A few weeks ago, I ate a burger at a place called the Roebling Tea Room which my friend Rachel Wharton had written about in Edible Brooklyn. She wrote that Roebling was a chef hang-out with the kind of food that chefs like to eat. And sure enough, when the burger arrived, it was a no holds barred decadent assault; a fatty cut of meat ground up, grilled and topped with a mountain of mayonnaise-based sauce. It may as well have been labeled on the menu: fat and fat with more fat on top.
It’s a badge of honor in the food world; the more decadent the dish (foie gras French fries! Bacon-stuffed hot dogs!) the more clout you get for eating it. To my mind, it’s not that different from smoking in high school: a status boosting gesture based on one’s blatant disregard for health and longevity. To eat butter-braised pork belly is to laugh death in the face.
Only, I don’t share this enthusiasm for all things decadent. In fact: I find it kind of boring. What interests me, as an eater, is balance. I enjoy fatty components on a plate, but I much prefer it if those components are balanced out by other less fatty components. For example, the Italians sometimes pound a breast of veal, coat it in breadcrumbs and deep fry it. But when they serve it, they pile a lemony arugula salad on top. (This dish is called Veal Milanese.)
That’s the kind of balance I’m talking about. To my mind, it makes the dish more dynamic; instead of an assault of fat you’re getting a variety of components that interact in interesting ways. The lemon in the salad is a bracing foil for the fatty deep-fried crust, and the green from the arugula helps to break up all that brown.
Piling fat on fat is creatively cheap. It’s an easy way to make food taste good without asking that much of a chef. You can experience this yourself by making oatmeal at home: make oatmeal with water, it tastes ok. Make it with whole milk? It tastes that much better. Add a tablespoon of butter at the end? And a drizzle of cream? You have a fat-laden gut bomb of oatmeal that’ll put a smile on your face but scrape years off your life. A creative cook can make oatmeal taste decadent without all that extra fat; you can toast the oatmeal, for example, to bring out the flavor. Or you can use coconut milk instead of whole milk.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten is a French chef who shares my suspicion that fat is a cheat and that too much decadence is a bad thing. At his flagship restaurant, he uses vegetable juices and purees to enrich and enliven dishes without compromising the pleasure diners get from eating them. That’s why, if you’re lucky enough to dine there, you don’t leave feeling like you just swallowed a mack truck.
Which brings us back to that burger. As tasty as it was, a few of us felt sick after eating it. It was too much of a good thing; the nutritional equivalent of gnawing on a stick of butter.
The archives of my blog will show you that I’m not health nut. I love pork shoulder as much as the next carnivore and dinner isn’t dinner to me if there isn’t dessert. But at some point, we have to draw the line. For me, piling fat on fat for an illicit thrill is going too far; we shouldn’t use fat just for the sake of using fat. We, as eaters and as chefs, need to make fat count.