Last year, I ate dinner with a famous food critic at the best seafood restaurant in the world. The tasting menu at New York’s Le Bernardin dishes several small, perfect plates of the old world (sautéed langoustine with truffle and chanterelles) and the new (charred octopus with black garlic). But the one dish that made GQ critic Alan Richman swoon was already venerable when it was written down in 1903.
In The Escoffier Cookbook, sole meunière, recipe number 842, is fish dredged in flour, fried in butter, seasoned with lemon, salt and pepper, and served with foamed browned butter and parsley. Fish in butter is “my seafood madeleine,” says Richman, whose most beloved variation is served with almonds (called sole amandine; garnished with cucumber, it’s called Dover sole, says Escoffier, referring to the dish, not the fish). He cites meals across continents, decades and Michelin-starred menus, this classic dish his common touchstone.
So what makes one dish an enduring classic, another a forgotten fork mark on the tablecloth of epicurean history? Flipping through Auguste Escoffier’s recipe tome – he was the first French chef to codify restaurant cuisine for cooks, and the inventor, with hotelier César Ritz, of much of the French-inflected hospitality that ruled the 20th century – dishes such as Brains à la Robert, Potatoes Duchesse and pages of complex blancmanges look like culinary relics. They were all ‘classics’ of the French canon circa 1903.
Crumbs of menu memory
Simplicity, surely, is part of it. Who has the time or patience to transform dozens of ingredients over many hours into a complex dish? Not today, when we crave foods that are lighter and more global in their inspirations than European-derived ‘Continental’ cuisine. We want ceviche, not truite au bleu.
The molecular gastronomists would tell us that modern classics flip the powerful switch of culinary memory. Indeed, Richman traces his sole fixation back to childhood: “My mother made broiled flounder with butter almost every Friday night. She was sure the fish was fresher on Fridays because ‘all the Catholics ate it’.”
I recently heard the celebrated Danish chef René Redzepi wax on for an hour about his lifelong inspiration: a simple chicken meal cooked by his aunt on a family vacation in Greece. At Noma in Copenhagen (thrice this decade named the world’s best restaurant) he serves seafood in moss and seaweed, uses bark and tree cones to flavour his food, and makes edible dirt the medium for wild Nordic produce. In his mind, Redzepi is back on that Greek island, killing the chicken, lighting the wood fire. His culinary brother, Chicago avant-gardist Grand Achatz, famously served pheasant with a burning oak twig at restaurant Alinea – a potent memory of his Michigan youth.
We crave the essence of a classic dish, rarely the thing itself, says William Sitwell, the editor of Waitrose Kitchen magazine and author of A History of Food in 100 Recipes. “If a restaurant was actually dishing out food from the past we’d be disappointed. Palates have changed completely,” he says. Sour has been replaced by balanced sweet, dairy overtaken by olive oil.
Some dishes live on in new forms: his book includes Meat Fruit from Dinner, Heston Blumenthal’s Michelin-starred London restaurant that reconstructs historic British dishes. Sitwell says you could call the mandarin-jelly-skinned, orange-shaped chicken liver and foie gras parfait a modern molecular marvel – or you could point to its roots in mediaeval times, when diners delighted in whimsical foods disguised to look like other foods. “What I think it’s about, at its root, is authenticity,” Sitwell says.
He chose the 100 recipes because they either advanced the history of food or introduced new techniques. Take something as elemental as Welsh Rarebit: cheese on toast. “Toast is actually a brilliantly sophisticated advancement in food. It takes this incredible alchemy of grain crushed into flour mixed with yeast and salt to make bread, and the transformation that happens when you toast that bread. You transform it further by buttering it. And further again by putting cheese on it – cheese itself having evolved as a brilliant way to preserve milk.” Recipes encode social evolution, he says, providing “an amazing keyhole into human existence.”
Diners at St. John, the restaurant that helped reintroduce nose-to-tail eating to the modern dining public, might feel rather mediaeval slurping on marrow bones. “Good food is a permanent thing,” declares Fergus Henderson, the founder. “It’s when trends or hype come on the scene – that’s when dishes become dated.” When I ask him about modern takes on classic dishes, he sniffs that “deconstruction tends to suggest a running out of ideas.”
His comment reminded me of Cooking in Progress, the documentary about Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli restaurant in Catalunya, Spain, the food lab that made foam famous (and which closed in 2011). For the first several minutes of the film, which actually take place in a lab, I was sure it was parody. It was not. But I do have a powerful food memory of that day at the cinema – not of the brigade of chefs on the screen, fussing over liquid nitrogen gorgonzola globes and crystallised parmesan. It was hot buttered popcorn, its scent and unctuousness coating my fingers and lips, simply, reliably and deliciously: classic.
An editor at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, Charlene Rooke is also a contributing editor at Food & Drink magazine. She is a trained gin distiller (in the state of Washington) and an omnivore. Image: cellophane of tempered oysters at Arzak in San Sebastian