A couple of weeks ago I went to a local cafe for breakfast. I’d walked past it a hundred times but had not heard the siren call. When it popped up in a couple of ‘best of’ lists I was worried I’d missed a local gem. The cafe was in a converted old shop right on the bus stop and was always busy with quick coffees and people fresh from the gym or with dogs who sat outside at the little tables on the street. I found a small table inside in a snug corner and ordered mushrooms with poached eggs and a latte.
The food came out really quickly with everything covered in a thick layer of dukkah (Egyptian). I took the poached eggs off the top and started excavating. Sliced mushrooms sat on kale which was doused in balsamic vinegar (Italian) on top of pesto (Italian) on rye bread (middle European). This assemblage of flavours spoke to no man or woman.
A closer analysis is called for. I really don’t find dukkah a flavour enhancement to eggs and I scraped it off the poached eggs and barely tolerated it on the mushrooms. Balsamic vinegar can be a subtle undercurrent to cooking and a couple of drops will pull up the flavour of vegetables or strawberries. It is not a condiment to be poured over a dish. Pesto is a beautiful thing. Made in the height of summer when the basil bush is about to go to seed, blended with pine nuts, pecorino, some garlic and a good olive oil and tossed through a simple pasta, it will pull you right back to the Ligurian coast. I am not sure when it became a spread for toast.
It is not the cross cultural mash up I object to, but the discordant mismatch of flavours which in no way complement each other. There is nothing wrong with genuine creative cooking and experimentation but the cafe’s combination was driven by a collection of food trends and fads which appear in many combinations in the cafes of Brisbane.
Food has become as much a part of people’s identity as fashion and the technology they buy. If your identity is involved you then want to be seen as hip, creative and cutting edge. This drives cafes and restaurants to amp up unexpected flavour combinations and to create heightened eating experiences. The food must also look good on social media. The photograph is the message. This is all a big call for breakfast.
Before its recent incarnation, the old shop on the bus stop was a cafe and bookshop called Bouquiniste. Old style boho, it was owned by Meredith, with her long red hair looped over her shoulder, she turned out perfect coffee from her hissing espresso machine. Postcards from Paris covered the front of the counter and the window seat made comfortable with embroidered cushions. Colouring books lay around for the kids and bentwood chairs snuggled up to rickety tables. Yet the food was simple and true.
The avocado on toast came with a zesty dressing and some carefully picked greens. The croissants were dropped off by a bespoke bakery every morning and placed on a shelf in eyeballing proximity to where you ordered. Bouquiniste was the sort of place where you could linger and listen to interesting chats about lost loves or lost plays about to be revived. It was restful and I would have to shake myself off the the cushions and return to the world outside.
Contemporary food has become more assemblage than cooking. A lot of flavours and textures and vogue ingredients are assembled on a plate, which too often ends up as a discordant mismatch where no elements talk to each other. Yet there is so much potential in experimenting with spices and flavours from different cultures. Yotam Ottolenghi built a food empire from such experimentation. However, at the moment we often see the prioritisation of cutting edge over other food attributes and this is what leads to the overcrowding of plates with the latest ingredient du jour.
Assemblage is really just one way of putting a meal together and I am missing the alchemical magic of cooking where the whole is greater than the sum of its ingredients. Some ingredients form the base note, the spices a complementary flavour and the protein transformed and on your plate a meal. Balanced and palatable, it doesn’t have to be old fashioned or stodgy. Surprising elements can go together but they play off and transform each other in the cooking process. Not everything is enhanced by being deconstructed and I always feel disappointed when the dessert I ordered comes out in its parts. The smear of lemon to signify the lemonyness of the original dessert. Sometimes a lemon meringue pie should just be a lemon meringue pie.
Yet despite these trends, there are many strengths with contemporary cooking. Neglected techniques, such as smoking and fermenting, have been revived. There is a passion for provenance. But with innovation and experimentation given primacy, you end up cooking for the kitchen, not the diner. If more could put down the camera and pick up the tasting spoon, we could all enjoy food which is fresh, creative, sustainable and satisfying.