Arty food is not the way to a diner’s heart

«The melon has a chatty flavor,» «Remove the skin from the fillets and brown them together with the onions.» These kind of phrases are rarely surprising these days. The plethora of culinary publications, the number of television shows featuring star chefs as well as overpriced restaurants with high-profile chefs, have all created a market operating under its own rules and trends. Greek cinema has also played a role: there was «A Touch of Spice,» for instance, and now the recently released «Like Chef, Like God.» Directed by Stergios Niziris, the latter tells the story of a great chef (Giorgos Karamichos) who goes in search of the perfect dish. That’s just one side of the coin, however. On the other side lies the argument that many of the cookbook publications are full of gorgeous, appetizing visual material, but lacking in real culinary substance. That many expensive restaurants get top marks in attractive dishes but zero in quality – while naturally the prices match the former. Also, a number of the chefs who appear on television collaborate with food companies – the latter getting plenty of advertising on air. Two culinary experts, Evi Voutsina and Maria Charami, spoke to Kathimerini on the subject of the local culinary scene. About 100 titles related to cooking were published in 2004 – an impressive amount. «When I started working in the field in the mid-1980s there were very few titles on the subject,» says author Charami. «A few years later, people decided to take a look at ecology, to develop an interest in the environment and look into how to raise their standard of living. This is the kind of framework that gave rise to so many books, followed by the television shows and the countless restaurants. As far as the books go, the numbers are huge. Everybody wants to have a say. Some make good and honest efforts, while others are in it for the money. I know people who start by booking the photographer and then start writing up the recipes. Of course, we’re living in an age when how something looks is what it’s all about, but we should still be a bit critical of it.» How does one choose a good cookbook considering that it’s difficult to test the accuracy of the recipes at the bookstand? «It’s not hard to figure out,» says Charami. «Before purchasing the book, it would be wise to look at the back cover and the introduction. Why did this person write the book in the first place? Isn’t it obvious when a book is serious and pays attention to detail as opposed to those that don’t?» Voutsina offers another dimension: «Many of the books available have no reason to exist because they don’t add anything to the discussion,» she says. «What makes me wonder, however, is the fact that all these books are published at a time when we’re not eating at home all that much, let alone eating well in general. By well, I mean for us to have a complete nutritional model, not just luxury eating habits. As far as television is concerned, anybody who ‘sells’ can go on the air. Most of them don’t even know how to mix the ingredients in order to come up with well-cooked dish.» The stock market boom of 1999 gave a further boost to all things culinary: More and more people started to experiment with cooking, following new trends, buying books and visiting fashionable restaurants. Things are different now, however. The recession has rendered potential diners wary of spending large sums at fancy places. «Every time a new trend appears it makes itself felt through exaggeration, accompanied by bad taste, bad behavior and ignorance,» notes Charami. «This is where flashy cuisine and an ease in mixing ingredients that don’t really go together springs from. This is expressed not only in restaurants, but on television as well. I do see, however, that this trend is on its way out. People have less money to spend today and they think twice about where to go. Eating at Greek restaurants nowadays is scandalously expensive, compared to Paris, for instance, where you can enjoy a decent meal for 25 euros. This no doubt makes people wonder about the relationship between quality and price.» «Most restaurants are into cuisine simply to be up on new trends, something that is unrelated to good food,» adds Voutsina. «And you pay the price, perhaps 50 to 60 euros per head. There are, of course, restaurants that offer special and unique food – at a price. There are only a few of them, however. As far as the desire to show off goes, it just becomes humiliating after a point. I saw the following dish on the menu of an Athenian restaurant: crocodile fillet with blackberry sauce on a bed of organic Roquefort cheese. Perhaps it’s a good dish. Personally, when I see something like that I think of plenty of unpleasant things. All this is now changing, not just because of the exorbitant prices which fewer and fewer diners can afford, but because at the end of the day that’s not the way to one’s heart.» While business at many restaurants is slow, some are closing their doors and others are experiencing difficulties in paying their staff. «How can a chef work when he hasn’t been paid in over three months,» asks Charami. «Restaurant owners are right when they claim that they are plagued by high municipal and other taxes and are not aided by the state. On the other hand, I’m never pleased when a businessman who knows nothing of the trade invests in a restaurant because he believes that it’s a lucrative investment. A proper business – not the family owned model – never sees a profit that exceeds 15 percent. When that business tries to become more profitable, that’s when cost-cutting kicks in. I dare to make a prediction: There will be a rebalance, with many restaurants going out of business and the field will experience high unemployment. In this way, many cooks and young people will invest in training and will try to get back to the basics. Visconti used to say that people with a pedigree can move outside the rules. This means that if my grammar is excellent, I can play beyond the rules. But I cannot exceed them and play at being an artist if I don’t know the basics.»