rumination 23: sticks and stones…

This week, I posted a photo that caused quite a stir. While those who commented or replied agreed with the sentiment that I attached to the photo (which I posted to Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr), I realize, from the reactions it elicited, that my sentiments were slightly misleading. So, I’ll take a moment to clarify them […]


This week, I posted a photo that caused quite a stir.

While those who commented or replied agreed with the sentiment that I attached to the photo (which I posted to Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr), I realize, from the reactions it elicited, that my sentiments were slightly misleading.

So, I’ll take a moment to clarify them here.

First, here is the photo and the caption that I attached to it on Flickr (I had to shorten the caption on Twitter, taking out the parenthetical):

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Just because your food looks like this...

Just because food looks like this doesn’t mean it tastes good (neither does it mean it doesn’t taste good).  It seems more and more people are eating with their eyes and ears instead of with their mouths and minds.

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To be sure, this photo was not intended as a jab at Rene Redzepi (chef of noma), or Andoni Aduriz (chef of Mugaritz), or any other chef or restaurant that is plating food in this modern, landscaped fashion. Neither is this a dig on foraging.

Rather, this photo is a commentary on what I’ve observed to be a growing blindness among eaters – be they gastronauts or cooks, bloggers or food journalists – as to what they’re eating.  I question whether we’ve arrived at an era where form has outpaced function at the dinner table.  Are we eating with our eyes and ears – chasing aesthetics and hype – more than with our mouths?  Do we no longer care whether food actually tastes good, or is properly cooked, as long as it follows a certain, visual protocol, which we’ve collectively decided is “cool?”

Or, have we become so smug in or modernity that we dismiss food just because it doesn’t look “modern,” even though the version we prefer is nothing more than a revision of something we’ve seen before?

Do we care whether our Black Forest cake looks like this, or like this, as long as it tastes the same?

Do we ignore this version of baba au rhum just because Paul Bocuse has been serving it for decades, and favor instead Marc Aumont’s stunning version at The Modern just because it’s new?  Both were fantastic; I really couldn’t choose between them.

Look at Diego Velásquez’s “Las Meninas,” painted in 1656 at the court of Philip IV of Spain.  Now look at this version of “Las Meninas,” one of over fifty painted by Pablo Picasso in 1957 in a series of studies.

Who’s to say one is better than the other?  Certainly, we all have our preferences.  I am not saying that modernity has nothing to offer. Food is art, and art evolves.  As a photographer, I’ll be the first to cheer on beautiful food.

At the same time, I eat primarily because I love the sensation of flavors and textures in my mouth, temperatures too.  To me, these aspects of food give me the most pleasure. If meaning and looks can be added, that’s also great.

When all the color is stripped away, what I see now is a whole lot of strutting and not a lot of originality. Even worse, sometimes the food isn’t even properly made.  Are people fawning over the food, or the style in which it’s presented?

We’ve become so accustomed to this modern, landscaped style of plating that, at a quick glance, the photo I took might be mistaken for a plate of food you’d find in a modernist restaurant.  If so, then the photo achieved my goal.  I’ve gotten quite a few emails and responses in which people admitted to having been fooled. And their initial reaction was curiosity – they wanted to know which chef, which restaurant served it.  Here, form gave it legitimacy, even though it’s largely inedible.

The reality is, I went into my garden and randomly gathered a bowlful of dirt, rocks, twigs, flowers, and weeds, threw them on a plate (with a tiny bit of style) and took a picture. The whole process took less than five minutes.

Very little thought, a whole lot of strutting.

Categories dining rumination

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18 replies on “rumination 23: sticks and stones…”

Well lets take an economist’s approach to this. Diners at a restaurant receive a certain amount of utility from each dish (enjoyment, pleasure, etc.). This utility is a function of many different factors, but lets narrow it down to just taste and appearance. If a consumer is rational, he or she will act to maximize neither taste nor appearance alone, but rather utility. So for each individual diner there is a different utility function, or a tradeoff between the value for them of taste and the value of appearance. To address the black forest cake example you give, if they taste exactly the same, meaning the taste value is equal, then by definition the one which is more aesthetically pleasing is a better choice–it gives a higher utility to the diner. Now the question of which is more beautiful is subjective, but I would argue that the more modern plating is (it has more variety of forms, a more compelling color palette, repetition, gestalt). This doesn’t address the question of form without flavor necessarily, but the case could be made that a dish could be so beautifully arranged that it would still give the diner enough utility to make up for a lack of compelling flavor. It’s all about the tradeoff: how much flavor would we be willing to sacrifice for increasing beauty in presentation?

An addendum… There are many examples of dishes in Chinese and Japanese cuisine which forgo flavor for the sake of texture. These are very traditional dishes which date back centuries or so. Could one ask have we become so smug in our appreciation of texture that we dismiss conventionally textured dishes and instead embrace interesting textures at the expense of flavor? Or would you argue that a dish which works on texture alone and not flavor (as I have heard jellyfish, bird’s nest soup, and shark fin soup do) are also strutting?

As always, the bottom line is that food must be delicious. What constitutes delicious can change with time, fashion and a person’s age. I find many things delicious today, that I wouldn’t have dreamed of eating 30 years ago. Visual beauty, as with a person, does not make a dish delicious, though if the dish is already delicious within, it is an added benefit. BTW, that was indeed a lovely plating. :)

haha. brilliant.

