by Paolo Petroni
President of Italian Academy of Cuisine
Mystery on a plate
New equipment and unusual ingredients often form the basis of success for many renowned chefs.
Autumn is the traditional season for updated restaurant guides (which we will discuss when the main ones are all in print): for now the available ones are those from the newspaper L’Espresso and the magazine Gambero Rosso. The various dishes denoting the ‘greats’ of the restaurant business exhibit similarities (plagiarism?) and common elements. To amaze and impress customers and critics, but also to inflate prices, they frequently resort to exotic ingredients whose odd names are unfamiliar to most, hence the proliferation of ‘yuzu juice’ and ‘cocoa nibs’. Recipes are further ‘embroidered’ with various powders, including those deriving from capers (at times even taking the form of ‘caper vapours’), raspberries and porcini mushrooms. Many other ingredients, especially of Asian origin, pop up in celebrated chefs’ preparations: kumquat, wasabi, seaweed, the aforementioned yuzu, rhubarb and mastic. Eel is making something of a comeback, though often heavily camouflaged, and even sea snails occasionally turn up, sometimes in stuffed pasta. Foie gras, which should be abolished, is regrettably making a splash. Considering their skill, why don’t these chefs whip up some delicious liver dishes using our own geese rather than resorting to French livers afflicted by steatosis? But above all there is a flurry of crèmes, purées, juses, mousses, emulsions, and sauces both sweet and, especially, savoury. One cannot then help recalling the new machines and gadgets that have revolutionised kitchens, beginning with the innovator Ferran Adrià and followed by a tide of Spanish inventions. Today no kitchen lacks a Roner, a low-temperature vacuum cooker once rarely encountered (the bain-marie was mostly employed instead) and now frequently overused. There are also juicers, induction cookers, trivalent ovens (convection, steam and combined), and hot-air fryers. Not to mention the Gastrovac, for low-pressure oxygen-free ‘oil cooking’, and the newly indispensable Pacojet, a specialised liquidiser which transforms frozen sauces and other ingredients into table-ready creams and much more: kitchen jargon has now acquired the concept of ‘pacossing’. Desiccators are likewise highly fashionable, and one can also acquire a digital cooking pot for braising, frying, sautéeing, boiling and pressure-cooking. This makes it easier to understand the spectacular success of the biannual fair which recently concluded in Rho, HostMilano 2017, the world’s largest hospitality fair offering the most groundbreaking equipment and machines for restaurant kitchens. It attracted 190,000 ‘professional visitors’, an increase of 24% over the 2015 edition, from 177 nations. In addition to European countries, the most represented nations were China, the USA, and states in the Middle East and the former Soviet area. It seems that these machines not only aid and speed up food preparation but also modify tastes, facilitating the acceptance of once unthinkable dishes. Technical procedures are, therefore, now available to everyone, but only the experience, talent and professionalism of cooks can dominate such equipment. Less capable cooks are overwhelmed by the technology, producing standardised fare misrepresented as amazing innovations with correspondingly high prices.