Pinch of Salt: The Emperor’s New Clothes

By Pete Goffe-Wood.

Or should I say, “The Emperor’s recently acquired hand-stitched, interlocking, sustainably, hydroponically and organically grown organic attire”?

Menu speak gone mad!

“48-hour cold smoked organically farmed, hand-reared, pole-caught Monrovian yellowfin tuna, compressed cucumber, sous-vide heirloom tomatoes, air-dried fennel, Kalamata espuma, lemon granita, green bean emulsion, confit of new season’s potatoes, and anchovy soil.”

Salad Niçoise by any other name, but not in today’s uber cool menu speak.

Chefs seem to have lost the plot entirely – whatever happened to simplicity? This kind of nonsense has replaced the old 80s style descriptions when ingredients were “nestled on a bed of …” or “floated in a pool of …”, but I don’t think that we are better off.

Why can’t restaurants just deliver a good, properly cooked plates of food without trying to show how clever they are (and don’t get me started on what constitutes a plate any more — if i wanted to eat off of a bathroom tile I could do so at the staff canteen at Tiletoria, and having my medley of foraged rock-pool creatures  delivered on some dodgy bit of drift wood does not make me more inclined to be at one with the ocean even though I’ve just been sprayed with smelly sea water and my eating utensils have been crafted out of reclaimed seaweed).

That fact that you can now buy bits of slate at Woolworths to serve your food on is an indication of a world gone wrong. Do yourselves a favour and go down to your local garden centre – they’ve got loads of them there, laying around on the ground.

But lets get back to the food. Between you and me, I don’t care if my cucumbers are compressed, depressed or just having a bad day and I certainly don’t want to eat anchovies (or any ingredient for that matter) that have soiled themselves.

I find it enormously annoying if a waiter has to come and explain what each element on my dish is. I read the menu, thanks, and I know what I ordered.  But instead I’m now filled with dread in case I either eat an important element in the wrong order, or God forbid swallow something without gleaning the full gist of the man hours and expensive equipment that went into freeze-drying and curing whatever those three drops on the side of the reclaimed dustbin lid were.

Also, when did palate cleansers become a theatrical production? Was the last course so diabolical that your palate now needs to be cleansed like an oral exorcism, lest it offend the next course?

Now, there’s billowing dry ice, wild sage smudging, deconstructed cucumber (that’s a depressed cucumber with a fine arts degree), and in some modern restaurants you even have to leave to room to have your palate cleansed. There was a time in classical kitchens when the sole purpose of the palate cleanser was to give the chef an extra fifteen minutes to prepare the main course, but now it’s so that they can justify spending R30k on a Pacojet.

I will touch only briefly on what I refer to as Molecular Mumbo Jumbo. Suffice it to say that the process of sous-vide, or “poach in a packet” as I like to call it, and the Immursion Circulator (a very expensive piece of equipment that’s essentially a water bath with a timer and the heating element from a kettle), are to modern day cooking what sliced white bread was to the 1950s.  By making it impossible to overcook a fillet steak at 40 degrees, even after fifteen days or whatever it is, these gadgets have just made chefs lazy. If you don’t know how to cook a piece of fillet or salmon evenly throughout without a machine then you’ve no business being in the kitchen.

I have recently returned from a trip to London and Edinburgh where I was fortunate enough to eat in a number of very good restaurants, and what struck me was the simplicity of the menus and the dishes themselves. These restaurants varied from a seafood specialist in Edinburgh to a 1 Michelin-starred pub and 1 and 2 Michelin-starred restaurants in London. In each of these very different restaurants the dishes consisted of no more than four ingredients. The meticulous attention to detail in each of them began with procurement, because what and how you shop or order is just as important as what you do with it. The old adage of not being able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear rings true (although pig’s ear does now makes a delicious appearance on many menus these day).

There were five stand out dishes, on my travels, that perfectly illustrated this attention to both pristine ingredients and faultless cooking. Each of these dishes appear as they are written on the various menus.

Ondine (Edinburgh)

“Lemon Sole Meuniere – Brown Shrimps, Lemon, Parsley & Capers”

One of the most glorious pieces of fish that I’ve ever had the delight of demolishing, perfectly cooked with just the shrimps in the burnt butter sauce to accompany it – a beautiful balance of sweet, salt and sour.

Harwood Arms (London) 1* Michelin

“Dressed Cornish Crab on English Muffins with Pickled Lemon & Coastal Herbs”

Two small coin size English Muffins (crumpets) straight from the oven, topped with fresh white and brown crab meat simply dressed with mayonnaise and a sliver of pickled lemon – heaven!

Cornish crab on English muffins (all images courtesy of Pete Goffe-Wood).

“Cornish Pollock with Colcannon, Crayfish and Crispy Bacon”

Immaculately cooked fish on top of the lightest of mash with just a hint on spring onion through it, topped with a spoonful of flavoursome shellfish reduction and two shards of crisp streaky bacon. There is nothing you could have done nor added to this dish to make it any better.

Cornish pollock on colcannon

Le Gavroche (London) 2* Michelin

“Roast Scallop, Charred Leeks and a Light Vermouth Velouté”

Simplicity and perfection of the highest order –  an enormous scallop that had just been caramelised around the edges but was barely cooked on the inside, accompanied by charred, buttery leeks that still had a slight crunch to them to give texture as well as add a slight acerbic edge to the richness of both the scallop and the velveteen velouté.

“Poached and Seared Lambs Tongue, Pumpkin-Stuffed Macaroni and Amaretti”

Soft and deliciously meaty tongue that had a lovely caramelisation from being seared before plating, and then just a couple of long al dente pieces of macaroni into which had been piped onto the silkiest of pumpkin sauces and served with crumbled amaretti biscuits which provided the perfect texture and aniseed tang. (This was in fact my favourite dish of the entire trip.)

When I asked Chef Michel Roux Jnr. after the meal whether or not the tongue had been cooked sous-vide he just laughed and said, “No, it was cooked properly – slowly braised with good stock, mirepoix (onions, carrots, leeks, and celery) and the appropriate aromatics”.

So is there hope for us here in Cape Town? I certainly think there is reason to be joyful. There are a number of local chefs who are being driven solely by the ingredients, because let’s remember that when ingredients are at their peak, the less done to them the better. That is the art of true simplicity – letting nature speak for itself with just a small slight of hand and deft pairing.

George Jardine at Jardine in Stellenbosch has been doing it for years and continues to, better that anyone I know . Giles Edwards at Le Tête in Bree Street cut his teeth under Fergus Henderson at St. John in London and that paired down style is evident in his considered and luddite cooking.

Eric Bulpitt (previously at Faber in Paarl, and soon to be taking the helm at Pierneef à la Motte) is a shining light when it comes to letting the ingredients shout from the rooftops, as is Kobus van der Merwe at Wolfgat in Paternoster. Ricky Broekhoven at The Restaurant @ Newton Johnson is another name to look out for.

in the meantime I will have to make do with “Puffed & Glazed Edible Grains, Homogenised Aryeshire Mammary Secretions, and Dehydrated Sugar Cane”.

Rice Crispies by any other name.