Thursday, January 17, 2008


This lovely ethereal floating butter lettuce was destined for a WeDine Salade Niçoise (always a good option for dinner). Salade Niçoise is my topic, but also my vehicle to talk about another issue in food that I sometimes contemplate: presentation. But more on that later. We made our Niçoise with the aid of a Gordon Ramsay recipe that Michelle had spied on a BBC food site, and it seemed both hearty and light enough for mid-September, so we bought a couple of tuna steaks and set this lettuce to floating in its bag (to clean it. I think).

Here are our tuna steaks in the pan. I must admit, I've always nurtured a dream of buying thick logs of (possibly sushi-grade) tuna, coating them with some sort of peppercorn or poppy-seed mixture, and searing them off so they are beautifully cooked on the outside and essentially raw in the middle (ruby red, as Nigella would put it). Perhaps one day. Anyway, this tuna was delicious, if not quite cook's-dream picture-perfect.

Now what to include in a Niçoise? Are there Niçoise purists? Certainly. The food world is sometimes a scary place. It seems pretty basic to include greens or lettuce of some sort, tuna, boiled eggs, tomatoes, olives and anchovies. Onions, green beans, potatoes, garlic and bell peppers seem optional. We used green beans. Would it be horrible if I told the story about how Ben once made Niçoise without cooking the green beans? Yes? Okay, I shan't. He might be reassured to hear that the French insist that no legumes cuits (cooked veg) should be part of a true Niçoise, and that includes potatoes and beans.

The process of the Niçoise was fairly simple, so we boiled and fried the potatoes (and fried the tomatoes a bit, as per Gordon's instructions. British methods are slightly different than French!), boiled the eggs, steamed the beans, and seared the tuna. Clearly a stove-top meal! The dressing was delicious, a paste made by mashing olives, garlic and anchovies together (in our non-existent mortar) and combining with olive oil, lemon juice and balsamic. Gordon has a very specific method of assembling the salad, but we just bunged it together (classily, of course). But how important is presentation, really?

Well, that was the issue I'm hoping to discuss. To facilitate this, I'm including the photos of the Salade Niçoise recipe from two very different cookbooks. The first recipe is from Donna Hay's Modern Classics (Book One), a contemporary (2002) offering from the Australian chef and cooking mogul. Modern Classics is just that, a re-vision and re-working of classic recipes such as shepherd's pie, lasagna and bouillabaisse. It's a marvellous cookbook, and is certainly visually appealing. How so? Here is Donna's food styling philosophy in her own words (from her website):

"Distracted by the plethora of extras: candles, glasses, flowers, sauce boats, fancy folded napkins that went into photographing a dish, Donna started to pare down the props and let the food be the hero. By the time Donna had become the food editor of marie claire magazine her style was set: fresh, modern food on white plates, with simple backgrounds that has captured the imagination of cooks worldwide and set a new benchmark for modern food styling and publishing."

And here is one product of that philosophy, an image of her Niçoise:

For purposes of comparison, here is the other photo I was talking about, an example of the type of image that Donna is reacting against. It's from my recently-acquired Family Circle Cookbook, circa 1974. Donna and the Family Circle Cookbook actually have a bit more in common than you'd think at first – the FCC states early on that it's not 'just another magazine cookbook' – I think Donna could relate to that. And at the time, the FCC was extremely popular in the 'cooking field,' just like Donna. Here is the photo:

I like how it seems the photographer just stumbled across this salad and glass of wine whilst tripping through a field and picking wildflowers. When I first picked up this cookbook from Value Village (where someone had abandoned it) and found recipes that combined all of the following: mushroom soup, cream cheese and mayonnaise, my only thought was to mock as much as possible. But the sheer earnestness of the FCC mission – to provide overworked women with recipes that were (alternately, not necessarily concurrently) healthy, classic, economical and, here's the kicker, visually appealing – was hard to argue with, and eventually won me over.

Now, I happen to know a lot of people who are adept at interpreting visual images, so I invite lots of discussion and debate. Hint hint. But for the moment, all I can do is offer my own opinions. Certainly some of the food presentation in the FCC looks ridiculous to modern viewers, who by now are used to bright, minimalistic arrangements with (a sometimes ludicrously) shallow depth-of-field. But I also think Donna's philosophy (to 'pare down the props') is not entirely supported in her own cookbooks.

Examining Modern Classics, the 'fancy folded napkins' are still there, they are just a textured (and very photogenic) linen. For some reason a lot of the dishes are presented with bone-handled aged silverware that would probably not be used for eating the food presented. Throughout the book there are perfectly worn cutting boards and carefully angled bowls. As far as I can tell, Donna's purported naturalism is just another set of conventions, as artificial as the photographs of the FCC, despite claims of being stripped down. And as to food being the 'hero,' what's particularly wrong with showing the environment of food as well as the food itself? When you sit down to enjoy a meal, you don't sit down in front of a white backdrop.

Don't get me wrong – I love Modern Classics, and think it's an extremely beautiful and functional book – I just believe that every element of Donna's Salade Niçoise is as carefully arranged and as intentional as the compositions in the FCC's cookbook. Donna is creating an experience around the food too – the hero is supported by beautiful tableware and linens, cutting boards and racks, and on one memorable occasion by a potted plant and gardening tool! Not so far off from wildflowers and a glass of wine. Presentation is important, I think. But we can't pretend that it's all 'fall-as-it-may' and natural. Each element of a cookbook photograph, from lighting to ingredient selection to prop arrangement is contrived.

So I put the question to you. Should food be presented on white plates? Is it even possible to take food out of its context? How important is the experience surrounding food anyway? And on that note, here is our own Salade Niçoise experience. It was delicious. You can see us enjoying it here (with a special guest!).


moyrad said...

I agree with you, the food in any cookbook will be highly styled (even to look not styled). If it looked like food we make at home we probably wouldn't buy the cookbooks.

The experience surrounding food is essential, we go out to eat at restaurants to be with other people enjoying food, trying new flavours and finding out what the world has to offer. The emotions, memories and experiences attached to food are what make certain recipes great. I love making popcorn in a pot. Why? Well because it tastes better firstly but also because I have many memories of making popcorn with my mom and aunts as a kid. Peeking into the pot when we thought it was done and inevitably having a few kernels burst out at us. Food is part of the story of our lives, we should enjoy all aspects of it.

We are exposed to food so much and we're shown so much "high-end" food that the white plate has a cache - carefully prepared food, made to order, service and style. Clearly, people buy into this projected image.

I'm not sure I find the visual images as enticing as the recipe and comments of the cooks. For example the appeal of Nigella, for me, is her enthusiasm for food - her suggestions for technique or flavour, commentary on ingredients . Would she be as appealing without the photographs or camera angles?? I think she would. I know her food is styled but I'm think she would just at readily eat it out of a plastic pail as long as it tasted good.

I guess my career as haute chef and food stylist are fading away.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's the plate or what surrounds the food that is important in presentation. I think it is the food on the plate that needs proper presentation. So the napkin, candles, etc. are superfluous to the way the food looks. No matter the surroundings if the food is just thrown on the plate any old way.