Samui Wining & Dining
And Now It’s …

Hearty meals, nouvelle cuisine, fast food – trends come and go but just what is the latest thing in fine dining?

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p14My dear old dad always judged a meal by how high it was on his plate. The better the restaurant, the more they piled on the dish. Mind you, that was many, many years ago. What I’m getting at is that our attitude towards food changes. What was popular thinking in the 1960s has moved with each new generation. And what was all the rage in the 1990s is seen as dismissively out of date today. Our awareness changes, our attitudes shift and food fashions come and go. But just exactly where are we now? What’s the currently accepted view on the best way to dine today?

If we look back to the 1950s and ’60s things were much simpler. The ‘War’ years had left their mark and everyone was keen to chew their way through as much beef, bacon, eggs and potatoes as they could get their teeth into. And, not surprisingly, a full plate was a comfortable sign of well-being, a reassurance that all was normal once again.

This held true for the majority of restaurants, too. Certainly there were many upmarket eateries that prided themselves on the superior quality of their cuisine. But at this time the universal trend in fine-dining was towards classical French haute cuisine, with its heavy, rich, fat-based sauces and liberal seasonings. The average family simply didn’t go to places like this. When they went out to eat it was to local restaurants instead. And there they expected to see solid, plain everyday food – and lots of it.

But attitudes had begun to change by the time the 1980s came around. Cheap package holidays had arrived and all over Europe the masses were winging their way towards the Mediterranean coastline. Strange dishes from Spain, Italy and Greece were sampled and European palates began to broaden. But people still expected a hefty portion of food on their plate.

This spirit of carefree abandon lasted until exactly 1988. This was the year that England came to a halt with a nationwide salmonella scare, followed almost immediately with listeria hysteria after the bacteria was widely discovered in poultry and cheese. And when you add to that the ‘mad cow disease’ – Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) – that became rampant soon after, then it’s easy to see how the public’s current awareness of healthy eating came about.

Of course, those trendy chefs at the chopping edge of culinary innovation were quick to take note. Already the French-based nouvelle cuisine movement had become established, but in the’80s this became extreme. Originally a reaction against the calorie-laden extravagance of French haute cuisine, now the health-aware nouvelle cuisine became almost pretentious. This was the era of the world’s smallest portions of food, and anything more than a mouthful per course was considered trés gauche. Thankfully, these micro-portions have now faded from sight but the legacy of this movement remains. Today, all top chefs share a similar awareness of healthy eating and their sights are set firmly on quality.

But whilst all this was happening in Europe, the pacey lifestyles on the other side of the Atlantic had come up with ‘fast-food’. Richard and Maurice McDonald sold their first franchise in 1952. And by the year 2000 there were in excess of 24,000 branches of McDonald’s alone amongst an estimated total of 280,000 fast-food restaurants throughout America. Today, the disadvantages of this kind of diet have become well-known. And now, as a reaction, the concept of ‘quick cuisine’ has arisen.

Once again, it’s the French who have taken the lead in what has been called the biggest culinary revolution since the ’60s. The idea is simple, immensely successful, and it’s about taking the traditional rules of haute cuisine – like cooking to order, using seasonal ingredients and what’s freshest at that morning’s market – and applying them to ‘convenience food’. There’s Jean-Luc Rabanel with his gourmet sandwich shop, PÂN, in Arles. At Charles de Gaulle Airport, Guy Martin has his takeaway restaurant, Miyou, situated between the Cartier and Dior shops. And Paul Bocuse, once a pioneer of nouvelle cuisine, is running Quest Express in Lyon. These are only three top chefs amongst the many that are now on the map and it’s no accident that they are all ‘Michelin-starred’.

Sleepy little Samui is a long, long way from all of this. But you’ll find that the restaurant scene is thriving and there are a substantial number of world-class chefs working here. The experienced master chef, Stefano Leone, is one such and he’s a passionate advocate of quality and dismissive of the fads that have appeared.

Trends come and go but culture and tradition always remain,” he explained. “There are always people who think that doing crazy things is the same as being creative. They’ll play games with food just for the hell of it and present you with a dab of carrot paste and a glass of pea juice instead of fresh vegetables. But for the last 30 years all the top chefs have had some things in common. Quality, for one. And they all create their dishes from the best seasonal ingredients. The aim is to enhance and draw out all the natural flavours and complement these with light, reduced sauces and contrasting tastes and textures. For example, the legendry Thomas Keller of the Michelin 3-star restaurant, The French Laundry, will interpret a traditional veal stew by making a paste out of all the other ingredients and coating a veal steak with it. The flavour is the same as classic blanc de veau. But this is a ‘deconstruction’ with sympathy and integrity and it’s rooted in the traditions of French cuisine. That’s why he and like-minded others are successful – he has a talent, not a gimmick.

Slow-food, fast-food, quick cuisine, huge portions, tiny ones, degustation, deconstruction; they’re all on the timeline of culinary fads and fancies. Some have faded from sight but others are rising stars. Fashions come and go but the current trend seems to have some substance. At one time it was how high your plate was heaped. But today the watchword is quality. And that can’t be a bad thing – even if my dear old dad might not agree!

 


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