Earlier this year, when I partook of an impressive 25 burgers in 15 days for Burger Wellington, as part of Wellington On a Plate, I reckon I gained an extraordinary insight into the different levels of quality in food service and prep, and presentation... everything, really. To be able to visit so many eateries in such a condensed period really gave me an opportunity to think about what, exactly, is the difference between the great, the good, the so-so, and the not at all good.
Mostly the places I thought would be good (Boulcott Street Bistro, The Larder, Polo, General Practitioner et al), were good. The places I suspected would be a bit average, were, indeed, a bit average.
And those places I thought would be bad were really, really bad. A couple of places I thought should be good were, in fact, not very good at all.
And so, I started thinking about what the difference actually is between these gradations. Why are some places better than others?
Do you know what I think it is? I reckon, often, it comes down to what I call the last 10 per cent. The final flourishes that make something good even better.
So what are these flourishes, and how much difference do they really make?
Well, I think a lot of it comes down to the quality of ingredients you use, though this in itself doesn't guarantee that the finished product will be truly top drawer - there are many points in the process where it can come unstuck. A lot of it is to do with the ability of the cook to turn those quality ingredients into something good - consistency being of the essence. I think in some ways this is the tough thing - being able to turn out plate after plate of excellent food to the same high standard under pressure is much harder than making a good meal for yourself and friends or family.
And then, there are those final touches that can elevate the pretty good into the truly exceptional. Or something kinda okay into something pretty good. Some of them are, I reckon, very basic, thus:
1- Seasoning - make sure the food has the correct amount of salt and pepper to taste good. Remember, also, that once it is in, it doesn't come out - better to slightly underseason and give people salt and black pepper to add to taste, or chilli to add to achieve an agreeable level of heat.
2- Presentation - it should look good. It doesn't have to be haute cuisine, but it should look appealing, and like something you would want to eat.
3- Warm the plates! - it seems like such a little thing, but it really does make a difference, I reckon - and you don't need to do it in the oven, you can use the microwave, or give them a quick dip in a sink full of hot water, and a dry-off.
4- Fresh herbs! - whether it's a handful of chopped parsley, or coriander, or basil, fresh herbs make everything taste, well, fresh.
5- Lemon juice - I have mentioned before the panic I feel if I run out of lemons. Lemon juice, like herbs, makes food taste fresh and vibrant, and provides depth and contrast of flavour alongside rich, or sweet, or salty tastes. Also, I always zest lemons before squeezing them - so much magic therein.
6- Bring the love - honestly, I reckon most of what separates the great from the good is whoever is cooking and serving the food's ability to deliver love on the plate. Great food is always food that has been treated with care and respect, out of a genuine willingness to share delicious sustenance with your diners. You can tell. You really can.
To this end, having just survived another weekend mission to Auckland to play with the Craig Terris Group, I enjoyed an excellent breakfast-y brunch repast at Shaky Isles in Kingsland (which seems to be an upwardly mobile suburb these days - nice cafes, bars and so on), cooked with care and attention by an old friend of Craig's, Mr Steve King. I had a breakfast hash (see pic) chock full of chorizo, roasted baby spuds, fresh herbs, slices of champagne ham and a poached egg, rounded out with lashings of delicious, lemony hollandaise.
I realised, as I looked upon the plate of food that I had been served by an uncommonly cheery waitress, that this plate of food had unwittingly nailed all of my criteria for that last 10 per cent. Food you wanna eat. Food you know will taste good, and fulfil its function as fuel as well as be delicious.
That last 10 per cent - crucial. And The Love - always the crucial ingredient.
What do you think makes for that final push over the line, to make food that is really great? Agree with my suggestions? And, Shaky Isles - prettay, prettay good, huh?!
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