Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Is 'Fine Dining' Fine Eating?

"When Michel Roux Sr was on the last series of Masterchef teaching those poor deluded contestants how to make a croquembouche, you’d have thought by the introduction he got, they’d managed to get Barack Obama to put on his chef’s whites and knock up a tower of profiteroles..."

I was watching the ever dependable and imminently sensible Rick Stein on TV the other day and something he said struck a chord with me*. He was in Santiago di Compostela eating a simple little dish of ‘razor clams a la plancha’ and made the point that most chefs aiming for the top of their profession spend far too much time in the kitchen messing around with vac-pack machines, sous-viding this and foaming that, instead of concentrating on cooking good quality ingredients and cooking them well.

It does seem to me that if you gave most people a choice, they would prefer to eat some fresh asparagus with butter and salt, or a simple roast chicken with bread sauce, and not “Persillade of John Dory with White Onion Purée, a Croustillant of Girolles, Roast Garlic and Thyme” or “Carpaccio of Hand Dived Isle of Sky Scallops, Green Strawberries & Grated Cauliflower, Green Strawberry and Rapeseed Oil Dressing”.

On the whole, 'fine dining' as a concept just seems odd, because when it comes down to it, all these chefs are doing is making lunch, nothing more and nothing less. And certainly no lasting works of art or literature. This is why I dislike the glorification of the celebrity chef on TV. When Michel Roux Sr was on the last series of Masterchef teaching those poor deluded contestants how to make a croquembouche, you’d have thought by the introduction he got, they’d managed to get Barack Obama to put on his chef’s whites and knock up a tower of profiteroles. Strangely enough, the whole thing actually reminded me of the build up to the first battle in Gladiator when Russell’s Roman legions demolish the barbarian hoard: the music, the dramatic tension, the call to arms...

”on my signal, unleash crème pâtissière”

Masterchef seems to be a serial offender in this respect: it constantly glorifies fine dining style cookery through toadying up to the Michelin Guide and any chefs who’ve been awarded a star. There was another scene in the last series when one of the contestants had to produce a starter for a gaggle of Michelin starred chefs. The poor bloke had about 15 different and absurdly complex things to do before he could serve up something that took a maximum of 5 minutes to eat. Obviously though it couldn’t be eaten before being prodded and stared at like some sort of medical specimen by the po-faced chefs. Good food is supposed to be enjoyable and something to be celebrated with friends and family. Not to be eaten in an oppressive atmosphere, speaking in hushed tones in case you put off the guy next to you while he’s taking a picture of his carpaccio of veal sweetbreads.

Slight digression, but have you ever noticed that chefs on these programmes always eat things differently the rest of the us? They sort of snatch at the food off the forks and then, instead of saying, “mmm that cod’s cheek stuffed with lark’s tongues and vanilla scented celeriac purée is delicious”, they waffle on about how it "eats well" and what an interesting mix of ingredients the chef has put together, i.e. praising the process and not the end result.  

Remember that most of these very chefs, when asked if the food they cook is the food they like to eat at home, almost always reply no and that they prefer shepherd’s pie and sausage and mash and the like. So why bother? 

In order to gain distinction via the Michelin Guide, many chefs probably feel that they have to keep on “pushing boundaries”. So what better way than to come up with a dish combining scallops and green strawberries? Motivated more by craft and technical skill than by the tastes of their average customer, chefs can charge large amounts of money for the fruits of their labours, and us punters cough up our hard earned cash for this culinary equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes. As a result our chef is praised by the Michelin Guide, which despite what some would have us believe, is still the standard by which many chefs and restaurants judge themselves, and the whole cycle starts again.

Despite being a food lover, it might sound as if I despise the chefs who cook for me when I eat at Michelin starred restaurants (not that often!). Of course that isn’t true, I just think that some of them cook for themselves rather than for their customers. I have eaten in this type of restaurant and had a fantastic time (The Fat Duck for example, but I exclude Heston from this diatribe for sheer excellence), but nine times out of ten I’d take the simple over the complex.

So then, am I right and a true barometer of the nation's tastes, or plain wrong and a culinary luddite? If you have an opinion either way, do let me know!

* By the way doesn’t everybody love good old Rick? He’s like a faithful pet dog: reliable, friendly, a bit crusty round the edges, and tries to hump the leg of the fit Aussie who’s moved in next door.


  1. Your post made me laugh out loud. It also made me imagine Michel Roux Jnr in Russel Crowe's Gladiator outfit which is not quite so good *shudders*.

    I do see your point about chefs tweaking and poncing their way through nine courses of foams and liquid nitrogen and agree, for every day eating I'd absolutely prefer a delicious plate of beautiful fresh ingredients, simply cooked. But I do love this kind of food as theatre as well, and for special occasions it can be so much fun to explore new flavours, challenge your expectations and just feel like a little child again trying bizarre concoctions.

    I was in Barcelona recently and visited Tickets, the slightly bonkers brainchild of El Bulli's Ferran Adria. The food was completely unique and bizarre, but also incredibly delicious, memorable and fun.

    So, I'm going to sit on the fence on this one. I like both. Not a hugely controversial verdict but there you go!

  2. Well I'm glad it made you laugh anyway. I thought there's no point being too wishy washy and I may as well write something vaguely provocative.

    I might have overstated my case to the extent that I do like chefs who cook with a bit of wit and intelligence and if that means slightly strange combinations of food then fine. But I've enough bad examples of this type of cooking to make me think twice!