FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

Today’s Chefs Need to Step Away from the Garnish

The importance of dishes like Black Forest gateau, Beef Wellington, and quiche Lorraine is that their ingredient combinations are faultless—and yet modern chefs keep adding unnecessary flourishes.
Photo via Flickr user kenudigit

Madame Poulard of celebrated, pre-War French restaurant, Hotel de la Tete d'Or on the Mont-St-Michel responded to the myriad requests to reveal the secret behind her omelettes (so light and fluffy were they, that some speculated they must contain foie gras) with a curt explanation: "Here is the recipe for the omelette: I break some good eggs in a bowl, I beat them well, I put a good piece of butter in the pan, I throw the eggs into it, and I shake it constantly. I am happy, monsieur, if this recipe pleases you."

Advertisement

The problem was that Mme Poulard's omelette was so good, people were elaborating and embellishing her recipe. There just had to be a secret. In truth, it was just so beautifully straight-forward: a plain old omelette with no fancy tricks.

Satisfying when that happens, isn't it? Or do we all hope for sorcery from our chefs that makes cooking more enigmatic and exciting?

In a time when all things food are incredibly hip, more effort is going into cooking and creativity. This is to be a good thing, as it is this enthusiasm that has helped Britain reinvent itself as a gastronomic force. But has this enthusiasm also over-complicated food and compromised flavour? Attempts to be innovative may have neglected the roots of classic cooking.

WATCH: MUNCHIES Presents: Margot Henderson

"Classic" food is seldom seen in contemporary cooking and it really ought to be celebrated. Dishes like Black Forest gateau, coq au vin, Beef Wellington, and quiche Lorraine have fallen out of favour—perhaps understandably, as they have been persistently badly reproduced by pallid, ready-meal imitations.

The importance of these dishes is that the flavour combinations are faultless, which is ultimately why they have stood the test of time. I once served smoked cod roe on toast with cucumber and dill. My head chef at the time couldn't cope with this simplicity and suggested I add some crunch in the form of apple; a garnish that was completely unnecessary for such a harmonious combination.

Advertisement

Esteemed food writer, Elizabeth David knew the importance of resisting unnecessary embellishment.

"Somebody might mention that there is also the art, or the discipline, call it what you like, of leaving well alone," she wrote in The Spectator in 1961. "This is a prerequisite for any first-class meal […] on any level whatsoever; so is the capacity among the customers, if you are a restaurateur and among your friends if you are an amateur cook, to appreciate well when it is left alone."

In contemporary cooking there appears to be an inclination to do more to food. Garnishes: tuiles, emulsions, "soils," gels, textures, smears, foams, espumas, micro-herbs, flowers. Processes: water-bathing, pressing, dehydrating and rehydrating, whipping, burning.

In contemporary cooking, there appears to be an inclination to do more to food. Garnishes: tuiles, emulsions, "soils," gels, textures, smears, foams, espumas, micro-herbs, flowers. Processes: water-bathing, pressing, dehydrating and rehydrating, whipping, burning.

Sometimes it can be very successful and chefs like noma's Rene Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson at Fäviken, as well as The Clove Club's Isaac McHale and James Lowe of Lyle's excel at combining multi-dimensional cooking and intricate plating to dazzling effect. Their place in contemporary cooking is vital but in every one of their extraordinary dishes, flavour never plays second fiddle. This is the crucial point.

Advertisement

Take one of the best salads in London—the pea and Ticklemore salad to be found at St. John Bread & Wine, which consists of raw peas, thin slices of Ticklemore, a lemony dressing, and some mint. That's it and it's perfect.

Put it into a modern context and the salad morphs into raw peas, cooked peas, a pea puree (textures of pea, if you will), shaved Ticklemore, a Ticklemore crisp (maybe even Ticklemore foam?), dehydrated mint leaves, and a few nasturtiums or primroses "for pretty." Exhausting—both for the chef and for the customer—and what you really have to ask yourself is: has there been any benefit from all this toil?

At Rochelle Canteen last summer, we served a peach as a pudding. Not because we'd run out of time or because we were lazy, but because that peach was so perfect that there was nothing that could have made it better than it already was.

READ MORE: It's Impossible to Find Good Cooks Nowadays

This kind of simplicity can be problematic as customers go out to eat to experience something more evolved, but the phrase, "I could do that at home" is misguided. The point is that the quality of ingredients at restaurants is largely not achievable at home.

It is also OK to celebrate an excellent product. In Italy during cherry season, it's common for restaurants to serve bowls of cherries on ice, just as they are, because that's the best way to enjoy them. The lack of fear for not cooking is refreshing.

Advertisement

A fruit and vegetable supplier told recently of how a restaurant had sent back their kale delivery because the leaves were too small. Their dish required larger kale leaves for it to look right. It's quite depressing that somehow it was the vegetable's fault for not being the right size to fit the chef's menu. It means the chef is doing the talking, not the ingredients.

At Rochelle Canteen last summer, we served a peach as a pudding. Not because we'd run out of time or because we were lazy, but because that peach was so perfect that there was nothing that could have made it better than it already was.

Sometimes, it seems as if there is an urge to fiddle with ingredients just so they are different or new. Butter has fallen prey to this recently and can be found whipped (poor butter), flavoured with chicken skin or bone marrow, and smoked. One effect of this competitiveness is the pressure it puts on chefs to keep up. When everyone is trying to do more, feeling confident about doing less is challenging. It's easy to question where the place for "simple" food is when others are trying to reinvent the wheel.

Everyone should feel confident enough to cook food simply and not pressured to add more. The simple meals are often the most pleasing and evocative: the crab mayonnaise from Quo Vadis, the Welsh rarebit from St. John, tagliarini with tomato sauce at The River Cafe, or just a Sunday roast at home.

There is something about traditional, classic, simple—call it what you will—cooking that runs deep into the soul and has the ability to comfort and satisfy in a way that fussy cooking just can't. In a time when it's possible to get such fantastic ingredients, there is much less need to decorate.

So be bold! Add less, stress less, and trust your ingredients.