“Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away." ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery
For most of my professional life I have been on a mission to seek out the simple and the honest. I have an inherent aversion to fancy, froufrou and flimflam. In my experience, art, poetry, music, design and food are usually better when simple and uncomplicated. Less is always more.
But I do sometimes feel that I’m fighting a losing battle. Too often, praise is lavished upon those who seek to embellish and adorn, those who attempt to make silk purses from sows’ ears. And nowhere is this more prevalent than in the food world. You only have to switch on your telly to find programmes like Come Dine With Me and Masterchef where participants are convinced that the way to win cooking contests is to cram as many ingredients as possible into a single dish. On the latter show, Torode and Wallace’s charges undertake a bizarre and convoluted approach to cooking that has more in common with the contortionist than the chef. Their machinations are positively encouraged by the programme-makers and the general sense seems to be that contestants require an arsenal of techniques that must be used at every opportunity. The result is that dishes become bafflingly overworked and confused with ingredients falling over themselves to be noticed. Consider the typical dish, described in breathy tones by the narrator…
“Gareth is preparing charcoal-grilled quail leg, with pickled wet walnuts, honeyed baby parsnip confit, mousseline of forest morels, black currant jelly, bone broth reduction, truffle foam, beetroot crisp, on a bed of hay.” Stop, already!
I'm not sure whether Masterchef produces car crash dishes like the one above because they think that's what you get in try-hard restaurants or if it's the other way round. What I do know is that it puts me off going to fancy pants places and usually gets me scurrying for shelter amongst those simple bistros, pizzerias and trattorias where the food is less, well, manic. Something happened a few weeks ago, however, that made me reassess my prejudices. I went to The Clove Club.
Isaac McHale made a name for himself alongside James Lowe when the duo cooked in a variety of po-pup locations under the banner The Young Turks. He then set up The Clove Club, a small restaurant and bar in Shoreditch. His business partners, Daniel Willis and Johnny Smith take care of front-of-house and Isaac, as far as I can tell, spends pretty much every shift cooking in the open kitchen that faces the dining room. It was an instant hit. Accolades came thick and fast, reviews were unanimously breathless and gushing, awards followed and Michelin bestowed a star. I was convinced I would hate it.
How wrong I was. From the opening notes through to the final coda, the experience was positively symphonic. Highlights were buttermilk fried chicken with pine salt; mange tout and goat curd tart; flamed mackerel sashimi with chrysanthemum, cucumber and English mustard; asparagus en papillote with bacon, eucalyptus and mint; spring herb broth with mussels, golden turnip and mousserons… I could go on, but I'm making myself hungry again.
Why was everything so good? And what had happened to my default-setting distrust of fancy food? I realised that I had been barking up the wrong tree. The dishes I ate at The Clove Club that afternoon were technically brilliant, yes, but they also displayed a profound understanding for, and appreciation of, ingredients, seasons, texture and flavour. McHale had done his time, so-to-speak, and had learnt the important lessons and principles of good cooking before embarking on a project like The Clove Club. He wasn’t, like many ambitious chefs and virtually every single Masterchef contestant, trying to run before he could walk. His food communicated more than just flavour and technical ability, it spoke of confidence, assuredness and, well, love I suppose. My previous prejudice against a style of cooking often referred to as “fine dining” was actually, I realised, a battle with a completely different enemy.
McHale’s food succeeds so brilliantly because, actually, it is simple. It manages to get to the essence of its constituents with laser beam precision. There is no cocky swagger, no grandstanding, no showing off, no ego. And you can’t deliver dishes like the ones I ate by taking shortcuts or by copying. There is a good analogy in the wine world. Often, poor or average New World winemakers are criticised for producing wine that is heavy, over-powered and strongly flavoured. What they are trying to do, of course, is imitate the stunning complexity found in the great vintages of white Burgundy or the powerful profiles of aged clarets. It can’t be done. The reason those Old World wines are so feted is because they have centuries of expertise and tradition in their DNA. There are no short cuts to excellence.
It really is the most rewarding experience to learn something new, particularly when one is of such firmly-held and strong opinions, and I am genuinely grateful to The Clove Club for helping me see something more clearly: good food happens when there is skill, understanding, confidence and purpose, it happens when ingredients are allowed to speak for themselves, and it happens when there is love. But it won’t stop me throwing things at the TV when Masterchef is on.