Thursday, 21 July 2011

Colmar, Partie II

Blog post for 20 July 2011

L'Atelier du Peintre


When I was in New York (i.e., even before our program in France began), I distinctly remember someone telling me not to worry about plating my food at the buffet line, as it's "just food" and it'll all be eaten at the end. Now, I can say with much certainty that my experience tonight at L'Atelier du Peintre in Colmar has sharpened my image of food and, if nothing else, has provided me with a clear lens through which I am sure I will forever regard the presentation of food with the utmost importance. [For this particular post, please find in italics a stream of the thoughts which I quickly wrote down following this meal, a meal which I turn to as the meal which has shaped my culinary point of view, i.e., food should welcome not only a meaningful atmosphere but one which encourages the consumer to take part in the artistry of the food presented.]

In French, l'atelier du peintre literally translates to the artist's workshop. And indeed, the metaphor resonated quite clearly tonight: here, not only is (and should) the artistic presentation of food evident, but it is presented as a sort of chef d'oeuvre, a work of art as it were. Interestingly, those gathered at the table (a phrase I find to be rather true yet cliché when considering the context of food anthropology) ordered the same menu, the Menu Goya. And with near precision, seven orders of each course--from the amuses bouches to the petits fours--arrived as replicas of the other (much like one would expect from an artist's workshop). And though these were indeed replicas--and more so works of art being perfected with each repetition--they were presented cleanly. To put it another way, the slow food approach to food (when done correctly) is succulent, meaningful, and is photo ready, when compared to the fast food approach I have so often grown up alongside in the States (again, I say this on very general terms). 

What I find particularly interesting is not just the crisp presentation or delicate flavours or even memorable ambiance. It is in fact the realisation that as the diner, we are (perhaps unintentionally, though I'd like to think otherwise) invited to be artists ourselves, and more specifically, "artistes à l'envers." I honestly don't know if such an expression exists, but allow me to test this. Of all the textures and flavour profiles bouncing around unpredictably, I found the Atelier's strength to be particularly evident in its sauces which I parallel to types of paints. From what I've heard, and from what I realised tonight, the sign of a good dish is in the sauce(s); the sign of a great dish is wanting to finish everything on the plate, including the sauce(s). And so, let's take this work of art in front of us and begin eating it; perhaps there's a glass of wine to brighten the flavours (colours) or you choose water to cleanse the palate between each bite. This was particularly evident with the sweet entrée of caramelised cantaloupe "mini-slab," meaty girolles (chanterelles) and herbaceous artichoke salad, and savoury foie gras ice cream. 

What I found interesting tonight is what happens after the central components of the work have been eaten. Already, the dish has been demolished more so than deconstructed; it's no longer complete but rather a mélange of flavours trapped in the sauce. What comes next is particularly artful: at least here in France--and Europe in general--it's the last few bites of any solid mass on the plate or bits of bread that are used to sop up the paint, and by extension your arm serves as the paintbrush. Whether you realise it or not, you are playing with your food, creating brushstrokes with the paint in front of you. Yet, as shapes and lines are formed, and as dinner progresses, you have less to work with. In essence, you are "negatively painting," essentially cleaning the canvas to reveal nothing. And if the meal continues, it's exciting to receive the next dish in front of you so you can start the process all over again. For our plat, we were presented with a main component of roasted young rabbit back served with a fresh herb sauce, and an avoine (oat) cake atop an onion mousseline. 

It is perhaps a blasé cycle and nothing to get too worked up about but if you think about it, the atelier presents identical works of art and in return they receive either abstract works of art (intermingled sauces, not so far different from randomised tea leaves ready for reading) or identical blank canvases (i.e., everything including the sauces are wiped clean) that are ready for the next presentation. In actuality, it is a different way of conceiving the process of eating, no? Without question, it is not just the taste or smell of the flavours together, nor the sound or feel of each texture against your teeth and tongue, that are important. It is indeed what you see that influences how you will approach the dish and your other senses. Indeed, more often than not, it is what you see and how you understand what you see that will determine whether or not it is worth trying. And that, dear Reader, was one of many a revelation this evening, particularly when it came to dessert: poached peaches in Alsatian Muscat, on which sat an almond cream and raspberry sorbet accompanied by an arlette croustillante (a light tuille for texture). 

In addition to this artistic metaphor, the greatness of this meal also comes from the verbal and non-verbal cues. There exists a dialogue between and among the host(ess), the waiters, the sommelier, the chef, and the clientelle as much as it is an inner dialogue between the body and the soul or even the external dialogue between the active observer and the culture from which the food/meal is derived. As I continued this thought process, and took in the added layer of French conversation, a special post-dessert assortment arrived which included (most memorably) fresh pear macaroons. Without question, this meal will remain in my memory as a brilliantly artistic way of encouraging my consumption (near obsession) by the food we are to consume.

For my complete album from Colmar, click here.

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