A question that is always asked to chefs is ‘how do you come up with a dish?’
An interesting question I guess, but how about the question ‘What is a dish?’ A course in a meal? An expression? A celebration of an ingredient? An interpretation of what a chef thinks of something?
I guess all are correct, if even just a cop out to be fair. A dish, to me, is simply a plate of enjoyable food to eat when the food is at its best and a meal should leave you feeling good, not leave you feeling inspired, or at times confused what it was you just ate; just a good level of satisfaction. The interpretation of food and how it can affect a person is becoming very blurred I believe. The purpose of food after all is to nourish; but if you can do this and entertain, that’s a bonus. Sparking past memories is even better.
For now let’s break down the fundamentals of creating a dish from the view of a chef and what a dish is:
Choosing your protein, or hero ingredient, is half the challenge. The number of times I have begun creating a dish with one ingredient, and then after conversations with Steve and Adam, my sous chefs, ending up with a completely different idea happens more than you would think. To design a dish, you must first decide what your main ingredient is going to be: Meat? Seafood? A vegetable? Your dish will organically form around the flavour and texture of your hero ingredient and, of course, the season.
When to eat is more important than what to eat in many cases, seasonality of food is something that that should be more than a guideline, it should really be a basic unwritten rule for all chefs, and not something to gloat about doing. Food in season is simply better tasting, better for you and cheaper. Serving food out of season is basically bad business all round.
Fruits and vegetables in season often pair with each other perfectly, and the same with meats. Traditional dishes are almost always made using combinations of foods from the same season, so pairing your main ingredient and its vegetable friends is kind of done for you by nature. Always make sure you try the ingredients together, and experiment with vegetables. Raw is usually better than cooked; or even smoke things to enhance a flavour and bring more to a dish.
Cooking techniques and logistics
How many people are you cooking for? What method of cooking are you going to use? These questions are in fact way more crucial than you would first think; planning a pan fried piece of fish on a menu for 500 people when you have 3 pans and 2 burners on your stove may not be the best idea you have that day. Without understanding what you kitchen is capable of doing as a machine, you may find yourself working a lot harder than you have to. Sou vide, roast, braised, fried, pickled, brined, dried… there are more and more ways of preparing foods en mass, and they are taking a lot of the guess work (and actual skill) out of the task for chefs. But is it always the best way?
Making a curry via sous vide may seem pretty clever to some chefs, but if you break down the process it is in fact a terribly lazy way of cooking a braised dish. Some ingredients need air and gradual evaporation to develop texture, while some require higher heat to release flavours that you miss out on with cooking in a bag at a low temperature. For some applications, it’s perfect for; but not all. Make sure you research and decide the best cooking method for your ingredients and don’t just jump into a new fad, if past fads stuck around you would be enjoying your dinner in form of microwaved TV dinners, or a stacked tower of grilled vegetables.
How do you want the dish to look?
Sometimes the tastiest things to eat just don’t look that nice, and in today’s age it is as much about the appearance of food as the flavour for so many diners. Instagram has become a pocket sized pictorial allowing the world to judge books by covers, and this movement does not seem like it will slow down anytime soon. Now more than ever, presentation is paramount.
Simplicity and negative plating are very fashionable at the moment, and personally, I find it to be the right balance between food and what some people call edible art. Some chefs go for a more constructed approach or almost paint the plates into what forms a picture or interpretation. In my opinion, it’s just a way of taking attention away from the taste of the food (or hiding the lack of). Natural looking plating and simple combinations will always stand up strong on a plate.
Don’t complicate it. Chefs are trained to cook, not to design art or fashion. The moment a chef enjoys plating food and the visual appeal of it more than cooking or eating a dish, I would become concerned.
Most of all make sure you are enjoying it. If you aren’t enjoying the creation of a dish or the preparation, chances are your guests won’t enjoy it either.
Food is to be eaten and shared. It can be fun and helps create memories, but remember it is about flavour more than the looks or cleverness, and if you like eating it then it is a success.