Dinner Distorted

by Jan

From years of observation when eating out, and reading and watching the food media, it appears that some things have gone over the top:

Expensive restaurant dinners:  we don’t have to eat out, of course, but when we do, does it really have to be so expensive? What I mean is bad value for money – is three small pieces of fish on a large plate really worth $39?  Also, some restaurants can be too noisy, but it’s not church, so we don’t have to be reverential. However, not eating the inter-course sorbet because the chef might be insulted, could lead to……..

The cult of the Celebrity Chef: If they act like divas, maybe we should just ignore them, unless they spruik about the importance of good healthy sources of food and cooking methods. At least, that’s worthwhile.

Macho kitchens: None of the male cooks I worked with became celebrity chefs, so machismo didn’t improve their chances of becoming celebrity chefs. These types need to lose the aggro, concentrate on their work, and get a real problem!

The Food Itself: why do we need a dessert which involves 29 different processes?  And that’s probably a generous under estimate.  A dish of a meat/fish, charred lettuce and ricotta seems incoherent to me; some cohesion between the elements on the plate would be more interesting. I’ve seen menus with combinations like this, and have not felt the urge to order any of them. And, do the dishes always have to be adventurous?

Techniques: Different techniques such as sous vide and molecular are fine but not if the food is tastelessly combined with discordant elements, as above. Admiring techniques is interesting, but fawning all over them and rushing out to buy yet another gadget may need a second thought.

Tableware: Bowls and jars can look attractive but don’t make the food taste better. Sorry. However, putting cutlery in a can in the middle of the table is efficient. Some platters and breadboards which are very flat make it difficult for waiters to pick them up when they clear the table.

Food as Art:  Yes it looks lovely when it lands in front of you, but it’s gone in 10 minutes. It’s not Kandinsky, and by the time it’s eaten it won’t even look as messy as a Pollock. Just make food which looks like food; it’s easier for everyone, and keeps the labour cost down.  And there’s no risk of accusations of not caring about third world hunger.

Masterchef Effect: The rise of shows like Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules has made cooking, to some extent, something one watches rather than actually does. I hope that’s wrong.  It’s aspirational food rather than ordinary family food, so some feel pressure to become gourmet cooks. Along with this, there’s an increase in food blogs which often consist of mostly photos. It seems almost mandatory to photograph your dinner, then Instagram it. By that time, the food’s cold!

Food Standards: having said that, some people actually do some real cooking rather than watching other people doing it. This means that retailers felt the need to stock perfect blemish-free fruit and vegetables.

Food Wastage: This perfect food left unsold is then possibly wasted.  Apparently Australians throw out an estimated $616 worth of food per year. Now the new fad is that some retailers are sensibly selling imperfect produce for reduced prices. It makes sense – nature does not produce perfection every time, it’s easy enough to pare off a blemish, and it all tastes the same anyway.

Loss of Culinary Knowledge: Along with the rise of cooking shows, there’s a plethora of takeaways and cafes which sell food relatively cheaply, so the necessity to cook dinner has diminished. Plus, some people are required to work very long hours, so understandably don’t feel like cooking when they get home. The result of this is a loss of culinary skills. Reading Michael Pollan will give them knowledge, but a recipe book or blog will give them the skills to cook something delicious and nutritious, quick and economical.

Advertising and Beliefs: Words such as artisan, provenance, craft, local, organic, bespoke, ethical, paddock to plate are really good for sales, but the authenticity may be questionable……..

Studies have been done, for example, on comparing two samples of the same food product; one labelled that the food was produced humanely and ethically, and the other labelled as conventionally produced. The finding was that the ethical product tasted better.

In one of Dr Michael Mosely’s shows on SBS, two samples of baked beans were being given out in a public square. They were the same product out of the same factory, but labelled differently; one ‘organic’ and the other conventional. As you can imagine the ‘organic’ one was deemed to taste better. So as humans, some of us are very suggestible and easily influenced.

To extrapolate, this implies that as diners we might think that the restaurant fit-out, view and hype around the chef’s celebrity status make the food taste better. I actually know someone who is very susceptible to this type of self-deception, and I’m constantly amazed.

Food Guides:  These can make your food taste better too! A study was done recently using Yelp reviews, and the major finding was that the best restaurants are not near tourist sites, or a street corner near them. So the suggestion is to dine away from these attractions, and get the advice of locals or friends.

Superfoods, Diets and Fads:  The most obvious thing that springs to mind is kale. Just brush aside the broccoli and silver beet, it’s kale we must have!  Or the paleo diet! Unless they have suddenly gone out of fashion. Hyped nutrition gives people a false sense of security, even though the food may not have the nutritional value of broccoli or lentils. Not only that, the poor farmer doesn’t have to worry ripping out the kale, in order to plant the next fad such as blueberries, or goji berries.

There are also other products and processes such as: gluten-free, activated almonds, and soylent. Soylent would be nutritionally better than junk food, but pretty boring. Until nutritional studies have been done about these things, I would be sceptical. However, with kombucha, pickling, preserving these are old preservation processes, which have stood the test of time.

Ethics of being a Foodie:  Is it really necessary to be able to tell a good Brie from a mediocre one? It’s desirable in the same way that it’s interesting to recognise a Mozart, a Verdi, or a Rubens, but it won’t save you from starving to death. Thinking twice about food choices is one thing, but being oblivious to the world we live in, and refraining, is another. Flying halfway around the world to dine at a fancy pants restaurant is probably fun, but some would call it conspicuous consumption. It must be disheartening when the stakes are so high, and what is on the very large plate is a weedy let-down.

In conclusion, it seems that if one observes the history of food and cuisines, food trends are often ‘what’s old is new again’. And macho dude chefs did not invent them. If you need verification, it’s probably a matter of reading some old recipe books, or asking your granny J

Some of us just need to settle down a bit and keep the distortions under control – it’s only food, it’s not a medication, a filler for absences in life, fashion or caprice. It’s really good if it’s kept honest and simple, and better shared with friends or family.