Looked through the guide to good restaurants the other day to find a place with food I’d like to eat. Randomly, I found gremolata-speckled turnip ribbons, fried caciocavallo and pickled eggplant, tarragon-flecked Parisienne gnocchi with salt-baked celeriac, sweet buns with tom crab and Thai basil mayo and much more! In fact there was hardly any dish that was recognisable. It’s clear that, to succeed, restaurants have to offer outlandish ‘innovative’ food that, frankly, you really never wanted to eat! And you’ll pay $35 or more for a main, which probably needs sides to be added to constitute a balanced dish. What’s happening, people? Our society has lost the plot on food.
But wait, there’s more! Add the extreme emphasis now placed on presentation, such that we take pictures of the dishes and send them to absent (envious?) friends before we eat them, and the high ratings received by the myriad TV cooking shows (how odd that, the more cooking done on TV, the less people eat at home…) and it is clear that food has become narcissistic for our society. We are valuing it for what it says about us, rather than whether it tastes any good, whether we wanted to eat it, whether it is nutritious or balanced or even whether there is enough to eat, despite the price. Friends have half-joked that they come out of a 5-star restaurant and have to have a Maccas on the way home to fill them up. But the pictures were great!
I used to love going out to restaurants. I even thought of starting a restaurant called ‘Classics’, offering classic dishes of the world or a single cuisine, food which had not only stood the test of time, but which was truly wonderful to eat. Food such as beef bourgignon, spaghetti marinara, paella, Peking duck and tandoori chicken.
None of the current ‘dishes’ will last. They are simply different, innovative for the sake of innovation, designed for look, not taste, temporary, until the next fashion or idea emerges.
Now I despair. There is rarely an item on the menu where I understand all the ingredients, like them all, understand their relative mix (‘orange jus’ could be a dab, or cover the whole dish), feel it is something I want to eat and – even worse – feel it is good value (much of the cost goes not on the food, but on the extremely intricate preparation steps and the detailed individual focus on its creation and presentation). And when you can’t hear the people on the other side of the table because of the complete lack of consideration of acoustics, eating out is painful more often than not.
Obviously I’m a minority. Otherwise food narcissism wouldn’t be flourishing. Good traditional restaurants would be surviving (check out the average life of a restaurant these days). People would actually be cooking good food – of which there is an amazing variety in Australia – at home.
What’s causing food narcissism?
I think it is really driven by ordinary people with too much money wanting to emulate the elite rich. Obviously people aren’t worried about costs when they can spend so much money on a single course, let alone a whole meal (I haven’t added the cost of alcohol either – 2-3 times the price of the same bottle bought direct).
Is it a fad? I’d like to think so, but I doubt it. As a society, we’ve gone from eating good food at home, to eating junk food at fast food outlets, to eating cuisine food (French, Italian, Chinese) to eating fusion foods (mixed cuisines), to eating impossible combinations so no doubt some new fashion will emerge, costing more, getting less.
What to do?
Me? I’ve opted out. I love buying wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables, combining with carbs, perhaps some seafood or prime meat, a bottle of wine from Dan’s, some nibbles or perhaps a dessert from the deli, all for less than the cost of a single course out, choosing my own background music, eating at my own pace, hearing what friends have to say. My Kitchen Rules. You’re welcome any time.