One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.
Our daily food adventures may vary, but in modern society it has become de rigueur to classify and codify our eating experiences in direct relation to the amount of energy, wealth and skill expended in the pursuit of our meals. At the apex of this pyramid of refection we would consider haute cuisine or fine dining. The late American chef Charlie Trotter probably described best the sublime unity of such experience: ‘All four elements were happening in equal measure – the cuisine, the wine, the service and the overall ambience. It taught me that dining could happen at a spiritual level.’
The Foundation of Fine Dining
At its zenith, fine dining occupies its position on the hierarchy of dining experiences, as it surpasses all other lesser forms on a fundamental level when executed proficiently. The experience, as Trotter realises, becomes greater than the sum of its part and nourishing on a metaphysical level. The ingredients will tend to be rare and carefully curated. Service will be flawless and anticipatory, meeting your requests before you have the need to voice them. The techniques employed in cooking will be novel, specialised and difficult to replicate by yourself at home, as they require a level of expertise and practiced skill honed by years in restaurant kitchens.
The concept of the menu will be captivating and witty, while the food will be sublime, served with several complementary and harmonious courses of varying intensity and delight. Each with a depth of flavour not often encountered. The paired wines will be of exceptional vintage and rare quality. It is here that private fine dining holds the edge over the commercial restaurant – no matter the pedigree. The experience is reproducible and available to everybody, whereas with a private chef the fleeting nature of the singular meal enshrines the dinner as a unique, remarkable event in memory.
Fine Dining in History
Fine dining in its modern incarnation is derived from classical French cookery and uses most of its techniques, terminology, and processes in the kitchen. Its philosophy and presentation stems from the nouvelle cuisine movement of the 1960’s, which was pioneered by Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, and Pierre Troisgros amongst others. The movement should be understood as a rebellion against the cuisine classique. The French chef Escoffier established the standard for haute cuisine in the grand hotels and restaurants of Europe. He placed emphasis on the meticulous presentation and preparation of small-portioned dishes served à la russe, in courses, replacing the then common service à la française, served all at once.
Escoffier also formalised the streamlined production of dishes and sauces in Le Guide Culinaire, which is still practiced in restaurant kitchens today. He further codified the words to describe food presentation and cooking techniques in fine dining. Nouvelle cuisine represented a departure from the complicated sauces and methods in cuisine classique and a return to an emphasis on natural flavours and the freshness and quality of produce. Cooking times were decreased to preserve the inherent flavours of fish, game and vegetables. Heavy sauces were abandoned in exchange for lighter flavours. Regional cuisine and specialties were emphasised, as new techniques and pairings were embraced. The principles of nouvelle cuisine have been taken to their logical conclusion by the recent emphasis on local foods in the cooking of Rene Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen and Faviken in Sweden.
Fine Dining and Gourmet Cookery
A level below fine dining would be the wider category of gourmet cooking. Fine dining in Singapore, while undoubtedly a superlative experience, is not wholly practical for daily nourishment and thus often reserved for special occasions and celebrations. The term gourmet is derived from the French word for wine-broker or taste-vin. It indicates a person of sophisticated and refined palate, a connoisseur of good food and wine.
Gourmet cuisine is thus a cut above the normal variety, a step above the regular. It may be applied to a wide variation of cuisines and cooking methods, from gourmet street food and barbeque to cheese tastings and five course dinners. Fine dining is gourmet food, but not all gourmet food is fine dining. It is suitable for both casual and day-to-day dining or more serious occasions where the company, instead of the food, will be emphasised. However, there is a firm hunch towards sophistication and quality of food.
The category of gourmet food is so flexible that it can be applied to casual dining, a private dinner, or party catering alike. The distinguishing aspect is the gourmet touch, which elevates the occasion by assuring the cuisine is of excellent quality – not just fancy words to describe food. The emphasis becomes the occasion itself, the food being a delicious complement to it. Gourmet cooking can take the form of a barbeque, where Wagyu burgers and Kurobuta pork chops will be served instead of frozen burgers and hot dogs. Perhaps even gourmet interpretations street food from any cuisine you could imagine – Pad Thai with Madagascan tiger prawns, Tacos with grilled Ahi tuna, or Singapore-style Hokkien mee with Hokkaido scallops.
Applying the principles of gourmet cooking to any manner of cuisine frees the imagination to dream up new, hearty food experiences beyond the usual gourmet staples of champagne, truffles, caviar and foie gras. The guiding principle of gourmet food is sophistication and quality, not a checklist of extravagant delicacies.
Party catering for a large number of guests is an entirely different art. Producing a volume of food, while still maintaining quality and accommodating the various requests is a monumental task. Knowing your guests are assessing your canapé menu with a critical eye is often sufficient to drive the most ardent home chef to tears. Concurrently providing sufficient variety and novelty to distinguish your spread from the common banquet, a task best left to the professional hands of a personal chef.
How do Fine Dining and Home-Cooked Food compare?
Sometimes however, all you really want is a home-cooked meal, without fancy, flourishing or complicated twists to your favourite cuisine. Food speaks to your heart and good food with the heady aroma of nostalgia can take you all the way back to your childhood. Food can be cooked with love, but still be in a private dining setting. Often the simplest meals may be the hardest to replicate. While the ingredients and recipes may be easy, adding that indefinable element that makes home cooked food so satisfying is rare and difficult. Perhaps the hierarchy of dining should really be a diamond, instead of a pyramid; the simplest home-cooked fare may be as rare and difficult to replicate as the most refined and complex fine dining in Singapore cooked by the most skilled of chefs.