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Achieving Balance in a Menu


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#31 John Whiting

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Posted 13 February 2003 - 02:28 AM

The most important element in creative cuisine has become a sense of proportion. By that I mean a realization of its secondary importance. To eat without reference to where our food is coming from and how it is produced has become a luxury that we can no longer afford. And to ignore or reject such matters is to declare the bankruptcy of the human race. Even at the highest levels, such restaurateurs as Alain Passard and Alice Waters are looking beyond the single-minded gratification of the senses. “Balance” must henceforth go beyond our sensory perceptions, and even beyond the well-being of our own minds and bodies.

On the eve of escalating conflict and economic collapse, I would guess that the number of correspondents who consider this pretentious may have substantially shrunk.
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#32 macrosan

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Posted 13 February 2003 - 07:31 AM

There has been much interesting discussion about what "balance" might mean when talking about a meal. However, Lizzie's original post makes quite clear that she is talking about contrast of elements.

For myself, I am not a great admirer of this approach to dishes, or to meals. Of course I can admire the visual effect of the classic tricolore of peppers, but generally my preference in the visual arts is more minimalist, and towrds monochrome. I have never cared much for swett and sour combinations, excpet (for some reason) in pickled cucumbers. I positively dislike elements of different temperatures in a dish, so for example I have never enjoyed a salad with a hot dish. The idea of different shapes and sizes does nothing for any of my senses.

In fact, from Lizzie's list, the one item that stands out as being something that enhances my enjoyment of a meal is her idea of differing textures.

In relation to this list, I have to admit that I am discomfited by the idea that a chef is spending time and mental energy on trying to design a dish or a meal around these concepts. Sure, if he decides to use three different colored peppers in a stew for reasons of flavor, then that's fine with me. If he gives consideration to their improvement of the look of the dish, I still have no problem. But if he only includes them for the purpose of color variety, then he's going to lose my attention.

I find the other definitons of balance introduced to the thread interesting and appealing. I have read Tony Finch's (almost mystical) description of the oriental perception of inner and outer, physical and metaphysical balance, and I recognize in what he describes something that I feel but have never verbalized. My desire for balance is instinctive rather than intellectual. It's also highly variable, so I find that on one day I will order a plain grilled steak with fries and mange tout and mustard, and on another day I'll have a steak with maybe a bordelaise sauce and fried onion rings. My choice will depend on my mood, and I've always noted that my choice seems entirely whimsical. Perhaps that "whimsy" goes deeper than I thought :smile:

#33 lizziee

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Posted 13 February 2003 - 07:09 PM

Martin,

I am not suggesting that a menu be designed without regard to flavor or as you suggest "if he only includes them for the purpose of color variety, then he's going to lose my attention." But, I do think you eat with your eyes as much as your palate. I am opposed to heaping a wild assortment of foods and flavors on a plate in the hopes that it works. I also dislike this same piling on of one dish after another without any regard to how it effects the total dining experience.

Tonyfinch,

I accept the premise that my response to dining is greatly influenced by the French. My experience in this cuisine far exceeds that of other cuisines. However, isn't an omakase meal similar in many respects? It doesn't follow the amuse, fish, meat, cheese, dessert format, but not only does there seem to be a set order, but also a "balance" (I admit readily that this is not the best choice of words) between flavors, temperatures, textures and the like. For example, at Ginza, the chef seemed to design a menu that included all these elements. (http://forums.egulle...=13984&hl=ginza)

I also agree with the premise that in the hands of less skilled chefs, they can "fool" the diner with a myriad of small bites. One of my most favorite restaurants in Paris is L'Ambrosie. The menu is a la carte only. Each dish is so pristine and so perfect that it can and does stand alone.

#34 macrosan

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Posted 14 February 2003 - 04:07 AM

To eat without reference to where our food is coming from and how it is produced has become a luxury that we can no longer afford. And to ignore or reject such matters is to declare the bankruptcy of the human race.

I'm not sure I understand this point. In what sense is ignoring the source of food a "luxury" ? Who ever suggested it was ? So in what intellectual sense can we "no longer afford it" ? I think John is artificially suggesting that something exists which in fact does not, in order to make a political issue out of something which is not political. Even if he were right, to relate this to the "bankruptcy of the human race" is awfully overstated, and does John's political position a great disservice.

On the eve of escalating conflict and economic collapse, I would guess that the number of correspondents who consider this pretentious may have substantially shrunk.

