Do we have to say goodbye forever to entrecote and steak tartare? These dishes are appearing less and less frequently – if at all – in the menus of starred restaurants. The latest establishment to make a move in this direction last September was the Plaza Athenée in Paris, Alain Ducasse’s three Michelin starred temple just a few steps away from the Champs Elysées. What possible reasons could prompt a similar decision? "Without" (meat in this case) can be better: it favours ethical consumption, it focuses attention on organic food produced at zero kilometres. And, above all, it flirts with a trend in constant expansion, that of going “without” a debatable ingredient: here it is meat, but it could also be foie gras, cow’s milk or gluten.
How come the 'without' trend has also contaminated celebrity chefs worldwide? To attribute the phenomenon to fashion alone would be superficial. Each “without” is accompanied by a debate that is interesting and never banal: starting from gluten and the growing number of people who manifest intolerance towards the foods containing it. According to the What's Hot Culinary Forecast, conducted by National Restaurant Association of America, gluten-free cuisine is the fifth hottest trend for 2014. Restaurants offering gluten-free menus represented the eighth fastest growing restaurant category in 2013, having registered a boom of 275 per cent between 2009 and 2012. Surprisingly, whilst the most prominent dish in restaurants converted to gluten-free cuisine continues to be salad in its umpteen different combinations, it is closely followed by pizza: apparently, eating from a restricted menu heightens the desire for a food that at first sight would seem to be totally prohibited, hence its reinterpretation in a “without” key. Maybe in a way that makes it even more (or equally) tasty and appetizing. Just like the pizza dough made from special flours.
While gluten-free menus express the needs of a changing clientele engaged in the battle against food intolerance, yet unwilling to give up the pleasures of fine dining, the “without” philosophy is also inspired by various considerations of an ethical nature. One of the most widely known regards foie gras, already banned in various nations in the world owing to the practice of force-feeding animals: in October 2014 the Supreme Court of the United States rejected an appeal presented by a group of Los Angeles restaurant owners who were opposed to the ban on the production and sale of foie gras enforced in California since July 2012. Meats of all types and culinary interpretations also fall into this category, as demonstrated by Ducasse. In the same way as establishments dedicated to vegetarian and vegan cuisine, their success reflects the widespread conviction that a diet based on raw, less processed foods is “healthier”.
However, what the laws of the market and public opinion create is often destroyed by tradition. And in the vast scenario of different and ever-changing choices – whether ethical or health related – there emerges an attachment to tradition and its most beloved recipes. So, even monsieur Ducasse, as he opens his Parisian Athenée meatless restaurant, is engaged in a battle in the media (in the excellent company of starred chefs Michel Guérard, Jean Coussau and Alain Dutournier) to bring back to kitchens and tables the rare ortolan bunting, a bird whose rich and tender meat with its slight hazelnut flavour has been prohibited for years in France. Since it was banned in 1999, the few ortalan buntings illegally hunted fetch up to 150 Euros each on the black market. These little birds with their precious and delectable flesh – Mitterand’s favourite meat by the way – are not the only types of meat to be so sought-after: the European culinary tradition comprises various recipes that are questionable on ethical grounds and equally deeply rooted in local and family customs, as well as being very popular. And the dilemma regarding “with” or “without” continues, even in the same (multi-starred) kitchen.