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The Challenge of Stylish Food

Ever since I started taking photos of my food (and spending hours browsing through Flickr Food Porn), I have increasingly loved when a plate is presented to me, all artfully styled, decked out with fancy unknown garnishes, and in strange and new piles that seem impossibly balanced on a plate. Not forgetting the swirls and drops of liquids that adorn the vast empty spaces on the serving dish, which aren’t always identified in the menu description. These presentations signify the chef’s view of food as his/her artform, with creativity expressed visually to compliment (hopefully!) comparable creativity and attention to the taste and flavours being offered.

These stylish stacks make for great photos, even if you’re not sure about what you’re doing. The chef has done a lot of the work for the newbie photographer, creating angles and points of interest. Some of them you just power up and click, and voilà, pretty food pics!

But all this fanciness does present a dilemma. A dilemma about which I cannot recall having read any discussion: how does one eat these artful creations? I started to think about this, and my experiences, when I read the Miss Manners column this morning, where someone raised that very question. (And yes, I read Miss Manners regularly, because it is incredibly entertaining)

Dear Miss Manners:It seems to be a recent trend in  restaurants to add verticality to the plate. For example, perching a trout filet on a mound of greens that have been piled  on a bed of rice.

At times I find myself honestly confused about how to eat the food. Do I knock the fish off the greens, then rake the greens into a pile? Am I supposed to eat the fish, greens and rice all in one bite?

I don’t understand what was wrong with a simply laid plate of food. It may have been a bit boring, but at least it never left a diner baffled.

What was wrong with the simple plate of food was that it looked like a simple plate of food. Thus it did not express the artistic soul of the chef who supervised its creation.

Or something.

In any case, you may eat in whatever order you wish. The chef is not out front to see you knock over his masterpiece, and Miss Manners assures you that etiquette doesn’t mind a bit

When I started working in Port of Spain, my friend TB and I would try out the restaurants, once a month during lunch (we had lunches before, but once we were both in the city it became easier to coordinate). With this system, we got to try out restaurants that were a bit more upscale than our previous fare (Pizza Hut, Vie de France…) because we planned and budgeted for them. And so, I did have some experience with nice restaurant plating, but certainly nothing unmanageable. Maybe back then (more than 5 years ago) extreme food styling hadn’t made it to Trinidad…or at least not the restaurants I visited. So I can connect with the Reader, because every time I am faced with a new arrangement, there is that thought “where do I start?” or “how do I knock down these vertical sticks of X?” even “am I supposed to eat this strange bright red squiggle? but with what part of the dish?”. But the truth is, that thought doesn’t last very long these days. After all, I ordered the food, and it was served to me, for the purpose of eating, right?

But there are still those moments I am sure everyone has had. Ordering a sandwich and getting something that meets the bare bones of the description (two pieces of bread, filling and dressings) but cannot possibly be eaten as a sandwich the way it is served. I don’t know about you, but when I read about the Earl of Sandwich, I learned he called for this dish because he could eat it with his bare hands. Uhuh. Tell that to some of those fancy pseudo-sandwich serving establishments. (Note: I am not criticising the quality or great taste of some of those “pseudo-sandwiches”!)

I can still remember the very first time I was really put in a quandary. And it wasn’t necessarily the most gravity-defying arrangement of food, but perhaps the first of its kind for me. It was in a restaurant on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. I am trying to remember the name, because it was a good restaurant, but it will come to me eventually. In some places, and on some days, there aren’t many options for food on these islands, or in parts of the Highlands, so when a friend and I were taking our goodbye-to-Scotland-trip and were in Kyle of Lochalsh, we crossed the bridge to go to the nearest restaurant (which was really out of our budget, having come to an end of our income-less student year) since we needed to eat. I ordered something vegetarian. I remember there was a base of mashed potatoes, upon which was stacked (artfully of course) roasted vegetable slices, interspersed with some bigger crispy lattice things (also made of potato?). The pile was quite high for its width, and covered with a tepee-like arrangement of fried noodles and grilled vegetable spears. It looked gorgeous.

