The New Gastronome
From Palate to Palette
Chef or Artist?
by Preet Sanghvi
by Preet Sanghvi
“Good food, like good art, has the ability not just to communicate the culture and personality of the people who created it but also to evoke memories and feelings.”
“200 euros on a meal? What am I eating, a pot of gold?”, “Small bites on big plates” or “Pretentious food”. These are typical comments I hear from people when they are asked about a chef’s tasting or degustation menu. Until recently, I was amongst this group of people, too.
Succumbing to the ignorance of these societal pressures, a small part of me always wanted to try one of these ‘exclusive experiences’. Fortunately, I got a chance to indulge in an affordable 5-course special menu at Joia, Milan by Michelin-starred Chef Pietro Leeman, which cost me only about 60 euros. It was one of the best vegetarian meal experiences I have ever had. A delicious menu like this which didn’t feel like I was burning a hole into my pocket, definitely helped in getting me to delve deeper into the concept. Losing my virginity to the world of degustation menus, I recently went to enjoy an 8-course meal at Torno Subito, Dubai – Michelin-starred Chef Massimo Bottura’s first al fresco dining restaurant outside of Italy. Both of these dining experiences, as well as talking to the chefs made me realize how much thought gets put into these concepts.
“A delicious menu like this which didn’t feel like I was burning a hole into my pocket, definitely helped in getting me to delve deeper into the concept.”
But when I spoke to my friends around the world on their perception of tasting menus, I was surprised to find that most of them didn’t even know the difference between a special tasting menu and a set restaurant menu.
Unlike a traditional set menu, in a chef’s table setting, you can opt for a degustation menu (usually between 5-20 courses), which changes the dining concept from a meal to an experience while leaving the power of your meal in the hands of the chef alone.
Sticking to my scepticism for the value of this kind of meal, I spoke to Executive Chef Himanshu Saini of Tresind Studio, an exclusive modern Indian fine dining restaurant in Dubai that gave me a great insight into this form of a creative gourmet experience. With his multi-course meals at Tresind Studio, every course or dish has a story to tell through its flavours and engaging presentation. They became Saini’s way of expressing his love and memories of food to his guests. He describes his form of food as an act of storytelling, that he believes should be enjoyed preferably alone to be able to appreciate it truly. So that’s what I did with my 14-course menu at his restaurant.
Having defined this kind of food to be a different cuisine in itself, and the philosophy of bringing innovation, creativity and storytelling to regional Indian food, gave me, in turn, some food for thought: If food, like art, is a form of expression, then is a chef an artist?
Where do you draw inspiration from while creating your art/ food?
Miloni Shah: ‘I always draw inspiration from my natural surroundings and travels. I try putting a bit of everything I experience in my daily life into my art.’
Chef Himanshu Saini: ‘Everything around me, nature and the reflection of my life in the past ten years gives me the inspiration to create a dish.’
Who is your audience?
Miloni Shah: ‘My paintings are primarily about nature, and its calmness, reflecting my own personality, and I like bringing that sensitivity to my work and then whoever relates to my kind of art is my audience. The value of my art is for the idea and feeling it brings with it.’
Chef Himanshu Saini: ‘I believe my food tells a story, and I want to showcase creativity beyond what people normally associate Indian food with. Whoever appreciates this creativity and my vision is my audience.’
How do you go about creating your painting/food?
Miloni Shah: ‘I love the process of creation. I want my work to appeal to one’s senses. I like the fact that art gives me freedom of expression, there are no rules, and I can experiment combinations that feel fresh.’
Chef Himanshu Saini: ‘Good food needs to touch all five senses. My food is an expression of my inspirations, skills and I love having the freedom of having no set technique or rules to create it.’
Aren’t you just as amazed as I was hearing the similarities between the thought process of the chef and the artist? Just like oil paints, colour pencils and crayons on a palette, spices, chutneys and sauces help to create the perfect piece of art in your mouth during a degustation menu.
Food as a Form of Culinary Art
One of the courses I enjoyed at Chef Saini’s 14-course tasting menu was the colourful and delicious ‘Blossom Chaat’, made out of zucchini blossom. Chaat is a popular Indian street food dish, which literally means ‘to lick’, and the dish got its name as people tend to lick their fingers after eating the tangy and spicy food.
The flavour profile of the Chaat must be spicy and tangy, but how a chef achieves this is up to their creativity. Even though Chaat is a common food, I loved how Chef Saini presented it and broke it down into each and every flavour, bringing back memories of eating it on the busy streets of India. Transitioning us into an environment or memory — Isn’t that precisely what artists do with their colours as well?
If Edible Art were a Thing, I Would be a Collector
I was a tough cookie to crack when it came to splurging on these kinds of meals, but with my recent experiences, I realized that indulging in a tasting menu is like seeing an art exhibit or fashion show. We might not always buy or wear the clothes, just like we would never attempt to make a dish that we eat during a tasting menu. It’s an art to be appreciated. The taste, flavours, ingredients, and presentation are designed to tantalize your senses.
Just like in an art studio, during a chef’s table menu, you’ll experience the best the chef has to offer. And chefs, like artists, want to experiment, so you will likely get dishes and flavour combinations you would never have thought of putting together.
I now can relate to art lovers who spend hours in art exhibits interpreting paintings. Just like them, I am fascinated by the stories that a dish tells. I will never forget the dish for the heart-warming story behind it: “Meals lasting a couple of hours and costing hundreds of euros can make for an unforgettable culinary experience!”
So, if you are ready to open your senses to exciting new foods that you never thought you’d like, I recommend you to enjoy a chef’s table menu and determine whether it’s an experience you are up for indulging in every once in a while.
At the end, only one question remains: We see the similarities between art and food, but as much as I appreciate this kind of culinary storytelling, enjoying a meal is an intimate experience, especially when shared with others! I have yet to understand if a food lover can enjoy this form of culinary art alone just as an art lover would?