The endless parade of new food styles, ingredients, techniques, and ‘cuisines’ that have buffeted cooking, both international and American, for the last thirty years, has only strengthened my conviction that the best cooking by far is that which makes common ingredients, prepared for and by ordinary people, taste delicious.
Does anyone still remember the blaring fanfares that announced, for nearly a decade, the arrival of nouvelle cuisine? Does anyone now seriously believe that the legacy of nouvelle cuisine has been a positive one for any but those who became employable as its propounders, practitioners and vendors? That its legacy went much beyond:
- ‘celebrity’ and, yes, even worse, ‘rock star’ chefs
- miniscule portions on huge plates for much higher prices
- blander food
- baby produce and other unflavored, frivolous, expensive garnishes
- nearly raw, underflavored vegetables despite the colorful extrinsic sauces poured near, around, and under them
- [or, alternatively] routinely-food-processed-to-death [ and still nearly raw] vegetables, frequently with cream, despite the “lighter, healthier” claims
- and, of course, the then-generation-old Fernand-Pointian committment to market freshness
But one legacy, worse even than the ‘celebrity chefs’, was the hyper-emphasis on ‘presentationism’ that did nothing for food’s flavor, healthfulness, or value. This purely visual component of nouvelle cuisine was and is, we have been platitudinously reminded ever since, of apparent critical import for the periodic reviving of the jaded palates and for lightening the wallets of the great ooh-and-aah-bleating herd of privileged restaurant-goers. “We eat with our eyes, you know.” Well, at least those without appetites and with exquisitely twisted attitudes and postures concerning food — they most evidently do.
Yes, the substance [in the term’s least rigorous connotation] of nouvelle cuisine is now happily a faded memory. The precious, inverted, bonsai-like presentations, however, have thrived with epidemiological expansion and mutation:
- Abstract impressionist sauce driblets that cool instantly
- Tall food inanities that crisp/ruin or pile perfectly good foods to produce jagged triangular shards or leaning towers of pure profit for purely visual effect
- Japanese-inspired arrangements of micro-mini-geometric portions
- The tuna-fish-can reshaping of everything, to ‘delight the eye’ with robotically mini-cylindricalized food
- And far too many similar extractive hoaxes
No longer confined to the corpse of the original la cuisine nouvelle host, this virulent, cooking-free form of culinary ‘creativity’ has spread since the ‘80s and ‘90s to damned near every roadside hotel and to every restaurant desperate to anoint itself as ‘serious’ or ‘upscale’ — no matter how inept or criminal the actual food or pricing.
It is taught with reverence but with neither examination nor counterbalancing irony at our culinary schools. It makes one long for the old days of equally silly garde manger work, when apple swans, radish roses, ice carvings, befrilled veal chops, and utterly useless sugar paste sculptures were the coin of seduction for privileged taste buds. Those ‘eye-pleasers’, at least, rarely inflated final prices of all but the showiest items.
Culinary ‘progress’, however, has in recent years brought us to the discovery of a greater selection of ethnic cuisines [generally a good thing if free of mult-cult ideology]; but among the anointers and anointed of celebrity and creativity, ethnic cuisines are, just on their own, not good enough — simply too restrictive of talent, of innovation, of genius. And so, what these unfetterable prodigies have really drooled over in recent decades is an entrepot cuisine that well befits the affluent American progressive’s multicultural-gentrified-shopping-mall view of what ‘dining’ is. Thus, we have a ‘fusion cuisine’ style, a 52-pickup, jumble-words pastiche of appropriated styles that throws together ingredients, techniques, flavors — and names that once actually meant something — to achieve something ‘creative’, something that just might, somehow, be more appetizing than the original, time-tested cuisines from which it was derived. What it is good for, in truth, is showcasing and packaging the trendy, expensive ingredients and techniques of the day and for providing the claque of mindless food writers an opportunity to gush about what all their peers are also, concurrently, gushing about.
It is a cooking style of juxtaposition, collage, ‘deconstruction’, and that most delicious [sic] of postmodern terms, ‘transgression’. Truly a cuisine hors classe foraffluent, with-it diners.
But the future promises even greater titillations. Today’s jaded foodie can hope for truly transformational change. That our culinary best and brightest will now transcend Àdria, El Bulli, and the clumsy ‘molecular’ and stride boldly, in lock step, en masse, into the more challenging and definitely more remunerative area of the sub-atomic and the quantum — perhaps with generous government grants, which would, after all, do what government research grants are supposed to do: provide even more comfortable employment for the already well-off to spend on unnecessary consumption of their choice sans the incriminatory moral-political staining that indicts those who earn their money in the selfish, for-profit sector.
Perhaps we will finally attain the Holy Grail of creativity and profitability: something like la cuisine à la chat du Schrodinger. Imagine it, all you foodie elites, innovation-hungerers, celebrity chefs, culinary transgressors, and leeches on the overfed — the affluent diner is charged the big bucks that are the culinary artist’s due for a very beautiful miniscule, but tall, box on a huge sauce-drizzled plate; a box that simultaneously contains and does not contain any real food, and only when he opens it does the privileged diner find out which it will be.
A godsend for food cost-cutting and even for fashionable waistlines. And ohhhhh-so-drool-inducing for the affluent, don’t you think? Alas, this imminent triumph of presentationism will remain, as true art always must, beyond the appreciation capability of bible-thumping rednecks, those angry white ethnics, and the yucky Tea Party people. Pondering all this, one must concede, albeit sadly, that there are those rare occurrences when the mechanisms of supply and demand really do work magically…..when the privileged and the pure actually get what they can afford to pay for…..and most fittingly deserve.
Peter di Lorenzi