Samui Wining & Dining
Not Foaming at the Mouth!

A look at how cutting-edge cuisine has been changing over the last few years.

 

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         Food is strange. It’s not like religion or politics, or even cars – with these, everyone has a firm idea about what’s right for them. But when it comes to longings, cravings, fads and fancies with food, it’s anybody’s guess. For example, right now there’s a huge online correspondence going on about where on Samui to get real fish ’n’ chips. The debate flourishes, with sidespins into real newspaper wrapping, cod versus snapper, recipes for crunchy batter, hand-cut chips versus frozen ones – it’s never ending. And it’s international too, with Aussies, Brits and South Africans all contending and debating and lusting over what is, basically, fast food.

         It’s this sort of enthusiasm, passion even, which seems to characterise the beast that is food. This same animal has been rearing its head for quite a while, particularly with the media frenzy that goads anxious and avid readers into ‘being healthy’. We all want that, don’t we, oh yes. We don’t want saturated fats or high blood pressure or salt-induced malfunctions – buzz-words which ping our worry-ometers, yet which were unheard of not so long ago.

         Back in more comfortable times, America was getting fat. And, as with most things across the pond, what amounts to mass hysteria was suddenly and cheerfully generated by the media to grab more viewers/readers. Fast food was bad for you. For some reason the public over there had to have it beaten into them that chemically-preserved, reconstituted, flavour-enhanced, frozen and reheated take-aways (either live from drive-thrus, or cold and dead from supermarket freezers) weren’t terribly nourishing. And the restaurant industry was not slow to react.

         In this sense the word ‘restaurant’ is used as opposed to ‘café’ – as in ‘a gentile spot to eat a fine and nourishing meal with a car park devoid of trucks and 24-wheel trailers’. And in California (Berkley, Los Angeles, San Francisco) a new wave of eateries began to emerge which upheld a positive and healthy approach to feeding. In the first instance, the thrust was towards fresh ingredients, locally sourced and prepared, and cooked in ways that retained their inherent flavour and nourishment. Golly gosh – home cooking! And, while all this excitement was happening in America, bemused European chefs were watching with interest.

         In Europe, there was already a ‘nouvelle cuisine’. In the late ’60s, French chefs such as Paul Bocuse and Raymond Oliver had begun to prepare their dishes in a fresh and lively way, but with overlapping objectives - essentially the use of fresh ingredients, lightly cooked. There’s always a bit lost in the translation somehow, and when ‘California Cuisine’ turned up on Euro tables in the the late ’70s and early ’80s, it quickly evolved simultaneously into both a gastronome’s joy, and a public joke. But keep this in mind - every pack has leaders and followers. And while a small handful of creative and intelligent chefs explored new ideas constructively, others tried to make a name for themselves and their restaurants (no publicity is bad publicity) by copying what the alpha-chefs were up to. The result - big plates with a tiny assortment of semi-raw ingredients cowering expensively (apologetically, even) in the middle.

      Sometimes there’s justification in comparing innovative cooking with art – it’s almost a direct parallel. In the same way as some classically-trained painters pushed forward to explore and challenge the very meaning of what painters do and how they do it, so there have been chefs who have been driven to experiment and break new ground. And while trendy gastronomes squealed with delight about the ‘molecular deconstruction’ of essential food elements, the majority of the real dining public still preferred to eat meat that looked like meat, and not green cubes of beef-flavoured jelly, and continued to wince at the thought of being served fluffy green foam instead of asparagus.

      Nouvelle cuisine, molecular deconstruction and fusion cuisine are merely islands in the sea of food, and you can choose whether you land on them or not. Right now, it’s not fashionable to offer fusion cuisine. But several top eateries here have retained delicious items of subtly-combined east-west offerings on their discerning menus. And, for what it’s worth, a recent article in Forbes Travel Guide interviewed five international chefs. One question was, “What’s out?” All five of them mentioned foams. Molecular foams. Dedicated diners are tired of all this chemically re-presented vegetable foam just for the sake of it. Samui chefs take note – maybe you can re-think your fish ’n’ chips menu instead?

      But what is absolutely rising in popularity all over the world, is quality dining. Europe’s ‘gastro pubs’ are full most nights. Even leading lights in the culinary world, such as Thomas Keller, chef-guru extraordinaire and the man behind the modern French haute cuisine movement via his restaurant, The French Laundry, has been working on gourmet sandwich and burger items. He’s led and inspired a whole new wave of gourmet ‘fast food’ eateries, springing up in airports, malls, motorway stops and food courts all over the world. There’s ‘Street Feast’ in East London with 20 stalls and a 5,000-person following, and the same thing with the collective food traders at ‘Guerrilla Eats’ in Manchester. Fast is fine, but nobody will accept poor quality any more.

      Pretentious food foams are out and quality eating is in. Fresh, natural organic ingredients are the order of the day – but you knew that, didn’t you! One of the reasons that Samui is just crammed with quality restaurants is that just about everything here is either locally grown or was freshly imported yesterday. Of course, we’ve got our fast food joints on the island; most Asian nations are still insanely thrilled to have a big yellow ‘M’ in town. But with top Samui restaurants doing 6 inch-high Wagu burgers, gourmet full-plate tapas-and-cocktail combos, and mega-decker to-die-for sandwiches, you’re not going to see that many people here dining on molecules and ‘foaming’ at the mouth!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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