The Ghost of Platings Past
Patrick O’Connell, the chef of the Inn at Little Washington, once claimed he could tell nearly everything important about a chef from how we composed a single dish.
His background, his training, even his IQ- present on the plate.
In no way to we “sign” dishes more than the plating style- even as trends continue in the business to change at a lightspeed, there are certain touchstones of cooking that remain the same.
And so, presented without futher ado, some classic plating presentations and that “sign” food to certain era, place and time.
Le Stack (aka- the napoleon)
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What we remember- This was THE way we were putting together food from the 90’s onwards- metal rings, the garnishes stacked high, and the inevitable sprig of thyme towering over the whole production.
Iconic Chef- Gray Kunz
What Tony Bourdain Said- “Just pile it high, slip off the collar, stack your vegetable, deposit your chicken on top of that, and you’re halfway to making that fuzzy little Emeril your bitch.”
Era- The 1990’s in New York were defined by structured, composed, and beautiful plates of food built to be eaten in layers.
When it went too far- Toppling your food over before eating. ‘Nuff said.
(aka- the “a tasting of…”, or worse, “a trio of…”)
What We Remember- Being hungry. Trying to spoon soup out of a shot glass. Plates on top of other plates.
Iconic Chefs- Dominique and Cindy Duby, from Wild Sweets (at least in Canada)
What Tony Bourdain Said- "Giving people what you know they're going to like, that's soul-destroying in a small way."
Era- Ended with Pete Well’s attack in the NYT, and another, less-interesting and more shocking version in Vantity Fair.
When it Went too Far- When restaurants use it to clear out old food. When the tasting menu is just smallish versions of the menu. When you get gobsmacked by a spicy chili and lamb dish and then follow with a subtle lavender dessert. Multiple pasta courses. Basically anything about this trend that was not done by a 5 star team.
(AKA- the forest floor)
What we Remember-the food looking like it was found on a forest floor and transplanted to the white plate with the care of a Dutchman during Tulipmania.
Iconic Chefs- René Redzepi
What Tony Bourdain Said- No bogus wild- weed infusions, cookie-cutter piles of pre-made garnishes, no paper collars used to force food into tumescence”
Era- Right now.
When it went too far- "A really smart guy just served me a plate with a rock on it and a bunch of mushrooms and twigs. Fucking Scandanavians, man. They're ruling the world right now." –A.B.
(AKA- we employ BFA’s in our kitchen)
What we Remember- Pouring over the Michel Bras books, and more or less feeling like we were wasting our lives. Being humbled. Wondering how much was the camera, and how much was raw, incredible talent.
Iconic Chef- Michel Bras. Also, that guy from Wolvesmouth.
What Tony Bourdain Said- “You’ve got your Artists: the annoying, high-maintenance minority. This group includes specialists like pâtissiers (the neurologists of cooking), sous-chefs, butchers, garde-manger psychos, the occasional saucier whose sauces are so ethereal and perfect that delusions of grandeur are tolerated.”
Era- On it’s way out, except in boutique hotels, where it will never die.
When it Went too far-
“Personally, I’d prefer to eat food that tastes good and is an honest reflection of its ingredients, than a 3-foot-tall caprice constructed from lemon grass, lawn trimmings, coconuts and red curry. You could lose an eye trying to eat that.”
Le Dan Barber-
(AKA- The Patron Saint of Local)
What we Remember- Blissfully delicious vegetables grown on a former Rockefeller estate, packed with flavour and minimally processed.
Iconic Chef- Dan Barber
What Tony Bourdain Said- “the saintly proprietor of a good-for-the-world restaurant, a pioneer of conscientious, sustainable food production.”
Era- the future? Do we even know?
When it Went too far- Endless capacity for disappointment. We’ll see this in the coming years, and its not going to be pretty. We can only hope that this stays in the hands of those who understand it.