Are Restaurants Being Creative for Creativity's Sake?

   |  Updated: April 26, 2016 13:57 IST

Are Restaurants Being Creative for Creativity's Sake?

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There's no way to measure creativity. There's no real way, in fact, to even define it in any objective way. We know it when we see it or experience it but often why something is out of the ordinary, or 'artistic' is hard enough to articulate-forget about measuring or comparing its creative credentials.

With that disclaimer, let us now agree that we are living in the best of times and the worst of times as far as 'creative' culinary expressions go. On one hand, chefs are striving hard, day in and day out, to be artists and not 'cooks'. When these experiments succeed, they can come across as geniuses wowing us with both their dexterity and imagination. And many of them have been able to push boundaries, subvert tradition or reference the classic in playful, intelligent ways. Delicately picking apart a dish can be compared to reading a work of literary fiction, where the cleverness may lie in layering the work with references, in inventing a new language or narrative technique as it were to convey some truth of experience.

At its worst, a so-called 'inventive' dish may be nothing more than a cheap copy, a parody of a masterpiece, a laboured bite that you must plod through, or just plain and simple a potboiler that may be popular but has nothing to really to recommend it to any one interested in an elevated experience -no depth, no 'soul', not even cleverness or enough craftsmanship.

In the Indian restaurant-scape, as every creator of food almost sets his/her heart on what is loosely dubbed Modern Indian, some disastrous experimentation is almost inevitable. Much of it finds its way on to our plates: Smoke without any known cause, 'deconstruction', the very construct of which is dodgy to say the least, dishes such as the likes of biryanisushi, chocolate golgappas, ice cream decorated with dehydrated dhokla, karela rings dubbed calamari, pork belly pakoras that betray a lack of perception... the list of my peeves as a food writer is endless.

So how do you judge creativity on a plate?

While taste can be subjective, the point, of course, is how do you separate real creativity from just plain silliness? Why are some dishes artful masterpieces, even as the others worthy only of our scorn? There are some parameters by which I would judge each experiment, or "pushing of the boundary" by a chef:

1. We want flavours, not tamasha
Sure, in India we continue to dig anything remotely 'molecular' or cooked in 'sous vide'. But a true chef will not try to impress the diner with international techniques. S/he will be more bothered by the final outcome, not the process of arriving at it. The whole point of sous vide is to cook something at low, precisely controlled temperatures so that it is perfectly cooked, with minimum wastage and with full flavours. But if the over all plate does not impress the diner, it is a cheap trick to mention the method. Foams, soils, and liquid nitrogen is all fine-but do the elements make the dish being reinterpreted better-more nuanced, more flavourful? Or, is it mere tamasha.


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2. What's in the mind is almost as important as what's on the plate
A chef's thought process shines through on each plate. But for it to shine, there must be some thought to begin with. Before creating a dish-or, really, just renaming something or presenting it differently-every food creator (and intelligent diner) needs to ask: why. Why should an ingredient like pork belly be fried into a pakora? How are squid and karela at all connected-or is anything cut into rings to be dubbed calamari? What really is the essence of sushi, and that of biryani? Can just merely altering the shape of the rice and inserting a piece of paneer within it make it sushi? And for heavens sake, why is chocolate shaped like a pani puri, filled with cream not more akin to, well, just chocolate truffle filled with ganache than chaat? When a truly creative chef refashions the old, plays around with dishes and presentation, it is inevitably with a more cerebral thought process that reveals a grounding in basics. Satay served with nihari sauce may be a dish where presentations have been altered; but it is a dish that references two traditions using the same meat typically, both poor men's food traditionally, which have been married on a modern plate.

3. Getting the details right
Like anything, food lies in the details. A restaurant reveals its class by every element on the plate. Is the chutney on the side really as perfectly delicious as it can be, and not a  watered down mishmash that you can get at every dhaba?

4. Getting symmetrical, and then breaking that
In art as in life, we seek symmetry. You can often see the sophistication of the plate by the symmetry on it, especially when it has a large number of ingredients on it. It means the chef has thought this through. Prawns with cauliflower may be an unexpected pairing, but all the elements on the plate may reference the main motif-broccoli, a purple puree of cabbage and so on. On the other hand, you could break away from the classic too; distort that image if you will with an unexpected surprise-salted caramel, however clichéd today, may have begun on that premise. But it requires control and a masterful understanding of flavours.

Image Credits: Cafe Lota, New Delhi

5. The larger philosophy
The best chefs are those who do not just pander to the market. Selling your food is important. Getting people to like the flavours a must. But at the end of the day, an artist will create in accordance with a larger vision. A businessman, on the other hand, will replug clichés that sell. When you get people to buy into your vision, then you become a truly great creator. Noma and the whole school inspired by it may be still chic, but there was an underlying philosophy to using those ants in place of lemon on the plates. A philosophy more than its shock value.

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About the Author: Anoothi Vishal is a columnist and writes on food for The Economic Times and NDTV Food, and runs the blog She tracks the business of restaurants and cuisine trends and also researches and writes on food history and the cultural links between cuisines. Anoothi's work with community-based cuisines led her to set up The Great Delhi Pop-Up three years ago, under which she promotes heritage, regional and community-based cuisines as well as researched and non-restaurantised food concepts. She has also been instrumental in reviving her own community's Kayastha cuisine, a blend of Indo-Islamic traditions, which she cooks with her family and has taken across India to a diverse audience.


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