I guess that John's guess is wrong :biggrin: He would have to explain to me to which escalating conflict and economic collapse he is referring, and in what way such geopolitical events could have to do with the structure of a menu, but even when he has done that I would still guess that his guess is wrong. :rolleyes:

#35 John Whiting

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Posted 14 February 2003 - 01:22 PM

I don't expect anyone to see my point who didn't in fact see it before I made it. It's useless to argue it here. I'll only add that nothing would give me more pleasure than to be proved wrong by events.
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#36 Jonathan Day

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Posted 15 February 2003 - 04:25 PM

Let me take us back to Lizziee's post and again quote Escoffier's Livre des Menus from the tasting menus thread, now cooling in the Symposium Fridge:

In times past, hors d'oeuvres and soups played the role of apéritifs. These were followed with dishes called removes (relevés): large portions of fish, meat (red meats, fowl, game), sauced and garnished, so-called because they were served when the soups had been "removed" from the table.

We don't see these removes, anymore, at least not presented as they used to be, that is large cuts of meat presented whole to the diners. Nowadays, they are sliced into serving portions before being brought to the table. This style is far better adapted to fast service, with the dishes appearing hot. The removes are now used as a sort of starter. Though they begin the dinner, the removes make up a substantial part of it.

Nowadays, even at the most elegant and refined dinners, removes are often omitted. In this case the fish course must follow the soups or hors d'oeuvres, since modern practice insists that the first course be made only of fish, with the exception of fasting menus (maigres, as in Lent). Furthermore, it is sometimes the case that shellfish will be served either as cold first courses, often in the form of a mousse, or as a cold main course; this is a survival of ancient gastronomic customs, and it is increasingly rarely seen today.

In the absence of removes, the fish is followed by small servings of red meat, and then fowl or game. These can be followed by small servings of hot mousses, soufflés and other "made" dishes (not pieces of meat or fish, but dishes that have been "worked" e.g. galantines), including cold ones when the dinner calls for them.

Sorbets end this first part of the dinner, which corresponds to the "first service" in the old French school. Then come the hot roasts (les Rôts), often accompanied by a salad; then a cold "roast": this could be a pâté, a terrine, or a parfait of foie gras; a truffled pâté, Terrine or Galantine of fowl; a fine cold ham; or cold crayfish.

Cold "roasts" of lobster or spiny lobster (langouste) are fine for lunch, but should never appear on a dinner menu. These dishes are far too heavy and difficult to digest to be served at the end of an evening meal.

A vegetable, a hot or cold sweet, an ice accompanied by petits fours and a variety of fruits complete the menu.

All of these guidelines are for classic menus; they are the rules through which one can create, in each season, the "typical" or "ideal" menu.

-------------------
Some notes on this translation: first, remember that Escoffier's lighter menu still follows the fundamental architecture of a three-part meal. Second, the term "entrée" is highly ambiguous, and is often best translated "side dish" or "small dish". It sometimes means "entrée" in the modern European sense, i.e. a first course. It never has the American sense of a main course. Finally, "roasts" (les Rôts) does not always mean a dish that has been roasted; sometimes it just means a substantial dish, such as a "roast" of lobster or a pâté.


It seems to me that Escoffier was attempting to create some sort of "balance" here, at least to ensure that the menu covered different foodstuffs and different cooking techniques: soups, roasts, "made" dishes, etc. This is satisfying a culturally driven notion of balance. The Italians react this way as well: a full meal begins with some sort of soup or antipasto, continues to a pasta, then a meat main course, with vegetable side dishes (contorni), then either fruit and cheese or dessert, more often the former. Omit one of these things, or put them in different order, and the meal is out of balance, unhealthy.

The notion of "surprise" (as with Achatz, Keller or other hyper-modern chefs) seems exactly contrary to this concept of balance, where the dishes have a degree of predictability about them. Here the idea seems to be to challenge our notions of sequence and balance, to deliberately knock us off-balance -- e.g. Trio's "pizza" which turns out to be a postage-stamp sized piece of paper flavoured to taste like pizza, or bacon-and-egg ice cream.
Jonathan Day
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#37 John Whiting

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Posted 15 February 2003 - 04:57 PM

Ah, surprise! An empty and fleeting pleasure, though much beloved of the 18th century landscape gardener, Capability Brown. Thomas Love Peacock had the last word to say on the subject in Chapter 4, "The Grounds", of _Headlong Hall_:

"Allow me," said Mr Gall. "I distinguish the picturesque and the beautiful, and I add to them, in the laying out of grounds, a third and distinct character, which I call unexpectedness."
"Pray, sir," said Mr Milestone, "by what name do you distinguish this character, when a person walks round the grounds for the second time?"
John Whiting, London
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