There is a scene in the movie Five Easy Pieces where Jack Nicholson’s character Bobby attempts to order breakfast in a roadside diner. He wants plain toast, which isn’t on the menu, but the restaurant has a strict “no substitutions” policy.
Bobby: I’d like a plain omelette, no potatoes, tomatoes instead, a cup of coffee and wheat toast.
Waitress: No substitutions.
Bobby: What do you mean? You don’t have any tomatoes?
Waitress: Only what’s on the menu. You can have a #2 – a plain omelette, it comes with cottage fries and rolls.
Bobby: I know what it comes with but it’s not what I want.
Waitress: I’ll come back when you’ve made up your mind.
Bobby: Wait a minute. I have made up my mind. I’d like a plain omelette, no potatoes on the plate, a cup of coffee and a side order of wheat toast.
Waitress: I’m sorry we don’t have any side orders of toast. English muffin or a coffee roll.
Bobby: What do you mean you don’t make side orders of toast, you make sandwiches, don’t you?
Waitress: Would you like to talk to the manager? I don’t make the rules.
Bobby: OK. I’ll make it as easy for you as I can. I’d like an omelette, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. No mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce, and a cup of coffee.
Waitress: A #2, a chicken salad sand, hold the butter, the lettuce, the mayonnaise, and a cup of coffee. Anything else?
Bobby: Yeah. Now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven’t broken any rules.
Although extreme, it’s a good example of how to order off-menu and a precursor to the peculiarly Californian trait of power-ordering that became so prevalent in the 1990s and persists to this day. But whereas Bobby’s motivation is straightforward (he just wants plain toast) menu-manipulation these days belies a more modern motivation: health.
Walk into Waterstones and you will find bookshelves positively groaning with beautiful hardbacks full of recipes by radiant young women selling alternative lifestyles of avocado, alfalfa shoots and abstinence. These books are best-sellers, simultaneously preying on our desire to lighten our lives, exist more healthily, and fit into a bikini in August. But this all comes at a cost, and the headlong hurtle towards health has left two casualties, injured and forgotten on the roadside: flavour and enjoyment.
In my restaurants, I see this on a daily basis. We are regularly asked to “hold the Parmesan.” It is now common to hear a request for “no butter.” And the most frequent foible of them all is for a dressing or sauce “on the side.” It is this last deviation which upsets chefs the most because, I suppose, it is effectively saying “I don’t trust you to use the perfect amount of jus/sauce/dressing as befits your judgement, training and experience, so I would like it in a little jug for me to use at my discretion or not at all.”
As well as removing the main vehicle for flavour from a dish, leaving the sauce or dressing in solitary confinement, isolated in a ramekin, compromises the whole presentation; it makes the food look unfinished and unappetising. With salads in particular, turning leaves over in a large bowl with just the right amount of dressing incorporates the ingredients, it binds them and transforms them from a bunch of dry leaves to a dish full of flavour and nuance. Dressing can be alchemic, elevating simple constituents to a level that is greater than the sum of their individual parts. Adding a little dribble at the table just isn’t the same thing at all.
Now, what these self-proclaimedly healthy cookbooks do, what the distrust of sauces, dressings, butter and cheese contributes, and what the promotion of abstinence (yes, Five:Two Diet, I’m looking at you) achieves, is to make us suspicious of richness and flavour. We are in danger of tolerating and subsequently accepting a culinary environment where blandness is ok. And let me assure you, it most definitely is not. I even see evidence of this dark conspiracy on supermarket shelves. Packets of chicken breast outnumber chicken thighs by five-to-one. (Breast = lean, bland, healthy. Thigh = fatty, tasty, unhealthy.) Low-fat spreads and margarines dominate the butter cabinet. Diet versions of popular foodstuffs (mayonnaise, biscuits, soups, coleslaw, hummus) battle for space next to their original counterparts. It’s depressing.
If there is to be one sanctuary from this pervasive march towards gustatory mediocrity, please let it be the restaurant. At least here, allow the chef to do his or her thing, enjoy the food, and relax in the assumption that the person in the kitchen has the best interests of your taste buds at heart. No substitutions.
Russell will be appearing at this year’s Port Eliot Festival.