Thursday, July 28, 2011

Generation Food

The old restaurant group that I worked for in Melbourne ticked all the boxes when it came to appealing the generation it targeted. From the fit out to the menu to the ‘feel’ of the place, no stone was left unturned in our quest to extract as much spend as we could from our specified demographic.
Whilst I worked within the organization, I often marvelled at how the boss managed to effectively ‘nail-it’ so decisively yet at the same time I had an uneasy feeling that sooner or later our punters would be dying off and with them our offering will seem decidedly old hat.

When it comes to food, I have often wrestled with the notion of what constitutes a ‘timeless’ dish, a dish that transcends fashion and one that always seems to be popular, the dishes that everybody says, ‘Oh that’s a classic, everyone loves this dish’ etc.
I am beginning to believe that this is particularly true of the older generation especially when you consider say: corned beef, or lambs fry etc. These are dishes that are not so commonly eaten these days and it’s not a long bow to suggest that as a result of this they might even be considered passé. Or one could argue that for many of us they are not passé but have been given a modern spin and have morphed into that most ubiquitous of terms used to describe dishes of yesteryear, ‘Comfort food’.

But for the younger generations what are their ‘comfort foods’ as such? Is the food at restaurants these days the ‘classic dishes’ of tomorrow? Will the funky recycled 6 Degrees ‘look’ so common in Melbourne these days be the ‘laced curtain and doily-esque travesty’ of the future? Some people have suggested that fast food is the comfort food of the younger generations and hence many menus where the burger, slider, springy, wonton, dog and taco appear as a homage or also under the moiker of 'Dude Food'.

I know that many people and not just older diners struggle with the splodges, foams, gels, soils, dehydrations and skid marks that make a modern plate these days because to many its nothing they can recognize and to borrow a phrase from AA Gill, ‘It might be something but its certainly not dinner’. Food fashions come and go however some dishes which have been around for Donkeys have stubbornly endured, but why?

If you read the glossy food mags or eat out a bit you’ll be noticing a seismic shift in the way food is cooked and presented. In fact there is definitely a new aesthestic being practiced in kitchen throughout this country and it in essence eschews the notion that what you get put in front of you should be instantly recognisable.

What I also find particularly intriguing is that many of our most lauded hatted restaurants whose stock in trade to date has been premium ingredients with expert technique, are starting to look ‘old hat’ when compared to this new way of cooking and presenting food. As an example, a dish of lamb at one of our celebrated places might have the lamb as the ‘hero’ accompanied by several bit-players, each recognizable and in a way obviously complementary to the lamb. Conversely, the in this new way, the lamb might appear as a repeating motif on the plate, as an essence, a dehydrated soil or maybe as a bit of jelly. The resulting dish is not often something that the diner can identify and say, ‘Oh there’s the lamb bit’.

So when did this happen?

Well it may have had its germination when we started using rectangular, triangular and ovoid plates. The Molecular Posse who disbanded then reformed as ‘Tecno-mocion Cuisine’ have had a lasting impact but when they hooked up with the ‘Foragers’ and ‘Time and Place’ practitioners could have been the moment when food started not to look like dinner as we once knew it.
Having said all this, I am clearly seeing things through the myopia of my own prejudices and culinary influences so I simply might not be capable of understanding this new aesthetic. This doesn’t mean though, that I don’t appreciate it nor ignore its importance in the scheme of our culinary journey.

However the lingering question for me remains: From this bubbling new ferment will there be some long lasting and enduring food combinations that will stand the test of time and will they be the dishes people seek out when needing to be comforted by food?


Anonymous said...

Two words: Bangers, Mash

Sunnybrae and all who sail in her said...

I am quite certain that in 20 years the current styles of presentation will look just as kitsch as the pineapple on sticks a la Woomens Weekly of the 1950's looks to us now. As to how it has come about there are many resonances from the strewn petals of violets and calendulas of the 80's when we rediscovered that many flowers were edible to the intricate assemblies of Charlie Trotter to the minimalist Italian no fuss plates that legitamised sides and extras that led to inflated prices to the ecconomic challenges of the many recessions that have shrunk the main ingredient to about 15 grams crossed with the ultra closeup that digital images can deliver to the undercurrent of near anorexic dining and Voila! we have as always the current zeitgeist.

