Last year I decided to treat Red and book her in to L’Enclume, chef Simon Rogan’s acclaimed restaurant in the picturesque village of Cartmel, in the Lakes. Too generous I hear you say! Well to top that, we also stayed at his hotel in the village too. Who said I was tight?
There is no doubting the skill and genius of Rogan both as a chef and a businessman. To have the guts to invest so much in such a remote outpost was brave to say the least, but a decision that has clearly paid off, with the restaurant usurping The Fat Duck as the best restaurant in the UK. It is at this point that I should say how much we enjoyed everything and all would be right with the food world. But here is the problem, we didn’t and it isn’t.
Now this is not a review of L’Enclume, the visit was too distant to do justice to each of the many courses of the taster menu. Instead, it is my criticism of what appears to be a growing, and accepted, trend across many restaurants, and with many chefs: gastronomic masturbation. Mind your language Timothy!
No this is nothing to do with the many apocryphal stories of what disgruntled cooks might add to your curry, but rather the obsession with many chefs to show you how clever they are. But isn’t that the point you may well say. Well to a degree yes. We want to see how skilled the chef is, we want to see how his training and experience can turn raw materials into a thing of tasteful wonder. What we are getting however is them showing us different roles: those of artists or scientists.
Chef, Artist or Scientist?
Sadly many chefs, including Rogan, have taken this a step too far: they over manipulate and over think their food, they place the ‘concept’ above the importance of taste and enjoyment. It ceases to be the diners who are the important people, it isn’t even the food, it is now the chef and his concepts. Plenty of time and money is spent sourcing fantastic ingredients and produce only to be dashed upon the rocks of the chef’s egotistical desire to parade how clever they are as a cross between Van Gogh and Marie Curie. This was the case at L’Enclume where, of the 200 course tasting menu (yes I am exaggerating here), only a couple were enjoyable: by that I mean something tasty, rewarding and worth the effort. All too often the food was lost within the science and concept, with Rogan losing the essence of the dining experience in favour of being ‘clever’ with the food and showing he was in control.
“Food is too often over-thought and over-wrought”
Control is a key element to this, particularly with the growth of taster menus: the chef wanting to tell you what you are going to eat. Now, can I make clear that I am not against taster menus per se, in fact one of the best meals I have ever experienced was the taster menu at Michael Caines’ ABode (sic) in Manchester. The problem occurs when the chef combines the taster menu with heavily over-thought and over-wrought food that has become too far removed from its original self.
“You are not here to enjoy yourselves!”
In addition, this control often extends into the suffocation within the dining room itself. On a pre-meal amble around Cartmel one of the local shop owners, upon discovering we were dining at L’Enclume, described it as the Headmaster’s study. The meaning of his comment became very clear upon our arrival at the dining room: this was clearly a serious place that looked down its nose at you as if to say “you are not here to enjoy yourself!” The somber, earnest atmosphere was maintained by the ultra-serious staff who approached their roles with the strict professionalism and singularity of purpose similar to that of the alter boy that still serves at mass even though he is nearly 20. Fun was not an option: any joviality at our table was quickly smothered by frowns of disapproval. Our fellow diners around the room, sat and ate in hushed reverence in the best Benedictine tradition, like cult members in a trance. It was all I could do to avoid shouting “I am a name not a number” with my best Patrick McGoohan impression.
Do what you do best
Within this stifling atmosphere, which is becoming common beyond the reaches of L’Enclume, the message appears clear: you are lucky to even have a seat in my restaurant, sit back and do as you are told. Now I am all for being educated along my gastronomic journey, and happy to try the creative and the new. I will even fork out sizeable quantities of my hard earned money to do so or travel large distances to have the experience. However, when all is said and done, I want to enjoy myself, to taste quality food, prepared well and delivered in a way that I will enjoy. So Mr Rogan et al please remember you are chefs and excel in that role as you have trained to do, leave the other side to the scientists or artists. In turn I promise I shall never track down Banksy to knock me up an omelette or pester Brian Cox to let me try his creme Anglaise!