There's a place for artful food presentation - it's just not usually on my plate
Recently I made a dreadful mess in the kitchen. It was delicious. I was looking for something to kick off a dinner party, something around which conversation could gather, and was musing on the Jewish Ashkenazi staple of egg and onion: crushed up cooled boiled eggs with slow-cooked, then cooled fried onions. It's a soothing trip to the nursery or better still, the small child's overheated sick bed.
I wanted to make a grown-up version. Instead of onions I used finely sliced spring onions. I added chopped salted anchovies. I dressed it with a serious vinaigrette, made with spoonfuls of nose-tickling Dijon mustard and mayonnaise and glugs of peppery olive oil. I can't pretend. It looked terrible. It looked like it had been pre-consumed, rejected by the body as not fit for purpose and returned to the bowl from the wrong direction. I hesitated. Could I really serve this?
Then I scooped some on to a cracker. Forgive a moment's boasting, but God it was good: the comforting back rub of the eggs remained, but now there was an insistent kick from the anchovies and the spring onion and the Dijon. It was the word "compelling" fashioned from ingredients. Soon my friends were scraping at the glaze.
It got me thinking. So much of the very best food is like this, which is to say a huge bloody mess. It lies on the plate or in the bowl, looking like something requiring the attentions of the emergency services or a swift burial. And yet, it tastes marvellous. I'd go even further and say that messy food rules. Messy food is where the satisfying stuff is. For example there's a Vietnamese chicken dish I make, full of fish sauce, heaps of black pepper and sugar and handfuls of sliced ginger. An hour of slow simmering and it ends up looking as though a lot of bleach will be required to tidy up the dun-coloured "accident". However, it tastes fabulous, a bash of salt and sweet and umami.
Think of the very best stews; of chillies and curries, of fish stews bursting with saffron or even just a winter salad heaped on a plate. It looks like something awaiting the composter. You don't know whether to use a rake or a fork. And yet it's delicious. I know I'm not meant to think like this; that, when a plate lands on the table, people like me are meant to nod sagely, and mutter about the artful way in which the ingredients have been introduced to each other like they were guests at a cocktail party humming with sexual tension. Supposedly we eat with our eyes first. And I understand that ambitious chefs have spent so long fretting over each element of a dish that they are then going to take extreme care in their positioning on the final plate. Of course they are. They need something with which to fill their Instagram accounts. And I can't promise not to comment on artful presentation in the future. We all appreciate it when a bit of effort has been made.
But I know my heart will be with the messy platefuls and I think for good culinary reasons. Making ingredients taste of themselves is of course virtuous. But slamming them together with other ingredients so they become something else is where the real action is. Messy makes flavours talk to each other. Messy makes them bounce off each other. It works. Now do excuse me. I've got an appointment with the kitchen. I need to make something that will require an awful lot of cleaning up. In a good way.
"Some of the best food lies in its bowl, looking in need of the emergency services" Photograph: Alamy