I tend to prefer my food plain and honest. That doesn't mean I am unimaginative: I have eaten some superb dishes that were probably best described as Nouveau Cuisine, and if a chef has used his skills to create something exquisitely tasty, then I am not one to decry his efforts. But I dislike pretentiousness in any walk of life, and there's certainly a lot of that in the culinary world.
Take the recent problems at The Goose in Britwell Salome, Oxfordshire. (Times report here.) The restaurant's owner decided that the food was too 'posh' and ordered his chef to go down a few levels and make things that people actually wanted. His phrase, which I love for its bluntness, is that the food was "too poncey". The chef, who had only recently won a Michelin star, and the rest of the waiting staff walked out.
Realistic, down-to-earth owner and a chef who is pretentious, precious and totally up himself? Or philistine, lowest-common-denominator owner and a talented but wasted genius of the kitchen? Without meeting them, it's hard to know. But some of the items on the menu suggest that the former is the more likely:
- Pan-roasted Wood-pigeon
- Carpaccio of Chiltern Hills muntjac
- Roast saddle of Yattendon sika deer.
The first is a roast pigeon: a common enough traditional English dish. Why 'pan-roasted'? Surely everything is roasted in a pan? It's how you roast stuff, isn't it? I think this one is similar to the very common 'pan-fried' chicken. It is impossible to fry anything without a frying pan. The 'pan' is redundant. You don't hear of 'oven-baked' bread, do you? (Actually, you do, but that's another tautology.) If you were honest and said 'fried chicken', everyone would think of KFC, but the addition of the 'pan' makes it sound ever-so high-class and proper.
The second has been buzzing round my brain ever since I read it, as it is so utterly pretentious. 'Thinly-sliced raw local venison' is the translation, but the Italian name of the dish, the reference to the meat's origin in an AONB and the curiosity of the species (an descendent of an escapee from Woburn Abbey in 1925, if you are interested) make it just so ... well, poncey. (You can bet that no-one in that restaurant ever asked "what exactly is a muntjac?" Oh my dear, didn't Nanny tell you when you were little? Such a shame.)
I guess the same applies to the last one. We've all come across 'saddle of lamb', so a 'saddle of deer' is comprehensibly posh. But what is this sika deer? Well, same as a muntjac, only bigger and imported from the Far East.
I'm with the owner. That stuff is poncey. The food might have been excellent, but the approach is 100% poncey. If he asked the chef to change because no-one was eating there, he did the right thing. It's the culinary equivalent of conceptual art - a case of the Emperor's New Clothes if ever I saw one.
Today, I took Anna for a Sunday lunch at a superb local restaurant, Keeston Kitchen. I had roast beef, done to the degree of pinkness I requested, with beautifully-cooked vegetables and a couple of glasses of a very nice house red. Anna had the same, but with lamb. We enjoyed a drink with the owner first, and a chat with the chef afterwards, and were served by a local lad who was polite and helpful. No condescension, no attitude, no pretence that anything was other than it was. No "might Sir like to consider ...?" No disdainful waiter flicking your napkin and laying it across your knees (I hate that). Just good food, good company and a good atmosphere.
Perfect. Not poncey.
I'm off to have an infusion of Indian camellia sinensis, with kettle-boiled spring water and a dash of semi-skimmed cow-juice.