March 28, 2014 7:47 pm

Platable truths

‘As a display of the skills of the chef, it was a masterwork. As lunch it was utterly useless’
Illustration by Richard Allen of plated gourmet food©Richard Allen

The “pass” in a restaurant kitchen is the name for a simple table, bench or bar at which one of the brigade, usually the chef, assembles the final plate and hands it over to the care of the front-of-house staff. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? And it probably is – if you’re the kind of person who thinks the Berlin Wall was an interesting exercise in town planning and concrete casting. In the restaurant, though, the pass is as symbolic as it is physical and as much the cause of tension and conflict as any geopolitical boundary.

The pass represents the cut-off point where the responsibility of the chef ends and the maître d’ or floor manager takes over. It is over the pass that the chef will scream, the very second that the plate hits the stainless-steel, that the slack and recalcitrant waiting staff are ruining “his” work by letting it stand under the heat lamps. It is across the same stretch of metal that the waiter will hand back an undercooked steak and recoil from the resulting blast of invective. Front-of-house staff never cross the pass without being explicitly invited by the chef and, I’m beginning to suspect, most chefs will leave by the back door and fight the rats past the bins to the street, rather than cross the pass into the dining room.

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Tim Hayward

Why do I believe this? Because I’ve just had a club sandwich. In a club, a private members’ club in London with an excellent, highly disciplined and talented kitchen brigade. The sandwich arrived, looking beautiful, like a cover shot for a recipe book. Tall, as multilayered and complex as an orchestral score, the crust of the fresh baked roll tanned to sublimity, the mayo leaking over the moist grilled chicken breast and entwining concupiscently with the crisp frisée.

As a demonstration of the skills of the chef, it was second to none, a masterwork. As lunch it was utterly, depressingly bloody useless. No human mouth could encompass its mighty bulwarks, no human dentition render swallowable the strata of cunningly interleaved ingredients. The chef had made it beautiful and delicious – but at no point had he physically or even intellectually crossed the pass to consider how his work could be eaten.

The chef eats. We know that the chef is mortal and uses roughly the same equipment as us to consume his food. His palate, albeit infinitely more refined than ours, is attuned to roughly the same flavours and combinations. We know that chefs taste the constituent parts of the meal obsessively during preparation yet somehow it seems that almost every grouse I have about restaurant food these days could be laid to rest if the chef, just for 10 minutes or so, crossed the pass, sat down at the table and ate the stuff like one of us.

You know what I’m talking about here, don’t you? You’ll have been served the Bloody Mary that you can’t drink because the foliage on the top jabs into your eyeballs; the tiny jewel-like morsels at the bottom of the deep, custom-designed bowl so you have to use your knife and fork like chopsticks; the sandwich on artisanal sourdough with a beautiful crust about as penetrable as the skin of a Challenger tank; the sous-vide presentation of fish in liquorice gel that looks like a slab of perfect marble but meets the lips like the flesh of something hooked out after a long month floating face-down in the bay. The worst is any construction that looks heart-wrenchingly gorgeous on the plate but suffers catastrophic loss of structural integrity in the short lift to the lips – what one critic of my acquaintance refers to as “shirt food”.

I realise now that I’m becoming unreasonable. This could turn into a rant. But this stuff is not rocket science. A restaurant exists to sell food to customers which it will do better by, at best, delighting them, but at least by meeting their needs. The first principle of marketing in any commercial transaction of this type would surely be to understand those needs. Food must be palatable, or at least edible. Perhaps, at this point, I should just turn this into a kind of open letter to chefs, cooks and barmen.

Please, as you love your work and respect the food you serve, cross that gleaming stainless Rubicon; come, just for a while to our side and break bread with us – at least that way we’ll know that the bread is actually breakable. Join us and eat and then never again will any poor diner have to suffer a “gourmet” burger big enough to have moons, a “club” sandwich you could use to choke a whale – or have to sit, like Tantalus, unable to reach the food in the bottom of his bowl.

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Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer; tim.hayward@ft.com; Twitter @TimHayward
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