I had dinner recently with a chef mate. It wasn’t work for either of us – no pads on the table, no snapping the bread selection on Instagram for “research”, just a couple of grown-ups, out for their tea and a glass or two on the side. The waiter, a competent soul with good eye contact and a pleasing manner, shimmied to the table with our starters and announced, with no appreciable smirk, that we were about to enjoy the resident chef’s “deconstructed fish soup”.
It wasn’t too bad. Without the notebook, I recall a few pieces of fish, nipped and tucked like micro-celebs, potatoes cubed with laudable precision and cream spun into some sort of mousse. I’m sure there was chive action in there somewhere, and maybe even a daring smear of grain mustard. We ate up nicely and then my chum leaned back on his chair and pronounced, “D’you know what would have made that perfect? They should have served it with the bread basket, a spoon and a stick blender.”
Like any philosophical or artistic trend, it’s difficult to place exactly where deconstruction began in cooking. Certainly Ferran Adrià made it explicit on his early menus at elBulli and our own Heston Blumenthal was keen on it here, but it spread widely because it’s just so useful an idea.
Chefs loved deconstruction for lots of reasons; it made a simple, traditional dish into something beautiful on the plate – no bowl of blended sludge but an ikebana-like arrangement of seemly ingredients. Deconstruction declared that the chef had nothing to hide – the high quality of the ingredients was plainly displayed to the new “foodies”, who had begun to care about such things. Deconstruction enabled the chef to lead the diner in a narrative: “Experience the simplicity of each ingredient; see how cunningly I’ve selected them; see how they combine.”
Above all, deconstruction was that rare thing in the food world: something really new. Seemingly since its birth, cookery had been about the judicious combination of ingredients into a delicious whole, more sublime than the sum of its parts. Deconstruction offered, for the first time, the possibility that the separated parts were more interesting than the whole.
Deconstruction has since swept through commercial cooking. In the constant search for innovation, chefs pull dishes apart and represent them in ways that are intended to involve us in an intellectual process. When duck is “presented three ways”, we are challenged to “appreciate the difference”. When we’re offered something foamed or powdered, it is in the hope that it will “reframe our perception” of the basic ingredient.
Perhaps the biggest change that deconstruction has offered chefs is this power to move food out of the purely sensory and into an intellectual sphere. We no longer simply “enjoy” their food, but can be provoked into “thinking” about it, “understanding” it and having our dull preconceptions smashed.
This has been a step-change for cooking: out of the realm of the craftsman, creating and selling a dish, and into cooking as a medium for the communication of ideas. It’s a big step, but not one that anyone would want to discourage – why shouldn’t a chef be an artist?
But there are dangers. As artists know, work in any medium, using any technique, is only as good as the idea it communicates – technique without a thought behind it is what you work out of your system in the first year of art college.
Back at the table (another table, this time at a great little gastropub) dessert has arrived. The “Deconstructed Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte” has an impeccable Blumenthalian pedigree – he did something like it on the telly a while back and it involved, as I remember, a vacuum chamber and an automotive spray gun. Our chef, lacking some of the batterie at The Fat Duck development kitchen, has done his best by making the constituent elements – cherries, chocolate, cream and sponge cake – into discrete piles. The kirsch comes as a flaming shot. I’m tempted to ask for a side plate and sculpt the lot into a roughly layered wedge shape.
Art is judged hard by its audience and critics. They would be the first to detect and decry any work that displayed command of technique over intellectual or emotional substance. If a chef is going to stand at our table and present his work, he is making us an audience and complicit in his thinking. If he is going to tell us that his work uses a technique like deconstruction, it is our job to ask why. What does the technique add to the raw materials? What is the idea that uniquely demands that technique to communicate?
More recently I was offered a dish in which the deconstructed ingredients had been forged into textured strata, and I was enjoined to “take a spoonful and allow the flavours to mix in my mouth”.
It was at this point that I felt that perhaps the whole deconstruction thing had run its course. It was indeed delicious, but I don’t think the chef realised that by “mixing the flavours in our mouths”, we were no longer being led into an appreciation of the interplay of ingredients, or even his cleverness in creating the dish, but instead being asked to complete the final stage of cooking it.