I have always maintained that the primary job of a chef is to feed his guests. If there ever was one thing that could be interpreted as the core of hospitality, it would be the act of putting food in front of a stranger in exchange for money or service. It is different from merely playing a host or inviting someone over for a while; those may be considered hospitable gestures, but they are not based on commerce or an exchange that is solid enough to sustain an entire industry.
Back to chefs. I feel that the art of feeding is dying, replaced sadly with the business of hawking food. Restaurants, in their bid to churn out profit while the crowd is still flowing in—something they fear never lasts long in the fickle times we live in—cut costs, control portions and inflate prices. Instead of feeding their guests just the right amount, they serve whatever the financial controller tells them they sustainably can. So, most guests walk away either having eaten too little or stuffed with the excess they didn’t feel like leaving behind.
With a good chef, there is nothing as ‘too much’. All plates and portions should be measured to maintain balance—the balance of one staple meal. The kitchen brigade should ensure that over the course of one meal, a diner ingests no more than the amount of calories that one healthy and substantial meal should contain. Portion-control should be a function of ensuring that their hunger isn’t all obliterated with the starters, thereby rendering the main course an exercise in wastefulness. I rarely see an empty dessert plate at the end of a meal nowadays, for by the time the starters and mains are done, so are we.
The Japanese Omakase meal is a fantastic exercise in measure and variety. One books a table with a chef, specifying the number of diners, budget and dietary preferences. Based on this, the chef draws up a menu, one that will keep the diners enthralled till the final course—with just the right amount of food that isn’t too heavy on the pocket or stomach. Eest at Westin (Gurgaon) helmed by chef Hiroyuki Hashimoto has the best Omakase service in this side of the subcontinent: while most restos try out a new funky platter for their sushi, Eest does Omakase the right way—flying in rare and fresh raw ingredients that are then served up a la chef! Hashimoto goes a step further and explains all in a choice of languages: Japanese, English and even Hindi.
Back during my days in France, many small eateries did similar table d’hote prix fixe (fixed price) menus that delivered a similar satiety. Indian restaurants leave all the planning to the guests, letting us figure out if one dal and three naans are enough for four diners or not. Chinese cuisine is not much different. And the idea of portioning seems contrary to the notion of a good Italian restaurant (Artusi is the only exception I can think of).
I admit that this article is only relevant to fixed menus and not when we order a la carte or are at a brunch buffet. But, considering how fine dining is on some sort of a revival, it might be a good time for outlets to create grazing/degustation menus, maybe even pair them with beverages, while ensuring that no guest needs to reach for antacid as the final course.
The writer is a sommelier.