SYDNEY art dealer Ray Hughes might not hear as well as he used to, but he still loves a chat.
An old-school bon vivant, Hughes hosts regular Thursday lunches upstairs in his Surry Hills gallery, inviting artists, writers, journalists, architects, politicians, actors and many more to share in animated conversation at a long, colourful table covered in platters of food. Up to 24 strangers meeting for the first time soon find themselves debating weighty matters.
There’s an art to conversation at the table. Hughes’s son, Evan, knows how to get tongues wagging. “Passing around big plates of food forces people into an awkward 15-second exchange over who holds the platter while the other serves themselves, and after that conversation comes a little more naturally.”
Last week, film director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom), comics Mikey Robins and Claire Hooper (Good News Week), providore Hugh Wennerbom and Sydney City Councillor Meredith Burgmann were among those sharing post-budget reactions and other views. It’s not all serious, though. When The Weekend Australian Magazine joined a recent lunch, the highlight was folk music guru Warren Fahey rising to sing a filthy ditty about the carnal shenanigans of Kings Cross. “I probably won’t be invited back for another year,” he grinned mischievously as the applause and laughter died down.
Evan Hughes is clear about the priorities at lunch. “Food should serve as a really comfortable backdrop; it needn’t be the centre of everyone’s attention.”
However, these days, it seems, any attempt at conversation is snatched from us whenever we sit down to eat. We are losing what the early 19th-century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin called the pleasures of the table. We’ve never been more obsessed with food, while forgetting what it means to share a meal.
It’s happening just as much in the preparation of food, too. TV shows such as MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules have turned what should be a pleasure into a clock-watching challenge that forgets the table isn’t ultimately about the food, or the wine. It’s the excuse, the lure, to bring people together. A meal, most critically, is about the conversation it provokes.
It’s not always the light-hearted banter that’s mistaken for conversation. Over a recent meal with friends, we discussed death. When one guest tried to apologise for the topic, I demurred. That remarkable moment is the whole point. Where else could you be so open and frank about life than when your belly’s sated and the wine has stripped away any reticence? Our three-course meal took four hours, but now everyone’s in a hurry; even restaurants.
I recently ate at a new Asian fine diner that will undoubtedly receive one, if not two Michelin stars. My six-course meal was over within 60 minutes of sitting down. There was no time available to contemplate the food, let alone anything else. Waiters began to queue with plates as I hurried to finish what sat in front of me. Diners are now under pressure to keep pace with the kitchen’s frenetic energy, but not everyone’s keeping up. Increasingly, a sommelier arrives halfway through a dish, with sincere apologies, to pour the matching glass of wine. Or you sit, pondering the plate, hoping cutlery will arrive before the food goes cold.
It doesn’t have to be like that. As Heston Blumenthal of famed English restaurant The Fat Duck says: “Ask people about their most memorable meals and they’ll talk about things other than the food. And if you’ve got a group of friends you want to spend some time with, a restaurant is an environment where it works best.”
Blumenthal says he aims to provoke conversation at his place, from a note on the table asking about early memories to the iPod playing Sounds of the Sea to match the dish of the same name. “You’d think it would kill conversation, but the opposite happens,” he says. “When the headphones come off, everyone starts talking about their memories.”
Filmmakers have always understood the life-affirming and insightful power of the table, whether it’s the two-hour-long philosophical outpouring of My Dinner with Andre, the reconciliation breakfast at the end of Big Night, or the fish-out-of-water boyfriend’s Chinese family meal in The Joy Luck Club. But when it comes to TV shows, we’re terminally distracted by plating up and showing off, forgetting the end users of food are not celebrity judges, but family and friends. It’s worth noting the approach taken by one of Australia’s finest food writers, Stephanie Alexander, who puts food on the table for sharing and doesn’t leave her seat until the meal is over (unless it’s to bring out the tart she’s made for dessert). She has her priorities right.
A meal needs time for the people around the table to reveal themselves and increasingly we’re time-poor. Australian-born restaurant manager Marcus Boyle, who runs Singapore’s Tippling Club with former Vue de Monde chef Ryan Clift, has observed a worrying trend emerging: customer attention spans moving to Twitter speed. “The gaps are getting shorter between courses and people expect their food a lot quicker. The rule used to be 10-15 minutes. Now it’s five and by the time you get to 10 minutes, customers are asking when the food’s coming.”
What’s the hurry? We’re in danger of giving ourselves indigestion by treating a meal like a Formula One refuelling pit stop.
In his 1798 treatise Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, philosopher Immanuel Kant declared good meals and conversation an essential part of humanity, saying a meal was as much about social enjoyment as sating hunger. What was said at the table should stay at the table, he asserted, to allow a free and frank exchange. And no dinner music (please take note, restaurants, before cranking the dial to 11 to drown out chatter). Kant even saw conversation as a three-course meal, beginning with swapping news, then ratiocination (reasoning and debate), and finally a dessert of repartee and wit.
That’s hard to achieve when a waiter is standing there like a schoolteacher waiting for the class to fall silent before announcing that chef’s next dish is cheese foam made from three-legged goats farmed by former Latvian accountants pursuing their dream of self-sufficiency.
Brillat-Savarin made similar observations about how a meal should unfold in The Physiology of Taste: “At the first course everyone eats and pays no attention to conversation; all ranks and grades are forgotten together in the great manufacture of life. When, however, hunger begins to be satisfied, reflection begins, and conversation commences. The person who, hitherto, had been a mere consumer, becomes an amiable guest.”
But it’s hard to be amiable and engage in real conversation when you’re sitting side-by-side at a counter.
The European table changed forever in 2003 when the Frenchman dubbed the “chef of the century” came out of retirement to open L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. Now he may be remembered as the chef who killed Brillat-Savarin’s tête-à-tête. Inspired by a combination of Japanese sushi and Spanish tapas bars, Robuchon turned everyone’s attention to the open kitchen, making chefs central to the theatre of dining out. The focus at his L’Atelier restaurants is bench seating at a counter, where chefs and waiters are encouraged to banter with diners in the name of “conviviality”. L’Atelier’s casual approach has spawned countless imitators.
It does have its benefits. As Marcus Boyle says, the focus on the action, rather than two diners, can be a saving grace. “They’re a perfect place for first dates because if it gets awkward they can just stare blankly at what’s going on.”
While Tippling Club has some tables, it’s mostly a long counter and Boyle has noticed a shift in where people sit. To keep conversation flowing, Kant said the ideal number of dinner guests was three to nine, while Brillat-Savarin stretched it to 12. But today, the ability to converse with everyone in the group isn’t a priority. “People no longer sit opposite each other at a table, they prefer sitting on the corner,” Boyle says. “Even groups of eight, who used to insist on a table, now prefer a corner of the bench. The distance between the first and last person is quite big and they can’t really have a conversation, but they’re still going for that option.”
A good dinner gives body and soul “a peculiar happiness”, Brillat-Savarin observed. “Physically, as the brain becomes refreshed, the face lightens up, the colours become heightened, and a glow spreads over the whole system. Morally, the mind becomes sharpened, witticisms circulate.”
But now it seems many people are easily bored, preferring to check emails on their phones rather than talk. Boyle sighs. “Now everyone’s used to fiddling with something electronic and losing the most important aspect of going out – dining with friends and family.”
If the pleasures of the table are to survive, diners need to realise man cannot live on tweets alone.
Original article here