Deconstruction – I wrote this for the January February 2010 Food Arts Magazine
It all started rather innocently. A reporter from the Chicago Tribune, Christopher Borrelli, called me for a story he was writing, to identify the Ten Worst Dining Trends of the Last Decade. He interviewed chefs, food professionals and writers. There were many gripes, some not unexpected. People were tired of foam, molecular gastronomy, the 40 dollar entree, the menu as a book, fast food restaurants offering super high fat items or the bloomin onion, the communal table, knee-jerk on line reviews, the chef as media whore. I added deconstruction to the list. All of this caused a bit of a stir in the blogosphere.
What do I mean by deconstruction? When I order a dish and instead of getting the dish put together, the ingredients are artistically laid out for me on a plate. I am supposed to mix it together either on the plate or in my mind as I taste the components and drag bits of food through tiny bloops of sauce. Carried to yet another level, things that are soft are now crisp. Things that are liquid are now frozen, freeze dried or gelled. Lemon meringue pie is now a cookie, frozen meringue ice cream and gelled lemon sauce. Clam chowder has potato and onion foam, potato chips, gelled clams, and ham cream. Gaspacho is now freeze dried cucumbers, spherified tomatoes and extruded garlic breadcrumbs for croutons. Why do it? Because they can, and they want you to marvel at their clever take on a classic.
For the interview I used as an example a dish I know well: Spaghetti alla carbonara. It is a seemingly simple and rustic dish of pancetta or guanciale, eggs, Pecorino and Parmesan cheeses, black pepper and pasta. In fact, it is not an easy dish to execute perfectly. The pancetta cannot become too dry and crisp, the eggs cannot curdle and the dried semolina pasta must be perfectly cooked. It all comes together in a minute and can be a mess if not assembled correctly. As an insurance factor, out of fear or scrambling the eggs, many cooks cheat and add cream to the sauce.
I have cooked and eaten this dish hundreds of times. When I lived in Rome I actually went on a quest to see who had the best version of carbonara and over a year gained 25 pounds! So when I go into a restaurant and order spaghetti alla carbonara and am served a swirled nest of freshly cooked noodles, topped with a soft poached egg and a few sprinklings of crunchy bacon or pancetta, for me to mix together, I do not consider this carbonara. Please call it something else, but do not call this do-it -yourself dish spaghetti alla carbonara ( And what about that soft or slow cooked egg? Is it not becoming the new menu cliché, spooned gently on pizza, pasta, cooked vegetables, salads and meat ?)
With deconstruction, cooking has become an intellectual experience instead of a sensual one. I do not need the chef to lay out the ingredients for me. I want to see if he can put the damned dish together and make it delicious! I am tired of chef creations saying “look at me, see how clever I am, just look at my dazzling technique!” Restaurant dining has become so chef- centric that the experience and pleasure of the diner can get lost in the shuffle for fame, glory and originality.
We have more than enough mental stimulation in our lives. Constant email, twitter chatter, blackberries and cell phones at the ready, blogs, TV sound bites and quick cuts. Our attention span is getting shorter and shorter. We have become stimulus junkies.
However, when dining out I don’t want my meal to become a mind game. The role of the restaurant is to restore the guest, to provide sustenance, comfort, nourishment, relaxation and sensual pleasure. If I want intellectual stimulation, I can find many other avenues to pursue. I just don’t want to pay for someone’s mental masturbation on my plate when I came for the real deal. It makes me suspicious that they cannot really deliver. Cooking interruptus.
In fact, there are valid ways to get culinary stimulation. One is called cooking school. Or food labs such as the kind created by Ferran Adria where chefs experiment with ingredients and techniques to see what they can do and how far they can take them. Or food conferences like Star Chefs or the CIA World of Flavors where we can see chefs play with food ideas. These are great venues to learn and expand ones cooking knowledge But why inflict culinary mind games and cooking experiments on unsuspecting paying guests unless they are foodies who have knowingly signed up for an experimental dinner and are expecting gastronomic tour de force and pyrotechnics. .
Which brings me to The Top Chef Deconstruction Challenge. The competing chefs were given classic dishes to deconstruct. No matter that many of them had never ever cooked the classic!!
“Eggs Florentine ? What is that? Spinach and eggs? “
“Shepherd’s Pie? I know it’s potatoes and lamb but I’ve never made it. “
“Mole? Mine was criticized on a previous show and now I get it again, only to deconstruct it? “
It goes without saying that many of these deconstructed dishes were misfires.
When asked what was the point of this assignment Tom Colicchio said it would make them better chefs. Really. What if they had to learn how to cook the classic dish perfectly? And then do variations after they had mastered the classic. Might that not have made them better chefs and us more satisfied diners?
Interesting and enlightening perspective! Being one of those “foodies” that sign up for gastronomic tour de force on many an occasion, I could say that I’ve been romanced by all of this…But there have been many times, especially lately, that I’ve been disappointed in many chef’s new fangled takes on classics…creamed corn with little or no cream, and pulled pork sandwiches becoming more of a visual (and vegetable) affair. Guess it just goes to show that the original, well executed classic can never be beat.
A very good and interesting article. I want to say to those individuals who are enabling this inane insanity by patronizing these so-called chefs, “Get A Life”! They must be leading a quite vacuous and insipid, almost pitiful, existence. I did not even realize that this was going on. Does not anyone realize that the emperor has no clothes?
Akin to this phenomenon might be the recently discovered fact that 80 to 90 percent of the people who watch the cable cooking shows never cook at all.
Bereft of all this foolishness is the appreciation of truly good food. Perhaps we have to get back to the enjoyment of food as portrayed by the mother in the movie “The Loved One”. I am referring to the scene where she is lying on the kitchen floor, with the refrigerator on top of her, thoroughly and consummately enjoying that turkey leg and the bird to which it is attached. Of course I am presenting a little bit of hyperbole here, but you know what I mean.
Right after posting the above reply, I came across this interesting article in the New York Times,which is obliquely apropos, at:
The article is about a woman who upon leaving London, stops at a cafe and has a piece of cake, a taste she cannot forget. Upon her return to New York City, she wakes up in the middle of the night, baking until dawn in an attempt to duplicate that taste.
I find that a lot of my own cooking is motivated by an “attempt to duplicate that taste”. Like the pizza my father used to bring back from City Island, New York, in the early 1950’s, to our home in Pelham, New York. I regret to say I have yet to replicate or experience that taste.
There was a particularly poignant comment to the article in The Times, which I am forwarding here:
“A really wonderful bit of writing. Camus once said that “cooking is like love, it should be entered into with total abandon, or not at all.” I find that when I’m making dinner, baking or whatnot during the day there are a million and one thoughts going through my head….the time constraints, my work, the neverending to do list, the current location of my cat as I place the ingredients on the table and turn my back…but early, very early, in the liminal space between the end of one day and the beginning of another there is a unique moment of solemn contemplation where it is just me, my ingredients and the task at hand. The whole thing becomes gentler, even a touch more selfish (which can be lovely sometimes). Sadly here in the cold northeast of China there are few ovens to be found, and none much larger than a toaster oven…..so for the time being my early morning baking consists of skillet cornbread prepared in a wok as I listen to my neighbors rooster fail in his attempts to wake my neighbor.”
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