Diners are reportedly up in arms about the trend for “deconstructed food”, whereby you’re presented with a set of ingredients – say an avocado, some bread, a toaster and – who knows? – an actual chicken, and told to sort out your own brunch.
In Melbourne, coffee drinkers are urged to construct their own flat whites from black coffee, water and steamed milk, which provoked outrage in some quarters. Andrea Hadfield ordered an orange juice in August and received two halved oranges, a small packet of sugar and a squeezer.
Coming on the heels of the post-plates revolution (involving travesties such as chips served in tiny shopping trolleys, bread in flat caps and a dearth of plates) which regrettably shows no sign of waning, it does seem to merit a certain gnashing of teeth. Just what is it we pay these bozoes for, people are asking, not without reason.
As with most trends, and more particularly with most reactions against particularly trendy trends, there’s a lot of codified stuff going on behind all the appeals to fair play and common sense, bubbling away like the lab beaker full of frothy milk served, alongside one of coffee and one of hot water, to one appalled Melbourne cafe-goer in lieu of the fully realised beverage she’d assumed she was getting.
People don’t like feeling that they are being trolled: the suspicion that metropolitan would-be sophisticates aren’t just doing silly things for the sake of it, but precisely in order to sort out the sheep from the goats – to make those outside the magic circle feel like rubes or hicks.
There may be some of that going on. But the origins of the trend aren’t unwholesome, or devoid of interest. For one thing, there’s a desire for transparency about ingredients, a sense that diners want to know what they’re eating and where it comes from. This is served effectively, if a tad over-literally, by laying the constituent parts of a dish before their eyes.
For another, there’s been a growing informality about presentation, itself a reaction to the tweezered fastidiousness of the Michelin style – whether in the strewings and scatterings of the modern British and New Nordic schools, or the artier approach of Italian superchef Massimo Bottura, whose signature dessert “Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart” celebrates the role of accident in the creative process, much as Marcel Duchamp did when he pronounced his “Large Glass” finished only once someone had cracked it.
Bottura’s tart is “deconstructed” in the strict sense, of course, rather than “not constructed at all” – but it speaks of dining as an event, a gesture.
The same can be said of countless dishes which are completed at one’s table, where a glug of buttermilk makes a cube of dry ice fume like the late Fenella Fielding, say, or – in a restaurant I reviewed nearly a year ago the “fish” and “soup” elements of a fish soup arrived separately. From here we’re well advanced along the primrose path to the present pick-your-own-full-English fiasco.
Even if we filter out its more complex subcurrents, it can’t be denied that there are valid objections to be raised against this rampant outbreak of DIY cuisine. If you’ve got places to be, factoring in the additional time required to assemble your own pulled pork bun or spaghetti bolognese may be challenging. Assembling a dish from its ingredients is what we do at home – why would we want to go out and do it? But the real killer is this.
If certain restaurants do take us for a bunch of idiots, and they’re willing to trust that bunch of idiots to assemble their food, eat it, post it on social media for other potential customers the world over to see – just what does that say about them?