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We have all been told that it is inner beauty, not outer beauty that counts. “Do not judge a book by its cover” asserts the trite and time honored expression. Yet women expend considerable time and money on their clothes, hair, and makeup, not to mention the gym. Why? Because whether it is fair or not, they know that men, and sometimes even other women, will initially judge them by their looks. When men place excessive emphasis on a woman’s appearance they are accused of being superficial. When a chef does it with his food however, he is considered creative and prudent.
Humans are significantly visually oriented. Right or wrong, our psyches do make judgments about things based on their most salient features, i.e., visual attributes. Moreover, initial impressions can influence our perception of the forthcoming non-visible aspects, if we allow ourselves to get past the looks. This happens with everything from the people we meet, to the places we go, to the food we put in our mouths. Studies have shown that people eat more when the food is visually pleasing. This is not to say that if you were served designer dog biscuits on a pretty plate that you would devour them with glee. But your discernment of a dish’s flavor, which is partially psychologically based, can be enhanced if presented with artistic flair.
However, it is not only your perception of taste that the chef wishes to manipulate with his plating artistry. You are likely to come to very different conclusions about a restaurant and its staff if the food is displayed with attention to detail, as opposed to just being slopped on a plate. The former conveys respect for the food and a chef who is diligent about his craft. Well presented food indeed adds to the overall dining experience.
But just as a man preoccupied with physical beauty will miss the essence of a woman, culinary aesthetics can clash with practical concerns. There are many examples. How many times have your shrimp been served with their tails and that last segment of shell attached? The tails are left on for appearance purposes and the final shell segment secures them during cooking. Looks pretty right? But now you have to peel that piece of shell off every one of your shrimp, instead of just digging in with unencumbered joy.
And depending on the hoity-toityness of the establishment, you may have to forgo using your fingers and wrestle that tenacious piece of shell off with your knife and fork. OK, there are worse things in life. But it’s still one more barrier between you and the food for the sake of looks.
Similarly, how about rack of lamb served “Frenched”, i.e., stripped of the delectable meat between the bones to create that sophisticated bare bones look. It should be a crime. Naked bones will not fill your stomach or gratify your palate. Similarly, some chefs remove the tenderloin from their chicken breasts to create a more neat and uniform look. The tenderloin is the “filet mignon” of the chicken and thus, one of the most succulent parts. Or bartenders who don’t shake their martinis for fear of making them cloudy (from the infused ice crystals and air bubbles that vigorous shaking imparts). But shaking blends the ingredients more uniformly and makes the martini colder, which tastes better. Or the Puritanical “two ounces of sauce per dish” standard that purports that droplets of sauce appear more refined than a puddle of it. Screw that. Give me more sauce!
In the same vein is a common trend of artfully arranging a dish’s ingredients on top of each other in the center of the plate. I’ve always thought of this approach as a decorative way to throw all the food together in a heap. Such as when your meat, fowl or fish is placed on a bed of risotto with a small bundle of dressed greens on top of it. Sure, it’s aesthetically pleasing but I don’t want my meat’s juices leaking into my risotto. I want them on the plate where I can dip each slice in them. And I don’t want whatever dressing is on that bundle of greens dripping onto my meat. I want each preparation to maintain it’s own taste integrity as opposed to a convoluted meat-rice-salad hodgepodge. But I’m afraid fried foods will be back in fashion before main stream cuisine features good ole American diner plating, where each item rests on it’s own real estate on the plate.
I am by no means suggesting we abandon culinary aestheticism. It is a vital component of food preparation and presentation. But when it starts to infringe on substance, then we are truly losing our sense of “taste.”