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Simple Can be Great
By Thomas J. Haas

Ruth Reichl, restaurant columnist for the New York Times, recently discussed her vacation at Martha's Vineyard, mentioning the wonderful simplicity of the food she prepared at this summer retreat. She discussed the freshness of the produce, seafood, herbs, etc., and how good ingredients prepared properly in a simple manner are, without a doubt, a real treat and a wonderful experience.

The commentary was very thought provoking, as I find it more difficult that ever to decipher menus and entrees that work overtime to be creative, but end up becoming cutesy and contrived instead.

I have seen Osso Bucco presented in the new pile-it-on layered look, which almost forced me to use a step ladder to climb over the elements and reach the ultimate of shanks. I have sat at an East Coast seaside resort and watched grouper, red snapper and wahoo jump for joy knowing that all the fish served at this prestigious mecca for dining were flown in special from Honolulu. I dined at a wonderful seafood restaurant that uses only local fish, but you could never order grilled, pan-seared, broiled or poached seafood without mangos, raspberries, figs and other ingredients designed to confiscate the original taste of the entree served.

Why do the nouveau chefs today feel it's necessary to be so convoluted? Their creativity in food preparation should be like a symphony. If Beverly Sills is in concert, why sit a tuba player in front of her to destroy the exquisite sound her voice creates? Elements must be brought together to create harmony, not chaos. The level of ingredients or flavors utilized should enhance the essence of the plate's central character, without destroying its soul.

Russell Baker, another favorite columnist for the New York Times, wrote a wonderfully sarcastic and humorous piece entitled, "Orgies in the Kitchen."

He wrote, "Al and I went out to dinner. The chef was from the Pile-It-On School of Cooking. 'I'll have some shrimp,' I said. 'Do you want shrimp wrapped in bacon and served on a chilled bed of pureed green beans with a dash of sea salt, cooked in a combination of vintage muscatel and extra virgin olive oil?' Or do you want our shrimp petite vache? The chef sautees the shrimp on a veal chop which has been marinated in a sauce of cumin and oil of cloves, then seared over a hickory fire and garnished with thinly sliced tangerine peels and tiny bits of aged spruce bark.'

'Actually', I said, I'd like something a little simpler. Just some plain boiled shrimp, I think.' 'That is impossible,' said the waiter. 'The chef could have his diploma lifted if gourmet authorities should learn that he had perverted his art by serving just plain boiled shrimp.'"

Baker continues to ridicule some of our newfangled, eccentric/eclectic cuisine, but both he and Reichl make a valid point: Simple can be great. Possibly the reason for the old "chop house" comeback is that they prepare food the old-fashioned way, where meat is meat and fish is fish, and you can taste it.

I would present additional recipes from Baker's article, but someone out there in DiRoNa-land might copy them down and add them to their menu. The bridge to the past did not work for Dole, but restaurants should not run out to the bridge to the 21st century without properly executing and utilizing the fundamentals which, though basic, can be the most creative, exhilarating and palate-pleasing experiences of them all.


Thomas J. Haas is President of Thomas J. Haas & Associates, Inc. Mr. Haas is a food service industry consultant specializing in strategic marketing, and is a leading analyst in the industry. Mr. Haas can be contacted regarding consulting and public speaking engagements by e-mail at haaspitality@aol.com.




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