydney

In Sydney, one of his most talked-about dishes was a platter of fresh Australian shellfish. He topped each oyster, whelk, etc with a thin crisp made from chicken broth brushed with crocodile fat. (There are many crocodiles in the neighbourhood.) One of the stand-outs on the menu was a deep-sea snow crab with egg yolk. But it was the flavouring (not listed on the menu) that gave the dish its kick.

Redzepi minced kangaroo (as local as you can get in Australia) meat and let it ferment. As it fermented, he collected the juice that dripped out of the meat. (This is similar to the process the Thais use for nam pla, their fish sauce). That strongly-flavoured juice was used (judiciously) to flavour the crab.

But, here’s my doubt: would the food have seemed so extraordinary if we didn’t know the backstory? Is it the taste of the food on the plate that is special? Or is it the philosophy that makes Redzepi the world’s most influential chef?

Consider the example of Ferran Adrià, who is the only chef I knew who has been as influential as Redzepi. The point of el Bulli not just taste. Adrià’s most famous dish was an ‘olive’, which, when you put it into your mouth, turned into a liquid full of concentrated olive flavours. The trick was a technique called spherification that allowed chefs to turn liquids into solid (if gelatinous) shapes.

It is not a difficult technique to master once you know how it’s done, and these days, every second chef does it. But only a few have managed to do something creative or original with it.

A series of second-rate chefs’ experiments with molecular gastronomy have caused lay people to think of Adrià’s legacy in terms of foams, airs and smoke – as he conceded some years ago when I interviewed him for Brunch. But serious chefs value the underlying principle behind his food: form and taste are not the same. You can create a powdery sand that tastes of strawberries and you can create an “olive” in the kitchen that is more intense than any olive in nature.

And so, the same question applies: If the famous el Bulli ‘olive’ had not had the element of surprise on its side, would we have regarded it as a great dish on the basis of taste alone?

I don’t think there is any single valid answer to that question. My view is that both chefs (Adrià and Redzepi) will be remembered not so much for individual dishes, but for the way in which they altered attitudes to food and cooking. They are not necessarily the greatest cooks in the kitchen. But they are the top philosophers.

And philosophy is crucial. The great advantage that Western food has over the cuisines of the East is that food philosophies keep changing. The nouvelle cuisine revolution in France in the 1970s was not a revolt against butter and cream, as is sometimes claimed (take butter out of the kitchen and all French chefs would kill themselves), but a blow against the tyranny of saucing (though sauces were once considered France’s greatest contribution to the world). The nouvelle chefs created dishes where the meat, fish and vegetables were the stars and any sauces either went under the meat or became smears or dabs on the plate.

Nothing like that seems to have emerged indigenously in the East. The masters of modern Chinese (Susur Lee, Sam Leong, Yuji Wakiya or even Alan Yau) borrow from Western food or Japanese presentations. Bo Innovation in Hong Kong is gimmicky food, which relies on presentation and shock: a dish called Sex on the Beach is arranged on the plate to represent a tryst; there is even a representation of a used condom.

Thai is one of the world’s greatest cuisines but I’ve never seen any philosophical change in the way it is cooked. The best Bangkok restaurants (Nahm, Bo.Lan etc) actually go back to ancient traditions and the great chefs (Ian Kittichai, for instance) are wedded to the history of the cuisine.

Which brings us, inevitably, to India. As you probably know, I’m not a great fan of the Frenchified presentation favoured by Indian chefs in the West and nor do I think it makes any great philosophical points.

So are our chefs rethinking their approach to Indian food?

Some certainly are. Gaggan Anand has been justly acclaimed and is now rising beyond his debt to Ferran Adrià to find a voice of his own. Also in his kitchen is Garima Arora, who worked at Noma (as a chef; the world is full of people who have done unpaid stages there for a month or two and claim to have cooked at Noma). In Sydney, Redzepi asked me if I knew her. And when I said I did, he said he really rated her for the intelligence she brought to her cooking.

So Gaggan’s is one kitchen that is rethinking its approach to Indian cuisine.

And then, there is the great Manish Mehrotra. When Manish started out, his influences were Oriental, but his style is now harder to classify. He seems less interested in recreating a dish (though he does that too, i.e. his brilliant Daulat ki Chaat) than in using food to evoke memories and stimulate the brain. Though he is too modest to say so, he is one of the most cerebral chefs cooking in India.

There are other too – Saurabh Udinia of the Farzi Café/Masala Library group is getting there – but all too often Indian chefs steal the techniques of men like Adrià and Redzepi without understanding the philosophy behind the food.

Hopefully, as more and more young, intelligent men and women become chefs, we will finally rethink the basis of Indian cuisine and keep it growing with the times.

Vir Sanghvi was at Noma Australia as a guest of Tourism Australia

From HT Brunch, April 3, 2016

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