The double-edged knife: How “beautiful food” is dulling our palate
Aki Guomundsdóttir // Columnist
I have listened to The Beatles, seen Martin Scorsese films, read Alice Munro books and, as a direct consumer of their art, I feel comfortable opining on their merits. But I have never eaten Gordon Ramsay’s food. I can assume, believe and trust that he is a great chef based on the educated opinions of others, but how could I ever say he’s one of my favourite chefs? How can your favourite chefs be people whose food you have never tasted?
Food is unlike music, literature or cinema – identical copies cannot be made from a master. Each dish is inevitably unique and must be experienced individually. And while it is true that we also eat with our eyes, it should never be that we judge food primarily with our eyes, or worse, exclusively with our eyes. After all, there is only one way to know if a beautiful dish tastes as good as it looks – by tasting it. But it appears that so many people have been conditioned to an extreme visual bias of food to the point they cannot admit it when a “beautiful” dish actually tastes bad, or when an “ugly” dish tastes good.
The ultimate absurdity of competitive food television is that it has moved away from potentially educational programming (teaching skills and recipes, or food philosophies) to becoming another branch of reality TV. It is pure hollow entertainment in form of competitions where the viewers cannot judge anything but appearances and personalities, while convinced that they are competently judging the quality of the food.
The age of Food Network, Pinterest and Instagram has produced a horde of professional and amateur food photographers, bloggers and elastically-defined “foodies,” and one thing I will grant: food has never looked so fucking good. And yet, perhaps not surprisingly, it has probably never tasted so fucking bland.
So, when I heard of a restaurant called The Dark Table, where all diners eat in a pitch-black room and all staff is visually impaired, I jumped at the opportunity – it sounded like a brilliant idea. Even though I’ll admit to having felt great anxiety being blind for an hour and a half, I still encourage people to go try the surprise menu and try to guess the ingredients and the flavours – you can also pick the dishes beforehand, if you want, but honestly, that ruins all the fun. With the surprise menu, you may discover that your palate is well- trained, or you may find yourself among others who admit after the meal that they can’t tell fish from chicken.
Honestly, the food there isn’t phenomenal, but it’s decent enough. My disappointment at the menu, ultimately, is that it serves food that would probably look beautiful anyways if you could see it. On their website, they claim the experience is a “culinary journey through uncharted territory,” but steak, fish and risotto really don’t qualify as uncharted territory. It’s an experience about blindness rather than blind-tasting. Sadly, it wastes an opportunity to serve delicious ugly food instead.
Bear with me: Google the delicious traditional dish “papa a la huancaína” from Peru. Admit to yourself how unappealingly monochromatic it looks. Now look up a traditional German weisswurst dish. Behold that albino boiled sausage and how unappealing that phallic shape looks on a plate, especially beside a golden-crusted pretzel. Now look up haggis, that mix of sheep’s offals oozing out of that giant testicle-looking grey casing like a ritual disembowelment on a plate – further behold that chunky pile of mashed parsnips, and admit to yourself you don’t feel one bit like trying this incredibly delicious dish.
In the 21st century Pinterest and Instagram world, delicious dishes preserved over centuries by virtue of their flavour are now doomed to a horrifyingly petty sentence – exile by ugliness.
I’ve eaten haggis, boiled sausages, crispy pig’s ears, chicken and beef heart kebabs, pork stomach tacos… And honestly all of that tasted infinitely better than the pretentious, colourful, beautifully plated food I’ve had time and time again at home in Vancouver. I’m guilty myself of the occasional pretentious plating and meaningless embellishment of food, but I’m also acutely aware that food only deserves to be plated beautifully if it tastes great to begin with. Otherwise it is all a farce, a cowardly appeal to a diner’s visual biases.
Look, I’m as amazed as anyone by those guys in the Chef’s Table series, and the mad genius of people like Grant Achatz painting and sculpting and framing food beautifully on a plate (or a table, or in the air, or on a wall, or in the cosmos), and I hope one day to have enough disposable income to indulge in actually trying their food. But until we can personally taste the food we visually admire, we need to detach ourselves from the superficial cult of appearances and embrace the age-old, tried-and-true cult of flavours.