The burning issue

22 September 2004
The burning issue

Aren't the straightforward things often the best? Take music, for example. Good music needs a good song. However impressive the playing, the speeding guitar solos, the intricate keyboard wizardry, it all adds up to zero without that foundation.

The temptation to embellish is easy to understand. If you have the skills, it must be hard to resist using them. Chefs learn how to do stuff with food and sometimes they just can't stop themselves. Some carry it off, but just as often you find that they've stretched their skills to breaking point and what arrives is only a tired parody of what they originally conceived. Couple this with a burning desire to impress the guidebooks (although, to be fair to the guides, most of them are pretty clear that this is exactly what they're not looking for) and you have a recipe for many a disaster.

Matthew Fort in his valedictory review in last Saturday's Guardian makes the point that eating out in the UK has improved immeasurably in recent years. That's true, but we shouldn't kid ourselves that all is rosy in the garden. It's still far easier to eat badly than well, and there are still too many instances of chefs tying themselves up in intricacies while ignoring the basics. You can get desperate in this country for a perfectly cooked piece of fish, new potatoes with the scent of the soil and a gently dressed salad of leaves from the garden. There are places that do it, but the distance between them is way too far.

When I look back at the best meals I've ever eaten I think of how fortunate I've been to experience the cooking of Marco Pierre White in the early days of the Oak Room, Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck and Shaun Hill at the Merchant House.

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