Across an array of different culinary styles, the city's greatest food-crafters share one common theme: It's all about the ingredients.
The best foie gras I’ve ever eaten was as devoid of pretense as most preparations are precious. I purchased it in a parking lot in France from the back of a van that looked like it could have been used in that horrible Buffalo Bill scene at the beginning of The Silence of the Lambs, and I’m pretty sure the guy who took my modest stack of euros still had blood in his fingernails. But this jar of duck liver was gorgeous to look at, all silky in texture and streaked with homemade fig jam, and it tasted as if it were being fed to me by God himself, each plastic spoonful a toe-curling, heart-palpitating revelation.
I bring this up to point out something simple: How our food looks has an immeasurable impact on how we perceive its flavors. The same liver, from the very same bird, may not have stuck with me all these years later had it been lovingly seared, accompanied by a perfectly crafted fig coulis, and served to me on pristine Spode china in a restaurant boasting three Michelin stars. That sense of unexpected discovery, of whimsy, left a lasting impression on me, a sort of offal tattoo on my psyche that I can’t and don’t want removed.
Today, in this city, on this side of the Atlantic, many of our best restaurants seem to understand that. They’ve been shedding old-school preciousness as they think more deeply about visual presentation than most of their guests probably realize. And, I’d argue, we are all eating better, and more joyously, for it.
For all the distinct philosophies that Philadelphia’s chefs bring to bear on the food that leaves their kitchens, one theme seems to recur, like a leitmotif of sorts, when they discuss the design of their dishes: a focus on, and a respect for, the natural expression of ingredients.
At one end of that continuum is Chef Jason Cichonski of Ela. In addition to the exquisite flavors he coaxes out of his ingredients, Cichonski is beloved for the whimsy his food often provides. His justifiably lauded scallop noodles (pictured, above) are a handy example. While they certainly surprise the uninitiated with their wholly unique transformation of the familiar into the unexpected, they still find their center of gravity in the fact that they are utterly delicious expressions of a beautifully prepared ingredient.
“That specific dish... has done phenomenally at the restaurant,” Cichonski says. “It’s been to the point where, throughout my career, I’ve almost never replicated a dish, or kept a dish on the menu for too long a period of time without changing it. There are just too many different ingredients and different things to work with, and too small of a menu to be able to keep the same things. I mean, we always want to evolve. But the scallop noodles have been, from day one to right now—we’ve changed the sauce a few times, but the noodles themselves are always there.”
The dish’s success and subsequent longevity, it seems, is a result of the carefully managed intersection of flavor and aesthetics. The tension that results from shifting the point of contact between the two, of confounding textural and visual expectations by presenting a scallop in the shape of a noodle—that’s where the memory is born.
But you have to be careful with challenging expectations—or, at least, too many of them at once.
Dr. Debra Zellner, a professor of psychology at Montclair State University who studies the psychology of food, will be working at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center next year. Her research and experimentation have resulted in some very interesting findings.
Zellner recently conducted a study with the Culinary Institute of America in which guests were served the same meal on consecutive nights, but plated either traditionally or more artistically. The guests, it turns out, actually preferred the flavors of the more artistically presented food over the staid, despite the fact that the recipe was exactly the same for both. In other words, a dish’s appearance has a very real impact on our perception of flavor—and on the amount of pleasure the same flavors can give us.
What’s more, Zellner says, studies indicate that most people are “neophobic,” frightened of the new, in terms of what they eat. (However, continued exposure to a new food does tend to breed familiarity and eventually appreciation.) This means a dish like Cichonski’s scallop noodles walks a careful balancing act to strike the right note: Because its presentation is aesthetically beautiful, and because the scallop flavor remains familiar enough to act as a bridge across the unexpected visual, the first-time diner can generally appreciate it on its own terms rather than falling prey to their instinct to reject the unusual thing they’re being asked to eat.
This kind of culinary calculus, it turns out, is a burgeoning field.
“The Culinary Institute used to just train chefs,” Zellner says. “And in a lot of the books that they use to teach them about plating, they talk about how having a beautiful presentation actually increases liking for the food. But they never had any empirical data on that, ever.” Now the institute has started a research division—and are working to get chefs involved with it.
Then there are cultural influences on food design. Like fashion, food history is cyclical, and subject to the same sorts of big-picture trends. What’s considered the height of good taste, of avant-garde expressiveness, in one era, is all too easily looked back upon with derision a generation later—or at least with a sense of confusion as to how it might have attained such popularity and respectability in the first place.
But to engage in that sort of temporal relativism is to ignore the fact that past trends unavoidably affect current ones. Though it’s easy today to deride as overly fussy, for instance, the architectural school of plating thought embodied by Alfred Portale two decades ago at his seminal New York restaurant Gotham, its influence on how we perceive our food endures, and justifiably so. For many of us, it was the first time we had seen the creative destruction of the old protein-starch-vegetable hegemony. It also was gorgeous on the plate, providing a sense of drama previously unfamiliar in many cases. So now, though our best chefs no longer pile their food in the search for altitude, they benefit from the freedom that that aesthetic trend facilitated.
“I think we do a really good job about making [our platings] look contemporary and pleasant, but without making them look too fussy,” says Chef Eli Kulp of Fork and High Street on Market. “I don’t want my plates to look like a sculpture... I want them to look pleasing to the eye, but not like a museum piece.”
The naturalist aesthetic that seems to be driving so many of our chefs today does manage, in its best examples, to become art itself. Kulp’s much lauded bread plate, for example, with its squid-ink sponge bread resembling some sort of alabaster-toned coral, is stunning to look at, and equally delicious to eat. So, too, are the glistening, perfect slices of fish that Chef Hiroyuki Tanaka presents at Zama, and the hearty, confident beauty of Marc Vetri’s pasta. It’s one consequence of the chefs’ laser-like focus on ingredients—on the individual components that constitute a dish.
Chef Greg Vernick notes that he was lucky enough to travel a lot before he opened his eponymous restaurant in Rittenhouse. “It sort of was like a blueprint for me, going to places like Spain, Italy and Japan,” he says. “All of those regions are very ingredient-based, you know—where ingredients almost trump technique. And that’s really what I fell in love with.”