That’s certainly how I felt at Alinea this December, and look, obviously Achatz has built up enough of a reputation to have some latitude in experimentation and presentation, and indeed for a lot of people Alinea is the meal they save up for so that they can experience MOLECULAR GASTRONOMY, or whatever… but the food still has to taste good for the rest of us that aren’t impressed that you put a lot of frozen shit in a chocolate orb, which you smashed on a vinyl tablecloth and called “dessert”.

Of course we eat with our eyes first–but eventually, you know, we have to actually eat. And that’s the great equalizer.

Seem to have a lot to say on this one. I don’t think that people saw your photo and said to themselves, that plate looks so delicious that even were it not I would want it. Rather, the devotion and attention given to the plating of a dish implies a certain level of quality. This level of quality may vary, but it is a safe snap-judgement that if a chef puts in the time and passion to artfully plate a dish that he or she will also have put in a commensurate level of time into the flavor. It is the same reason we where suits to job interviews. Yes, perhaps the best applicant might be the one who comes in in a t-shirt and shorts, but on aggregate it is safest to go with the one who cares enough to be presentable.

There are no examples for your negative critiques. Without them, it’s really difficult to speak to or address them. That said, I believe you’re getting at the key distinction between the sensate and the hedonistic, a completely natural progression and one of the central problems of modernity (cf. Adorno on Aesthetic Theory).

Sculpture must be pleasing to the eye? Music must sooth the ear? Poetry must be coherent? Good food must taste good? How passé.

At some point, simple pleasure isn’t enough, and we begin to strike out looking for new ways of triggering that old feeling. Some decide that the journey can be the reward, that a dish can be a success even without tasting very good, provided it is devised by illuminating or revolutionary technique, composed stunningly, or revives memories long buried. Who’s to gainsay them? We can snicker and call them cool chasers, trend-whores, sycophants or worse, but in our haste we invited the classification of food as art, and now we’ll have to deal with the consequences.

Thank you for the thoughtful comment on something I have wondered about myself. Food should look good, but I wonder sometimes if the plate can be a little too fanciful in its art and whether it might be an unnecessary distraction in some cases. Just as art can be intimidating to the common man, so can plates in a fine dining establishment.

Right on! So glad that someone with some pull in the industry is bringing this to light. There is so much “strutting”, as you accurately described it, in today’s fine-dining restaurants. I just want delicious food and good service, keep all the other frivolous crap!

Meadowood (Chris Kostow) and L’Atelier Crenn (Dominique Crenn) comes to mind. For sake of beaut, flavors are muddled w/ chemical additives to accommodate texture manipulation. Quelle horreur! – There, I said it.

Are there not plenty of restaurants serving delicious food with good service and unostentatious plating? If one feels compelled to visit (and even further document) meals at these hype machines, despite ultimately not caring for the food/aesthetic, I would argue it is not the chef that is strutting.

When tasting menus became the rage, some bemoaned the loss of the diner’s universal right of control/choice…I couldn’t help but ask, well, you chose the restaurant, didn’t you?

Seems to me the largest ego is the one claiming all restaurants ought aim to please him.

From my perspective I like the turn toward “naturalism” in plate work. As I’ve grown toward it things having gotten easier in the kitchen, I don’t have to have as many cooks on to bruinoise gallons of different veg everyday, but of coarse always flavor first.

I kept looking for the edible items on that plate. Maybe an earthworm would actually enjoy it.

To be honest, the modern plating sometimes confuses me and makes me feel that I’m just chasing tiny bits of food, rather than enjoying every bite.

At first glance, I thought, who’s creation is this. Upon investigation however, I soon realized the trickery and irony. You are the man ulterior.

I think you raise a very valid point. I feel as of late I would rather enjoy a meal at a more casual establishment than than stuffy. I would eat at Maude’s liquor bar, Yusho, or the publican than many other more expensive spots and I am sure will get as food if not better of a meal. Read joe beefs interview in the latest Lucky Peach I think that touches on the same topic … I’m glad you brought up the topic …

I am a chef, And I want to say that everyone is wrong. The most important thing which great flavor, texture and looks all root from is nutritious. The key to great food is first and foremost it being fuel/protection for the body. Once this first step has been achieved everything else falls into place (

From Italy : vegetables and very natural food , this is the rule . Aesthetic is imprescindible , you have to eat first with brain . I live in the country of “cibo piacione” let me say , we have to broke this law and look forward . With simpaty .

I’ve been following your blog since the beginning, and aside from your astonishing photography and profiles on the elite restaurants of the world, it is the pensive glances at food culture, lore, and how we perceive taste that keeps me returning. It has made me a better cook and granted greater respect for the industry in all its sectors. Thanks.

I’ve been reading your blog from the beginning, and aside from providing superb profiles of the foremost restaurants of the world with bewildering regularity, I return for insightful posts like this one. Your blog cogitates upon food lore, culture, and the current perception of “good food” in a manner that few writers even grasp, let alone discuss. This blog has made me a better cook and left me with greater admiration for all sectors of the industry. Thanks.