And I had no idea how to eat it. Should I eat the spears first? Move them off and try to eat it all together? Where do the skinny fried noodles come into it? How do I get to the potatoes without dismantling the arrangement? Shouldn’t the starch be eaten together with something? Well. Laws of nature and physics solved my dilemma, as my first approach with the fork toppled the tepee and sent the stack listing portside. I still wasn’t sure how to address the spears and sticks, but at least all of the dish was now accessible. The meal was great. Superbe. And by the time the dessert came (vanilla bean icecream!!) I wasn’t too distressed by the chocolate cage that surrounded it. Sally forth with a spoon aimed just right, and the defence will splinter. Or something like that.

I realise that I don’t actually have many pictures of those elaborately styled dishes. I know I have been faced with many, but I suppose they were at the more stylish (ahm…expensive) restaurants I have visited. Most of those may have been at some work related event, or with a very senior colleague, where I didn’t feel it appropriate to whip out the camera to capture the moment. See, Chennette has a job where she has to seem calm, authoritative and even grave…not giddy with delight at an edible masterpiece. But it is delight I feel. Despite what I may have written above, I enjoy extreme food styling. It’s art. And architecture. But I do feel serious empathy for those who have to figure out how to actually eat the food. Because it isn’t always clear. Just remember. It is food. And if the chef didn’t bother to provide an instruction manual 😉 go for it any way you want.

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11 Comments so far (Add 1 more)

  1. cool
    i know how to make you eat my pesto pizza
    cut it into tiny slices and pile one on top the other

    stacking is the new in thing, don’t you know

    1. Lilandra, Empress of Chocolate on June 21st, 2007 at 7:11 pm
  2. it might look prettier that way, and I may be motivated to get the camera out, but is it still going to be as strong????
    one way for me to eat your pesto pizza, is to USE LESS PESTO

    2. chennette on June 21st, 2007 at 7:13 pm
  3. Food. Food. Glorious Food. Elegant and pretty food.

    3. Hmmm on June 21st, 2007 at 7:34 pm
  4. I’ m a manners/etiquette junkie :)

    4. The TriniGourmet on June 21st, 2007 at 8:14 pm
  5. I agree – go for it any way you want to unless as you say, an instructional manual is provided :)

    5. Cynthia on June 22nd, 2007 at 2:57 am
  6. so true, and sometimes i find the prettier it looks the worst it tastes…

    and those burgers are enormous,

    6. Cranky Putz on June 22nd, 2007 at 10:17 am
  7. Yes, while I love the squiggles for presentation value, I hate when you have a dessert or salad and there’s a squiggle that you figure is part of the meal, and it tastes bitter or in some other way completely unpalatable. Edible and tasty decorations are preferred!

    7. chennette on June 22nd, 2007 at 9:41 pm
  8. Yum. Admire first, then dive in. Especially those artfully crafted dessert plates.

    And Miss Manners is definitely highly entertaining…

    8. ewe_are_here on June 24th, 2007 at 9:44 am
  9. It’s funny but food TV and foodie blogs have raised the ante even for Sunday dinner. I haven’t looked at the food porn section of flickr but I’ll have to.

    I think it’s funny when you watch some of these shows on TV (like Iron chef) and the chef is table side with instructions on how to eat the food. That doesn’t really work for me, but I can appreciate an artfully arranged plate of delicious food.

    9. mark - in my own defense on June 24th, 2007 at 8:10 pm
  10. Right, now I know why you didn’t take photos of our food… It had to be the stylish surroundings which clearly made photography inappropriate :-)

    10. The other Aberdonian on June 29th, 2007 at 7:20 am
  11. Sigh.
    How many times does one explain that the pictures of the littlest Trini Aberdonians were far more important.
    Wait till I tell them. Oh the stories I will tell…
    This time I come armed with 2 cameras. If we have to take the food out to the Holly bush to get style and ambience, we will. Just don’t lose the focus on the taste.

    11. chennette on June 29th, 2007 at 5:18 pm

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