I used to know this chef many, many years ago – he was old school. He did his apprenticeship at William Angliss in Melbourne (he went on to be a teacher at the same institution), he wore a white coat with buttons you had to remove before you washed it, he wore a white hat and chequered pants, and he was highly qualified and highly skilled.
He was a fellow who had worked in kitchens since he was a lad and he lamented the good old days when you could just make great food and that was that. You’d put something delicious on a plate and patrons would eat it, and be happy, and go home. They might tell their friends if they went to a nice restaurant, but there was no Urban Spoon and certainly no Iron Chef.
I remember him telling me once, ‘You can’t just cook things any more – these days people expect an orgasm in every bite’.
And in a way he is right. Food isn’t just food any more, it’s become the realm of rockstar status cooks and swearing diva chefs.
In the last 30 years competitive cooking has gone from the sponge pavilion at the Melbourne show to million dollar television productions where the weakest link is sent to the insinkerator.
Today, food not only needs to taste great, it also needs to be new, unique and look like art. Very expensive art. Louvre expensive. An orange and blue splat with a single peeled mushroom on a vast white canvas.
There are so many new versions of traditional dishes, and deconstructions, and reconstructions, and jus (that’s French for juice, mate) and vegetable mousses, and any other highfalutin word you can stick in front of potato or broccoli that sometimes it might feel like the average family kitchen is no match for the stainless steel-lined cooking fortresses that appear on the TV.
When did mashed potato become ‘potato smash’? And when did hash browns become rösti?
Has cooking lost its heart? Has taking cooking out of the home, and putting it on the stage, turned it into a passion unattainable for the everyman and possibly passionless as it became more competitive?
My grandmother was a cook, as was her mother, and her father before her (it goes back to China before that, so we don’t really know how long ago the cooking gene was born).
Nana and her brothers and sisters used to make pies and pasties with their mum and sell them at the South Melbourne Market.
When I was a kid I tasted those same old market recipes and they were bloody awesome. Nana had a talent for cooking and pretty much anything that came out of her oven was extraordinary – as well as pies and pasties, there were leek tarts, and scones, and seed cakes, and roasts, and so many delicious things, most of which I wouldn’t dream of eating these days, but I can still remember how absolutely mouth watering every single thing was. And I can guarantee you there was not one single camera filming these masterpieces, or their master chef. It was just nana in the kitchen, and sometimes she had the radio on (3AK if I remember correctly).
So what happened? When did we expect an ‘orgasm at every bite’? When did food, the thing that – along with air, water and shelter – keeps us alive, become van Gough or Monét or Nolan or Namatjira?
Maybe it’s time we turned off the telly and opened grandma’s old recipe book for inspiration? Okay, ignore the giblets and the tripe (doing my best not to vomit even thinking about it), but look how simple the recipes are. Good, fresh, simple food without the stress of Gordon Ramsay or Matt Preston telling you your pastry isn’t quite crisp enough, or your jus isn’t juicy enough.
Another thing we did at nanas house was that we cooked together. I stood on a pouffe at the kitchen bench with an apron tied around me up to my armpits, and I kneaded the scone dough – no, you don’t knead scone dough – and I slaughtered potatoes with a peeler and brushed egg across pie tops. And I learned. And I remember. And I will never forget.
Those mornings with the pale light coming through the kitchen window and Philip Brady on the radio, and my grandmother saying, ‘You don’t need to do that quite so much’ (the scones) and ‘Potatoes CAN have lots of angles’ and ‘Just gently brush across the top of all of them, don’t miss any’, are the things that cooking are made of for me.