I first experienced plating rage in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, somewhere due east of Hawaii. I was on a cruise ship, dining at one of the ship's only restaurants that did not feature an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The main course was a sight to behold: A grilled strip loin teetered over a mound of mashed potatoes, a sprig of rosemary jutting out sculpturally from underneath the meat. Drizzled hither and yon over the whole ensemble was a dark pan jus. From a neighbouring table, a woman reached over and grabbed my arm. "It looks good enough," she said, "to be in a magazine."
But that isn't what bothered me. What bothered me was the way that dinner tasted: cardboard boiled in salty toilet water.
Plating rage doesn't only happen on cruise ships. Back home, I dropped a minor ransom on one of those dinners featuring très artistiques blurs and squiggles, but tasting uncannily like a Filet-O-Fish.
If there was one thing wrong with food, I thought, it was plating. All these ornate, precious arrangements were just a way for chefs to charge big bucks for food that didn't taste good. It was all a big lie.
My timing could not have been better. Just as my plating rage reached its peak, the Great Recession exerted its deathly chill on the world of fancy eating. Restaurants that specialized in excruciatingly delicate art pieces closed their doors. Chefs retired their tweezers and began serving good honest fare. Offal was in. Burgers were in. Sharing plates were in. And barbecue. Could there ever be such a thing as too many baby back ribs?
The world was a better place.
But then, one evening, a friend and I checked out one of the many new neighbourhood barbecue joints only to suffer through stale cornbread, rubbery brisket and shredded meat in some kind of factorymade red sauce that the menu claimed was pulled pork. Would it have killed them, I mumbled, to at least make it look nice?
Plating rage, alas, isn't the only negative gastronomic emotion. There is also nose-to-tail fatigue, sharing-plate boredom and, it pains me to say, bad-barbecue rage. We are, at this moment, experiencing the early signs of bad-barbecue rage. And that can only mean one thing: intricate plating – gorgeous, unabashedly dazzling food – is back.
"The pendulum is swinging," says David Sax, author of The Tastemakers: Why Some Food Trends Catch on and Others Don't, which will be released in May. He has spent the last two years observing and analyzing how and why the food we eat changes. "During the recession," Sax explains to me, "we wanted comfort." Now that we're in a recovery phase, we're in the mood for excitement again.
The signs are unmistakable. Ferran Adria, the father of contemporary concept cuisine, is about to release a seven-volume cookbook assembled from the recipes he developed at his now-shuttered temple to food science, El Bulli. A recent exhibition at Paris's Palais des Beaux Arts explored "the relations between art and the culinary" and featured the sketches and videos of Adria and other chefs, including Magnus Nilsson, Michel Troisgros, Alain Passard and Michel Bras, none of whom could be accused of slopping chow down on a plate.
All of this is good news. Because it turns out I was wrong about plating. It's not all skill-camouflaging artifice. As a case in point, I give you langoustine with oyster and seaweed from the famous Danish restaurant Noma, a dish that changed the way I think about beautiful food. The langoustine was positioned on a stone someone had salvaged from the tide and scrubbed to a near sheen; it sat next to perfect little dots of emulsified oyster. The tableau looked good enough to bid on with an auction paddle. What was the chef trying to hide?
Nothing, it turns out. The dish was spectacular – delicious, surprising, a joy to savour. What I remember most, however, is that it looked exactly the way it tasted. It was a perfect summation of the sea, visually and gastronomically.
The big question, of course, is how culinary beauty is going to reinvent itself. If the nineties were about stacking and the oughts were about blankets of blinking foam, what's next?
"I have been seeing a lot of 'precision rustic' lately, with a minimalist Jackson Pollack-like edge like a streak of blood next to your meat," says Sax. "Or, for dessert, you get a sauce with a cookie crumbled overtop."
Did you hear that, chefs? It's time to dust off your tweezers. And while you're at it, be so kind as to make it taste good.