Across an array of different culinary styles, the city's greatest food-crafters share one common theme: It's all about the ingredients.
No one whose eaten Vernick’s food would ever accuse him of allowing technique to be minimized—his is impeccable—but his point, I think, is that the expression of the ingredients is paramount, regardless of what he does to them.
“The word I’m constantly trying to kind of tell myself” when it comes to presentation and design, Vernick says, “is restraint.” The benefit of this isn’t just a less baroque, more natural aesthetic—in other words, platings that are in tune with other expressions of contemporary design—but also a sort of de facto improvement of each of the limited number of components on a given plate.
“It’s a way to train a cook,” he says, “to understand that you have nothing to hide behind. I mean, you have three ingredients on the plate—they all have to be perfect. If there were 15 on the plate—this is not to knock anybody, any style of cooking or presentation or dishes, but if there’s 15 on a plate, sometimes you can’t make out all 15. And if there’s a miss [among those 15 ingredients], sometimes that dish is still amazing and nobody knows that there was a miss. If there’s a miss on one of our plates... we can’t sell it.”
Vernick’s focus on a limited number of great ingredients, and the ways in which that affects a dish’s ultimate aesthetic, is something we’re seeing throughout the city. It’s important, however, to realize that this can’t be successfully accomplished without a carefully honed artistic eye.
The whole roasted hen-of-the-woods mushroom at Will is an instructive example of a fully articulated plating vision, as are the beautifully composed cheese plates at Talula’s Garden or the glistening Staubs of slow-roasted meats at The Mildred. All of these brilliantly embody the deep, perhaps pivotal importance that balance and precision and aesthetic vision play, all the more so when presenting a dish with a finite number of components.
They also help to explain why that jar of foie gras still sticks with me all these years later. In its apparent simplicity, it embodied so many of the tenets of successful food aesthetics: It was based on impeccable ingredients, presented unfussily and yet with real care, and, with its streaks of color well-distributed throughout, it was visually balanced. It tasted like heaven—but I can’t pretend my eyes were closed.