Jörg Zipprick: “Why the Beautiful Has Replaced the Good”

Regarded in Western Europe, and increasingly so in China, as one of the relatively-few independent-minded, outspoken gastronomic writers and critics, Jörg Zipprick is unafraid of tackling controversial subjects and resisting selling out or writing either thinly-disguised or blatant PR. He has created a large repertoire of praise-worthy, widely-read books and articles. Because he writes mostly in German and French, he is not as well-known in America and Great Britain, which is a loss for native English speakers. I, through my site  Restaurant Politics, am taking a step towards remedying  this. Thanks to Jörg and the 61-year-old Swiss magazine Plaisirs: Gastronomie et Voyages, Restaurant Politics will be publishing English translations of a series of recent articles Jörg has written in French for the magazine.

Born in Cologne, Germany in 1965, Zipprick cut his gastronomic teeth as a gastronomically-precocious college student at the greatest French restaurants in Europe. Chefs Alain Chapel and Fredy Girardet were among his heros in what he refers to as “the good old days”. He has been a gastronomic writer and investigative journalist since 1991, winning two awards in Gourmand Internationals” Annual Gourmand Awards competition; one for “Best French Cookbook” and the other for Laliste.com.( of which Zipprick is the co-founder) a restaurant review aggregator whose sophisticated algorithm annually rank-orders 1000 restaurants on a scale of 100 . Zipprick has also won three silver medals from the German Gastronomic Academy and the International Cognac Writer of the Year award. He is the author of 16 books on such topics as molecular gastronomy , wine, cheese, Cognac, and as a result of a research grant, chemically-enhanced cuisine versus local Peruvian cuisine. They have been published in eight countries.

As a prolific journalist, Zipprick’s articles have appeared in ‘Stern”, “Private Wealth”, “Le Point”, “Wine in China”, ‘Lufthansa Magazin” and others. The French daily “Le Monde” has called him “A strong advocate of natural cuisine based on the quality of the products”. To this I would add that he is a gastronome’s best friend.

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Bye-bye Lièvre à la Royale, so long Blanquette de Veau. The talked-about dishes of our time now carry an “American Next Top Model” look. But really, are they as appealing as that?

Chances are you have noticed by now. At the restaurants with aspirations, the dishes today try to take on top-model evocations or even goad chefs’ clients into believing they are works of art. Many customers hesitate to destroy this work before reaching for their cellphone cameras: “It’s so beauuutiful”, they say.  And then they click the shutter to have small photo to add to their gallery of culinary memories or post it in cyberspace to land on one social media site or another.

All of this began in the 1980s with a small number of innocent painting of sauces and sculptures of sugar that decorated main courses and desserts such as with a treble clef drawn on a chocolate- brown background or on an empty plate. One day soon we will classify all the culinary geniuses according to those in the real art world whom they tried to emulate. There will be little Jackson Pollocks decorating each plate with “ejaculate” drops of sauce; the “amateur Miro” whose colorful drips and drabs recall the famous Catalan; the graphic and geometric “Bauhaus” style with the sub-trend of “Le Corbusier” gourmet.

This is not entirely new: Carême or Beauvilliers and their contemporaries had heavily invested in the visual aspect of their work. When looking now at these presentations from another era, it begs a simple question: Is this good? We don’t know because the recipes of the time are not precise and ingredients today no longer have the same taste as those from the 18th to the 19th century, starting especially with butter.

But if Carême had the money to realize his creations, then today’s chefs are delighted with the panoply of industrial companies to create dishes that barely resemble food. Others try to “sculpt” their dishes in the old style without industrial additives, but with tweezers, eye-droppers and fingers covered in latex gloves.  I have known kitchen brigades in which 20% of the employees whose job it was to make miniature cubes or triangles, albeit highly complex, only to be consumed in a second by the roomful of diners.

Already, the classic dishes are in the process of disappearing from restaurant menus as they are not sufficiently photogenic: stews, blanquettes, pot-au-feu or cassoulets. How many among us will still eat a Lièvre à la Royale, certainly delicious to taste, but saddled with its brown-black appearance?

But why is the beautiful inexorably replacing the good? I would say it is everyone’s fault: customers, food critics and chefs. Customers in growing numbers are rejecting food from animals. Of course, they want to eat fish and meat, but it is not necessary to remind them of the simple fact that it is necessary to kill a steer, calf, chicken, salmon, or whatever else for it. Look at the faces of adolescents, the customers of tomorrow, when they are faced with a calf’s or a pig’s head or a whole chicken when they are in front of the window or a counter of a specialty butcher shop.

Then, a number of food critics, instead of describing or judging their meal are turned into true culinary consultants, pushing chefs to “appeal to all the senses” and providing a modicum of success through their own publications, a mini-trend that generates nonsense in the kitchen assembly line. So you must sprinkle the dishes with “crunchy elements” (it sounds better than crumbs) whose crackling Rice Krispies  sound  tells the ear to chew right now. Or join in as at the famous “temple” of Nordic cuisine where guests are invited to cook a fried egg with the maître d’hôtel. And to make doubly-sure not to overlook our ears, a famous British chef distributes iPods and makes his clients listen to the sound of the sea.

Finally, many grand chefs nowadays are looking for a visual identity like the “Swoosh” image on Nike sneakers or to the iconic Coke bottle, hoping the dish will be recognized at first sight as theirs. But the real artist has his “touch”. Nobody will mistake a Van Gogh for a Monet. Yet, it’s considered so much better in a chef’s repertoire of recipes to use these rectangular or elongated white or monochromatic designer plates with perfect shapes, often with oversized rims and small, deep pockets in the center to de-emphasize the little portions. And that will impress clients! The appearance of the dishes is a way to stand out from “home cooking” and the neighborhood chef. It’s as simple as that. But too much design detracts, if not kills, the taste: The bright-red comes from dye; the extravagant forms from emulsifiers; the aroma from sprays. The Lièvre à la Royale contains none of these. It all depends on what one expects of a visit to the restaurant; but for me the answer is clear: The paintings are beautiful in museums and galleries. I also know how to cook a fried egg without spending $300.00 for the menu that permits me to do that with a maître d’hôtel. And finally, my laptop allows me to store music, the sound of the sea or the sound of swine breeding if I think my ears are missing stimuli. In the restaurant, though, it’s the taste that interests me.