A Geezer Rant about Tweezer Cuisine
As I was having dinner with a friend in the latest hot restaurant, I had the feeling that I had been there before, when, in fact, I had not. It was the food that looked familiar. I wanted to love it, but it was déjà vu.
Once again I was served carefully selected, gathered and foraged ingredients arranged in a line in the middle of the plate. So precious! All soft colors and plays on texture. These were compositions worthy of an artist’s canvas or a cook book photograph, almost feminine in the delicacy of presentation, some entrees starting to look like desserts.
The reality is that no matter how new and stylish the venue, I had seen these plates before in the last six hip places where I had dined. If I closed my eyes to shut out the view of the room, I could have been in any one of many restaurants. All these pretty and anonymous plates look as if they had come out of the same kitchen.
Where was the imprint of the individual chef or restaurant? Are all of them clones?
They used to joke that there was a river of tomato sauce running under the city that fed our Italian restaurants. Well now I envisage an underground team of tiny elves with tweezers, carefully placing tiny little pieces of food in regimented lines across plates all over the country. Alas, not all of the elves are behind the scenes. If there is an open kitchen, you can observe their painstaking activities on the line. Like watching paint dry. Where is the passion and energy? It all seems so self absorbed. My friend at dinner suggested that perhaps it is not passion they lack, just life experience, a sense of food history, and a grandmother who cooked from her family heritage with heart.
I am tired of seeing undulating ribbons of zucchini or beets or cucumbers sinuously entwined around fragments of seafood or vegetables, topped with little leaves, herb sprigs and flowers placed just so. And surrounded those damned dots of sauce. I thought we had seen the last of those dots the 90’s but, alas, they are back. What are we supposed to do with these? Drag or dip one of the pretty fragments into these miniscule droplets so there is something to taste?
What happened to the mantra of “Flavor First” that used to drive the chefs? After eating a lineup of oyster mushrooms alternating with pieces of squid I wondered why they were together at all. I got that it was an exercise in texture and chewiness but what did these ingredients have to say to each other? Something crucial was missing: a unifying flavor theme that would bring these ingredients together in a harmonious and delicious way.
Many of the new restaurant menus are written in the same flat and un-enticing style: a shopping list of ingredients. (What follows are taken from four different restaurant menus )
King salmon, eggplant, olive, mustard seed.
Chicken, asparagus, tomato, wood ear mushroom, pine nut
Beet , vadouvan, mustard.
Watermelon, lovage, cactus, buttermilk, basil
Cucumbers, day boat scallops, wild fennel, purslane, almonds
BBQ pork, shelling beans, corn bread. mustard ash, licorice root
Quinoa, fava , turnip milk, curds
This style is what David Kinch used to call “comma cuisine” when describing how menus were written in Northern California in the early 80’s. All nouns in search of a verb.
I hate to think that after all of the long, hard work of the food revolution of the 80’s and 90’s to improve and expand our larder, that our cooking has come down to this: a parade of lovely ingredients lined up and marching in lockstep, like Miss America pageant contestants with not much of import to say, just pretty faces in favor of organics and world peace.
As a geezer who can recall, fondly, many delicious, full flavored dishes I can still “taste”, I am dreaming of the day when the guys put away the tweezers and the squeeze bottles and start making memorable food, There has been too much style and not enough substance. It’s all foreplay. The palate is entertained but not educated, titillated but not really fed in a sustaining way. After this kind of meal I want to go out and eat a burger.
Thank You Ms. Goldstein! You articulate what I’ve been feeling these last few years. Too many places take the presentation far too seriously and it blunts the enjoyment of the food. This type of wispy presentation makes sense at a weight-loss spa, so restauranteurs, please note: If I want fat-farm cuisine and meager splashes of flavor and opaque portions of food, I’ll head to Cal-A-Vie or Canyon Ranch. Give me a meal that doesn’t pass light or give me nothing.
Dear Ms. Goldstein,
I had not thought of my restaurant dining experiences this way. Yet it explains why, unless salmon is available, I simply opt for a burger when I’m out. And to make sure I’m full, I order fries as the side.
Thank you Joyce! Well said. It is pretty bothersome where this has been heading. It isn’t even based on respect for ingredients! Not to mention, a tremendous lack of the “value equation” for these restaurants. Whenever the herd mentality shifts in a new direction, what will these restaurants do? I think we know the answer. Great food & cooking, warm genuine service at a reasonable and fair price will never go out of style!
Thank you Joyce, very tasty!
We are cooking your chicken cacciatore tonight in Tahoe before a winter storm comes in. I am using your book Italian slow and Savory. I was raised in an Italian household with a Dad and Mom that came from Santa Marina Salina, we had home style italian. Thanks for the recipes. We don’t do commas, dots and tiny portions. My brother had that experience in Napa with a big plate and small portion of pasta. He couldn’t resist telling the waiter what he thought.
Perfect summation of everything I have felt eating in “finer” restaurants these days as a geezer without love for the tweezer.