I’m not a food historian so can’t quite say when it happened, but if I search my memory, I vaguely remember it being sometime in the 1980’s (a lot of things in my memory are vague about the 1980’s, a time of braincells cauterized by young kids and relentless work ambition): Food that used to be presented separately on the plate, began to appear stacked one element on top of another.
At first it was cute and trendy. Then it began to invade every meal at every restaurant; ingredients that made no sense on top of each other, created a confused mish-mash of flavours. This trend has largely continued unabated. A couple of months ago my wife attended a conference and I accompanied her to the wonderful Fairmont Chateau Montebello hotel. I won’t soon forget the lunch at the main restaurant, where a lady in her sixties lambasted the server for bringing her a steak stacked on top of French fries, with no room on the plate to cut the steak without mashing into the fries. She caused quite a scene and I could tell it was one of those “cashing in your trading stamps” moments where years of frustration are released upon one hapless person.
Yesterday I had lunch at the Forest & Stream Club with a client. The food was excellent as always, but my poached salmon was stacked on a thick bed of mashed potatoes with carrots and asparagus piled on top. It made no sense. I had to deconstruct the plate in order to eat the food. Fortunately, their plates are quite large and there was some room to do it.
Some foods work well stacked because their various flavours combine to create something where the whole is more than the sum of its parts….the classic in that regard being the hamburger. If you were to separate the components of a burger onto a plate, well, it simply wouldn’t be the same taste; the burger relies on each bite having some of every one of its parts in it…it’s a gestalt!
But it makes no sense to pile a steak on fries, a salmon filet on mashed potatoes and carrots, etc. We spent two weeks in France last year and thanks to my friend Stephane Gabart, got to dine at some of the best local restaurants in the Bordeaux region. I am happy to report that most of the time the food was either minimally stacked or not stacked at all. And when there was any stacking it made sense from a food combination perspective.