That methodology is for McRestaurants and other purveyors of things only loosely alleged to be “food”—at places where chefs and fresh ingredients are as out of place as good wages. It’s a practice that seems, regrettably, to have its place in the American food chain. But when we pay to dine, to truly dine, we imagine something else: a creative spirit pulling energy and enthusiasm from farm-fresh ingredients and accumulating an always-growing lexicon of possible flavors that bubble on a stew of spontaneous inspirations. We want to be challenged and seduced, to be carried through a quiet carnival of ascendant textures and spices to a crescendo of blissful content, and then to be wound slowly down to a place of gentle, intestinal glee.
But our abundant yearning for compelling food has a dark side: Chefs bear the terrible burden of convincing us of their ongoing creativity and genius. Worse, as in the art world, what the public is willing to recognize as innovative and exciting is increasingly formulaic. As with painting and sculpture, the cutting edge is a misnomer. It’s a code word that refers not to raw, inspired culinary adventure, but to a central clearinghouse of cooking-show-approved “wow” factors and tired cooking-school techniques for plating food with an aesthetic meant to reassure diners that, indeed, the food before them is special.
When a plate arrives in front of me, as it often does, with a zigzag of sauce here and several delicate dollops of who-knows-what there, I tend not to be filled with admiration for the bright colors and the ostensibly beautiful presentation. Rather, my desire leans toward calmly rising from the table, slipping discreetly into the kitchen, locating the person responsible and beating them with a hot pan until he or she promises to never again arrange food in the manner of really bad graphic design from the 1980s.
Of course, visual gimmickry does not preclude the possibility that the food may be quite good. Unfortunately, in the case of, for example, a “deconstructed” salad, the diner may never know if it’s delicious or not. If one methodically eats through a succession of spare and attractive ingredients, separated not for reasons of flavor but for reasons of presentation, then one is likely to hit all the wrong notes: too much dressing here, untempered crunchiness there, inexplicable whatnot—probably an emulsion—lounging desperately in the center. If, on the other hand, one pauses to aggressively toss the salad, there is a good chance the ingredients will come together as intended and the dish will reveal its genuine, lusty and satisfying nature. But many people are timid in the face of overtly assembled platters of food.
This is why, rather than risk assault charges, the frustration of prissily plated food must be vented on the plate. Before eating, attack the thing without mercy. Thrash it. Break its spirit and crush it into a palpably pulverized but, finally, palatable portion.
Fine restaurants are lovely things, and clever chefs are worth their weight in pancetta and rare spices, but you can’t take any guff from them when it comes to the business of eating.
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