It's hard to think about the history of gastronomy without the iconic dishes created by some cooks and chefs who have helped to shape the art of preparing and serving food. From the vol-au-vent and the mille-feuille created by the trailblazer pastry chef Marie-Antoine Carême (one of the most important characters in the gastronomy world) to the Russian Salad from chef Lucien Olivier; from the iconic pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Delicatessen to the fettuccine Alfredo created by Alfredo di Lelio, some dishes have been incorporated to the annals of our gastronomic legacy. “They are the flavor of history,” as Mitchell Davies writes in his foreword in Signature Dishes That Matter, a book recently released by Phaidon.
Also in modern cuisine, chefs have been pursuing dishes that could hold their positions in prominence, looking for creations that stand the test of time. Ferran and Albert Adrià's Spherical Green Olives at elBulli and Massimo Bottura’s The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna are proof of this incessant search. But for some contemporary chefs, having a recipe that represents the quintessence of their work no longer seems to make sense.
In times when ingredients come from their own gardens and change with the seasons, it seems pointless for some of them to bet on hits that symbolize their work. In the farm-to-table era, what the chefs of this movement seek is to show how they can best value what comes to their kitchens daily without pre-established formulas or recipes.
A changing menu
Slovenian chef Ana Roš, from Hiša Franko, is adamant about signature dishes: she doesn't believe in them - though she recognizes the value of traditional dishes, because they evoke a tradition, not the creation of a chef. “I think our menu has a natural evolution”, she explains, “so, from my point of view, signature dishes don’t fit in what we are trying to do in our restaurant, in how we want to showcase our work”. Ana says it is very rare when they bring back dishes that once caused delight among her guests.
On the menu I tasted last October, there was a round lump of mud holding a small unpeeled potato served with fermented cottage cheese and smoked chocolate. A simple but delicious dish. Other version of this dish had appeared in the menu before, but in a different setting: instead of cottage, a sauce of zabaione with white truffle. “I really don’t like to serve the same dishes”, Ana said. “Even when we are trying to bring back well-accepted creations in dinners like this, we make some changes”.
To exemplify how things constantly evolve at Hiša Franko, chef Roš tells me that back in 2018 there were many dishes based on fish sauce and garum. “We were working on four or five different types of it, since it is something traditional also in the Mediterranean region, not only in Asia, as many think. It made sense for us at that time”, she recalls, when they were making many experiences with fermentation.
But at this moment, Ana says she hates fish sauce. “Even the smell of it makes me feel sick”, she confesses. “I could never stand doing the same signature dishes over and over like a rock’n’roll star [that keeps singing the same old hits]”, she jokes. “How can you get back to the kitchen with your own personal evolution, after traveling and knowing many different flavors, and repeat the same things? It’s impossible”, Ana states.
Photo Eduardo Torres
Chef Mauro Colagreco from Mirazur — ranked #1 in The World's Best Restaurant 2019 list and Le Chef's 100 Best Chefs in the World list - doesn't like the term “signature dishes” either. According to him, it is more related to a museum, which has “signature pieces”, than with a constantly evolving restaurant. “Within this phase we are passing through at Mirazur, where our menu is a representation of a living land, we understand that we can't be tied to the dishes, so we look for recipes that represent all these changes that happen in nature,” he says.
Colagreco explains that there are dishes that invariably repeat each season, but that they are never exactly the same. “The ingredients are never the same either, how could we focus our menu on established recipes?”, he asks. A cook has to learn to let go of his dishes, he says. “It's not always easy, as a chef always works to achieve a certain perfection in flavors, textures. When we come to such a result, which is hugely successful among diners, it's not always easy to let it go, but it's necessary if we want to work only with fresh produce,” he adds. One of the examples is the salt-crusted beetroot from restaurant's garden with caviar cream, turned into an iconic dish for gathering all Mirazur-style cuisine: fresh ingredients inspired by the sea and the mountains, accurate techniques, and a Mediterranean take.
Not having signature dishes on the menu also requires taking more risks, he believes. A chef needs to get out of his comfort zone to give up his acclaimed recipes. “When you create a menu every day, not for three or four months, you have to put your creativity to work, look for broader references. It's always risky because some dishes may be better than others”, he says. “But the kitchen is just like life: if everything is too perfect, we get bored,” he laughs. “A menu always has ups and downs, it's normal, and it's part of the experience we want to convey”.
More than a dish, a trademark
Photo Rubens Kato
Chef Rafa Costa e Silva from Lasai, in Rio de Janeiro, kept in his restaurant’s menu for almost a year one of his most famous dishes: the “fake egg”. The yolk, cooked for 45 minutes at 63°C, was served in the middle of a mashed yam and coconut milk pure that looked like an egg white, accompanied by a slice of crispy jerk beef. It became an instant hit. “I think we kept the dish more for convenience. When you are at the beginning of a project, with all the variables a restaurant can have, it is comforting to have a dish that is widely accepted by customers. But as we evolved, we thought we had to take it out of the menu”, he explains.
Costa e Silva says he is no longer chasing a signature dish, but a style that characterizes his work in the kitchen and his way of looking at gastronomy. “I think the important thing is when the chef is recognized for a profile rather than a dish itself. In our case, for example, we have become known for the snacks we serve to eat with the hands. There are always about eight of them to be tasted before the dishes are served, which has become our trademark”, he adds.
This has to do with the experience the chef wants to offer to his guests: a casual meal, where they can have a good time around food and outstanding hospitality - Lasai was recently recognized for The Art of Hospitality Award at Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019. “It is far more valuable for us to be recognized for having created a style of serving, for using more vegetables in our recipes than for having a dish that would make people remember us”, he points out.
He believes nowadays it makes more sense for chefs and restaurants to try to make their marks through concepts, not dishes. “There are restaurants that have created such a style that you just have to look at a dish to know where it comes from. This is something that transcends a single creation itself”, he says. “It's like a band that is recognized by the first guitar riff in a song, even if a brand new one”.