The other night I ate a great dish: Napoleon of Sourdough Brioche, Artisan Cheddar and minced, aged Hereford, garnished with a Preserve of Cucumber and Dill, and finished with Heirloom Tomato Coulis. A.k.a.: A Cheeseburger. I don't have patience for over-the-top food descriptions, mostly because they seem to say, "look at how fancy this dish is!" and I'm not a big fan of fancy food. I'm OK with food that requires a high level of skill to prepare. And I don't have a problem with fine dining -- provided I'm in the mood for it. But the word "fancy" speaks to me of pretension, embellishment, the need to impress.
About presentation over substance. A common early mistake in the development of a chef is the need to show how fancy you can be. The urge to drizzle and frizzle and flourish and then stack the food way up high is the hallmark of early work -- "Look, Ma! I'm cooking!" I myself wasn't immune to this, but eventually I learned that pursuit of great food -- memorable, truly satisfying, well-prepared food -- meant honoring ingredients and letting them lead the way. Inspired technique comes next as a means to coax out maximum flavor from each ingredient. Presentation follows both of these. It's important, but it should be intuitive and part of the overall conception of the dish -- not an end unto itself.
Here's how it works: I walk the greenmarket, or the butcher shop, (or the walk-in). I see an ingredient, usually a protein, since proteins tend to form the foundation of a dish that beckons. The first question I ask myself is -- how to cook it? This is not a decision made in a vacuum or in service of a predetermined presentation. In most cases, the ingredient itself will offer suggestions: Thick, aged sirloin asks to be roasted so it can develop deep flavors and a nicely seared, caramelized edge. Pork shoulder, a tougher and more stubbornly populist cut, needs a long, soulful braise to tease out its rich, melting flavors and succulent texture. A delicate, flaky snapper calls for gentle cooking -- think of a quick braise in wine or a light touch on the grill.
The next question I ask is: How do I want the dish to taste? The seasons are the best guides here, and it's hard to go wrong if you let seasonal and regional items play off each other. (I follow the maxim: "If it grows together, it goes together.") Think of autumn flavors together, like roasted root vegetables, apple cider, caramelized onions and endive. Or the bright flavors of summer -- tomatoes, basil, young garlic, sweet corn. With the seasons as my guide, I make flavor choices that take into account the protein I've chosen -- if I'm cooking something fatty for example; it's a good idea to introduce some acid into the dish. A subtle fish calls for subtle accompanying flavors, etc. It's not rocket science. Ingredients that are available year-round can also accommodate these seasonal choices. Take fennel, for example, a sturdy bulb available throughout the year. In spring I may slice it paper thin, dress it simply with some high quality olive oil and citrus, and toss it with wild asparagus and peas, letting the fennel's delicate licorice flavor play with the newness of the spring vegetables. Roasting wedges of fennel in the fall will coax out its sweetness and anise flavors, both of which will stand up nicely to roasted meats. In summer I could cook slices of fennel alÃƒÂ grecque, (in a mixture of olive oil, white wine, lemon juice and herbs). This would layer nicely over freshly caught fish that's been gently braised in the same.
You get the picture ... again, the point is to get the most flavor from an ingredient, and use it with accompanying elements in a way that is cohesive, inspired, and seasonally adept. And then, only after all these choices have been made, do I start to think about presentation. My personal opinion is that the presentation of the food should reflect how you want it eaten. Should the flavors come together on the palate? Then layering them makes sense. Do I want to keep the flavors distinct? That calls for something else. The goal is to have the presentation reflect and enhance the intuitive choices I've made along the way. And obviously, because we eat first with our eyes, I want to go about this as beautifully as I can.
Unfortunately, we're seeing a number of our chefs cling to the sophomoric notion that presentation matters most. (After all, you can't "see" flavor, right?) I was amazed to see Betty and Mia formulating the concept of a Napoleon for their dish before they had even investigated what ingredients they had to work with. To them, "Napoleon" meant food stacked high on the plate, which seemed fancy, which equaled good. (And for the record, they took heavy liberty with the idea -- Napoleon is a dessert of layered pastry and cream. Even a savory "Napoleon" implies ingredients artfully layered, not simply stacked in a heap on the plate.)