Flavour, balance and value will always endure. I could go on but the current molecular/proceessed methods are the most obvious and insidious fashions that provide shortcuts and convenience that will be hard to shift. Sous vide is my current pet hate, we will soon be eating processed foods that the commentators accept and encourage a being desireable.
Frozen food is now also acceptable.
The current fave dish in Melb is a frozen out of season hero ingredient in a commercial store bought pastry with a squeeze of sweet gloop

Go figure?

Rita said...

Brilliant post Steve. I'm totally with you regarding this question of what modern food will stand the test of time, but tend to think 'normal' food such as you find on all pub menus will carry the next generation of younger diners to the safe place of recognisable food, and perceived value for money. A steak, a parmy, a roast, a fish and chip dish etc - they are all still there in their various forms. Not saying I go to pubs and eat that food, because I don't, but DO observe their busy-ness, and think about it often.

Anthony said...

I use to hate silverside but now love it. I just wonder if our tastes evolve or our mothers really just crucified the dishes back then? I also wonder if this current wave of cooking styles is much like concept cars, a few good ideas will live on but the car as a whole will never go the distance.

steve said...

Hi Anon-Hmm, bangers and mash!

Hi George-Nice one! I'm glad this post cajoled responses like this. I suspect you might be right but like Anthony says, some of the good bits might remain.
I also agree with your observation that some (paid by supermarkets) arbiters are now suggesting 'lesser foods' are perfectly acceptable, very mixed message IMO. Not the first to do so however-Keith Floyd once champion of English cookery seduced by the filthy lucre to flog stock cubes.

Hi Rita-Thanks for commenting. To be clear though, I'm not saying that modern food 'wont' stand the test of time, I'm enquiring 'what' will?

Hi Anthony and welcome-A good point you make. I hate steak & kidney pie for exactly the same reasons which has left me forever bigoted to its charms. Had that dish been better cooked and served to me perhaps I might think differently now?

sir grumpy said...

Hello Steve,
you could list the new ``trip down memory lane'' item in 20 years' time under Foamily Favourites.

Hazel said...

sad but true- certainly not the food we aspire to or go looking for!

The mainland cowboy said...

I think food trends are a lot like music trends. In the old days where silverside and the beatles/stones dominated the landscape, there wasn't such choice as today so those dishes/artists stood out boldly. We have such variety out there now, just the sheer volume of different offerings and the access to them, from all over the ONE thing can rise above all others. Will lady Gaga be on the all-time top 50 in 2 years time...I don't think so and so with the splodges, foams, gels, soils, dehydrations and skid marks, all relegated to the specials bin on your left as you head to the Neil Young section of the record store.

Tanya said...

Steve I really enjoyed the post and you particularly grabbed me with the first paragraph. More than food/menu, is the fit out, the targeting of a specific market. I am only mid 40s but I know that my dollar is not the one most restaurants are after. My bewilderment started when the trend of exposing the kitchen began several years ago. When I go out to dinner, I like relaxed surroundings of a dining room and for the magic to happen. I do not enjoy seeing chefs dart around the kitchen as they juggle entrees and mains. Our children on the other hand comment that they like open kitchens and the frenetic atmosphere. They also say that they think it keeps the chefs more honest. WHAT?
Dining at home has become more casual and we have seen the gradual decline of napery and this too has translated to restaurants no longer using cloths and napkins.
So like your ponderings on food and what will endure and become future classics, I can't help but wonder what our dining surrounds are going to be like. Perhaps evolution would progress to where we lounge and accept plates upon our laps and from there we cycle back to the reclining Romans?

steve said...

Hi Sir G-Foamily favourites, I'm SO using that!

Hi Mainland Cowboy-good points you make. The question i would like to pose to you though is: Are we just reflecting, in your case, our musical prejudices? Really, who or what is the arbiter of good taste?

Hello Tanya-thanks for reading. I really suspect that you might be onto something there. I mean there has been a an incremental whittling of our table ettiquette over the years. Whod've thought cars would inclide drink cup holders? Menus designed around the notion of eating with one hand whilst the other steers the vehicle?