Food for Thought Entry No. 1: When style overtakes substance

Lately I’ve been ruminating on the state of Melbourne’s brunching “industry”.

I guess back in the days when cafes in Melbourne were few and far in between, things were much simpler. It was good old food and nothing more. Then the advent of the photo-taking phone and the ability to very quickly share information changed things. Cafes had to compete for the next attention grabbing headline, because word-of-mouth from raving customers are the best form of FREE marketing. Media, especially television, has played a major role in changing the industry too. Various successful TV shows pitting amateur chefs against one another have introduced the general public to cooking methods that sound more like scientific experiments. Whilst not insurmountable, the average home cook would probably not be bothered with replicating these techniques in their personal food laboratory (a.k.a. kitchen). So all of a sudden consumers want to experience for themselves the sight, taste and textures of “sous-vide”, “foam”, “ash” and “liquid nitrogen something“. Clearly, not everyone could afford (or justify) a meal to a 3 Michelin star restaurant for something their not even sure would taste “good” (see my definition above).

In come the cafes. They are more affordable (paying $25 instead of $250) and quite truthfully are simply more accessible (30-minute queue versus 3-month booking in advance is a no-brainer). And this was absolutely brilliant for those of us who love eating out, and trying new things. Then, as the demand for more places which served “new-age” food somehow surged, shrewd entrepreneurs decide that there would be gold to be mined in the food industry. They decide to go for big spacious areas so that they can cram in capacity, they invest in novelty decoration, they hire assassin-level PR professionals to market their cafe to death, and they throw together a menu that features one or two signature (i.e. elaborately photogenic) dishes. The customers come in throngs and the cash registers ring.

It starts to get a little disappointing when customers pay to try something so hyped up only to end up feeling misled. That’s because some of the food these cafes serve aren’t very good to begin with. And sometimes one might pay in excess of $20 to only still feel hungry and dissatisfied afterwards. Dare I mention the decline of good service where sometimes cafe staff have a “take it or leave it” attitude? Personally I would urge cafe-goers to please walk away when faced with such circumstance.

That’s not to say one should shun every new cafe that is universally gushed over. I love it when the compliments are well-deserved. I also celebrate a chef’s true creativity and sparks of genius from the kitchen. It’s the ones that make it a point to become the latest “Instagram Darling” that you have to be cautious of. Hopefully, it should become evident to a consumer pretty quickly whether thought and care had gone into preparing a good plate of food. Sure, I don’t deny that sight is very much part of a fulfilling gastronomical experience, so do please our eyes too (it’s like icing on the cake, figuratively and literally). But when it comes to food (amongst other things), substance should always have supremacy over style.

I’ll readily admit that I’m still very much a consumer who can’t help enshrining in my phone an image (or indeed, images!) of my day’s memorable meal, however, after having previously succumbed to the lures of a fad (e.g. “monster milkshakes”), I guess I’ll just be a bit more cautious before jumping on the next bandwagon (I’m looking at you, blue latte). I think have done pretty well in resisting the temptation, so far.



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