Betty started off by trying to enlist the group to form a menu. The others -- rightfully -- ignored her and waltzed into the walk-in first to see what food was available. What was going to inspire them? Left to their own devices, Betty and Mia plunged forward with a mattress of frozen phyllo dough, which they were sure would dazzle us judges, regardless of what else followed. Marisa and Josie were no better. They lucked out on their draw -- fifth course of six. In other words, they had scored the big Kahuna -- the entree. In the walk-in was a dazzling array of ingredients that Executive Chef Joseph Ojeda had ordered for them -- ethereal sea bass, rich duck confit, succulent beef short ribs, gorgeous cuts of lamb, veal and pork. But Marisa and Josie had a fancy concept in mind before they even started -- an "awakening" course (a variation on the silly "refresher" course we've seen in previous episodes). And thus they squandered the opportunity to round out the meal with genuine, honest, knock-our-socks-off cooking. Like Betty and Mia, they fast-forwarded to the presentation part of the dish, before really considering the substance of it.
To make matters worse, their ingredients bore no seasonal or geographic relationships to one another that I could see; prickly pear grows in the desert, coconut is tropical. The two interacted unpleasantly and became a flat, Pepto-Bismol pink (serving it up in a spoon didn't help matters. The fennel and apples in the salad weren't wrong together, but the preparation was unmemorable in the extreme. And the pineapple "course" was nothing more than diced pineapple drizzled with honey. For this they left the short ribs in the walk-in? It was a tough call, but ultimately we saw Marisa and Josie's course as the most disappointing of them all. Marisa and Josie made it clear that they both bore equal responsibility for concept and execution, thus both of them had to go.
Let's talk about the two best dishes: Cliff and Sam were a lucky pairing. Both have ideas and the technique to follow through. They landed a middle course, and went with at least one guaranteed crowd-pleaser -- roasted foie gras. Foie gras is one of those eyes-rolling-back-into-the-head ingredients that makes chefs look good (frankly, I'm surprised other teams didn't fight them for it). A smart choice, because it meant they were likely to make an impact using flavor. They also found meaty diver scallops (large sea scallops that are hand-harvested by divers) which they seared quickly and simply, allowing the scallop's natural sweetness to come through. They served the foie gras with a sweet/tart fig gastrique (the acid and sweetness of the figs cut the richness of the liver) and updated classic fennel by using it in whimsical grits. The final dish tasted good and looked great. What kept Cliff and Sam's dish from winning was simply this -- separating the components on the plate was the easy way out. They told us the elements of the dish were meant to be eaten together. If so, then they should have found a way to conceive the dish so that everything worked as a cohesive whole. That's where the talent comes in, folks. No one said it was easy.
As for Ilan and Michael's seafood paella, I thought the flavors were outstanding, and the course was served hot (which is harder than you think when serving 60). There was nothing extraneous or unnecessary on the plate, and the preparation, apart from being really attractive, actually made sense, given the choice of dish. Classic paella is cooked in a wide, shallow dish so that the edges of the rice can acquire a subtle, crispy edge. Ilan's experience in a Spanish restaurant taught him the value of this small, authentic touch, so he used a novel presentation for paella -- individual ramekins -- to make it happen. The dish was delicious, and it worked. If you've noticed I'm getting grumpy, you're right. I guess I'm growing irked at how some of these chefs keep playing it safe, making uninspired choices that speak either of a lack of ideas, poor training, or some combination of both. When Thomas Keller creates small, distinct mouthfuls on the plate, he is leading the diner through a deliberate journey of taste and texture. It is carefully considered and flawlessly executed. I can promise you he doesn't think, "I'm going to send out three little things instead of one! How cool will that be?"
When Alfred Portale started layering components high on the plate at The Gotham Bar and Grill, it was groundbreaking -- an expression of the man's own sculptural leanings (he was formerly a jewelry designer and has impeccable taste). It was daring, a risk he could afford to take because he was creating great flavors and using perfect technique. And yet legions of young chefs have copied this by simply stacking up food, without grasping the context or having the talent to pull it off. I guess what I'm saying to our remaining chefs is -- stop playing it safe. Dive into your ingredients looking for flavor, season liberally with your personality, and worry less about "wowing" us with artful presentation. If you cook good food, the rest will follow. It's not more complicated than that.