The best restaurant in the world? Well, it’s the Eleven Madison Park, in New York. Congratulations people. Seriously. I hope I never visit you. Understand this: it’s nothing personal. I believe in your excellence. I believe that your mixture of “modern French cuisine” with “a touch of New York” is perfectly comparable to the 72 virgins in Quranic heaven.
But I’m tired of the religion of the chefs. You know: the raising of cooking to a metaphysical, transcendental and celestial kingdom. A new chef appears every week with their church, and presents the menu as if it were a sacred scripture.
The ingredients aren’t ingredients. They’re “elements”. A meal isn’t a meal. It’s an “experience”. And food isn’t strictly food. It’s a “composition”.
I’ve been to several of these shrines. When the food arrived I never knew whether to taste it or just pray. My sacrilegious misgivings were exacerbated by the waiter himself. He put the dish on the table and confided, in a soft voice, that the miracle I had in front of me was:
– Smoked duck with tomato petals and jasmine essences.
I listened to it all reverently, said a “thank you” that sounded like an “amen” and then very fearfully brought my trembling fork closer to the dish, careful to avoid upsetting the fragile balance between the “petals” and the “essences”.
In rare cases, his holiness the chef appeared at the end – to bless the diners. The day I kissed the hand of one of them, I realised I had to renounce the faith.
And when they aren’t saints, they’re artists. A piece of meat isn’t a piece of meat. It’s a “challenge”. It’s the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel waiting for its Michelangelo.
Incidentally: I had a look at the website of Eleven Madison Park. I have some news for the reader: from 11th April, Eleven is doing a “retrospective” (I swear, I swear) with 11 of its best dishes from the last 11 years,
“Retrospective”. This is the way the history of Western art has evolved: the Lascaux rock paintings; the Greek sculptures of Phidias; the stained-glass windows of the Gothic cathedral of Chartres; the Baroque paintings of Caravaggio and the little quiche of the chef Daniel Humm.
I like eating. I like food. These two sentences are ridiculous, because I am Portuguese after all. It is precisely because I am Portuguese, that I’m now a non-believer in “elements”, “compositions” and “essences”. The religion of the chefs, with its diabolical charm, has devastated the restaurants of my city.
One of them here in the neighbourhood used to serve “octopus filets with octopus rice” which became a barometer of my love life. Whenever I was with a girlfriend and started to think about octopus, it meant the passion was at its end.
I went back there two weeks ago when it reopened after refurbishment. I found it strange: with soft music and low lights emulating the Thai massage parlours (warning: darling, if you’re reading this chronicle, I swear I’ve never been to Thailand).
I sat down. When the octopus came, I looked at the dish and asked the owner if he hadn’t forgotten anything. “Like what?”, asked the insolent owner. “The microscope” I replied.
He guffawed and explained: “It’s a chef thing, sir”. “What chef?” I insisted. He shrugged his shoulders and replied with embarrassment: “Agostinho.” The cook had become a chef and my octopus had become calamares.
Unfortunately, this corruption has spread through my beloved homeland. I have already written about this crime in the Portuguese press. No one has joined my lament.
Soft music has replaced the natural hum of conversation. The brothel lighting makes it impossible to tell an olive from a cockroach. The chic habit of never leaving the bottles on the table means the waiter only notices our thirst “in extremis” when the delirium tremens and other signs of abstinence have set in. My God where will it all end?
I don’t know. But I know I’ve already taken precautions: I’m planning to learn how to hunt next autumn. Anything will do: partridge, hare or wild boar. Then, with an open fire and a skewer, I’ll cook the creature like a pre-historic man.
The quiche of chef Daniel Humm is the pinnacle of civilisation? Then it’s time to go back to the Lascaux caves.
JOÃO PEREIRA COUTINHO is a columnist in Portugal and Brazil and a regular political commentator on Portuguese television. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science and International Relations from the Catholic University of Portugal, where he also teaches. His latest books (‘Conservadorismo’ and ‘Vamos ao que Interessa’) have been published simultaneously in Portugal and Brazil.