Restaurant News

Food folly

Fergus Henderson says food fads such as foraged ingredients and 63-degree eggs leave him cold.

Poor old food is often badly treated. What makes us take a beautiful piece of meat and ruin it by pouring a thick brown reduction over it? I really don't understand. It's then so shy on the plate by itself that the chef makes a small gesture of lollo rossa, but the frilly red lettuce leaf intended as a reassuring garnish adds little for the diner other than inspiring sympathy for cats struggling with fur balls.
There's nothing intrinsically bad about trends. They can, in fact, put a spring in your step, like buying a pork-pie hat as a kid and feeling that you look like a real Mod. Food, of course, is a permanent and essential thing in our lives. We truly are what we eat and not what we wear, and I've long since given away my pork-pie hat. I sometimes think the ebb and flow of architecture, fashion and music could learn a lot from the world of food, but equally I think it's important that the food world itself follow a steady course on an even keel.
Every chef now states that their dishes are seasonal and local. This makes one wonder: what were they cooking before? Food not in season and from very far away? Maybe if this had been pointed out it would have opened our eyes. Do you really have to say this every time you cook? Sadly you do, as the people who provide most of our food are the mighty supermarkets who feel it is their job to sell us strawberries in winter and organic avocados from Peru, all in the name of the illusion of abundance. When it's a commodity in their eyes, not a good lunch, they lose all sense of where the pleasure in food comes from. My local supermarket sells what I think of as behind-the-counter food: much like the contents of the tawdrier shelves at the newsagent, it shouldn't be on display. They stock nothing that hasn't been tampered with: butter that spreads straight from the fridge, bacon that goes crisp almost automatically, and everything - everything - has 99 per cent less fat.
Meanwhile, great chefs have always helped along the march of food, usually with the best of intentions, but when it gets misinterpreted and abused, the march becomes more akin to Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. Cuisine minceur in Michel Guérard's hands is fine, but boy did we feel its culinary ripples everywhere else.
In Barcelona there are many chefs who say they have worked at El Bulli. Quite a few of them seem to have something like Ferran Adrià's reach (or at least a dash of his ambition) without his grasp. What you end up with is reminiscent of a sort of K-Tel greatest-hits package, all sung by the same pub cover-band. 
Noma, meanwhile, has taken local and seasonal to new heights of deliciousness, which brings its own set of problems. We're already seeing lots of René Redzepi-wannabes who don't have his rigor. The restaurant world is small now, and a good idea will spread quickly, but its after-effects can take a long time to move on. For a year or two the 63-degree egg was a chef's way of saying on a menu, "I'm in the loop"; now it seems to be the word "foraged". Both, though, will end up as wobbles in the bigger picture of food's permanent steady march.
I am conscious of the pickled walnut factor: something that looks prehistoric but is as delicious as ever, and therefore as appropriate on a plate in 2012 as it was many centuries ago - like Adolf Loos's American Bar in Vienna, a timeless joy.
I was in Sweden for an awards ceremony a few years ago and the lady on the stage said, "We give this award to Fergus Henderson for common-sense cooking." I suddenly thought, "Do I want this rather dull-sounding award?" But I embrace common sense, and the idea that it isn't by any means bland. I've found my genius loci in innards and extremities. Sprout tops and pickled walnuts.
People talk of a St John-style restaurant and ask what the concept was when we first opened. The simple truth is that there was never a plan. We created a space unadorned, so that you, the diner, became our decoration and music. It's ever-changing with the ebb and flow of the eating public. And the hot trend I'm tipping for this year? More hugs with your butcher.