In Japan they have codified the art of arranging food. It’s called moritsuke, and chefs sometimes quote it as an inspiration for their “plating” techniques. We often quote the truism that we “eat with our eyes”, that how the food looks can affect how it is enjoyed, and moritsuke demonstrates this. But, like ikebana, the practice of flower arranging to which it is related, there is a lot more behind it — principally, millennia of a culture and aesthetic entirely different to our own — and we seem to miss the point.
Moritsuke is full of rules and precepts that specify colours and patterns, and help in the choice of tableware. It is based in a fundamental belief that ingredients should be left to speak for themselves. By the rules of moritsuke, there should be few ingredients on a plate. Moving and reshaping the ingredients once placed is taboo, and elaborate cutting or forcing of food into shape is considered unclean. In Japan, it’s about the food. Care for ingredients, technical rigour, restraint and humility — from which beauty arises.
Here in the UK we’ve got what one might call Michelin moritsuke, appearing on tasting menus across the country and polluting our screens most nights of the week. Too many ingredients. Overworked, over-handled. Too often showcasing how cleverly chefs have creatively imposed themselves on the food. A “narrative”, for chrissake! When every pretentious provincial hash house is offering smears on handmade plates, dots of gel and pour-over “broths” with bloody everything, we’ve warped our definition of beauty. I’m going to be horribly honest here: I’m bored rigid of pretty food. Or at least I was until I experienced the work of chef Florence Knight at Sessions Arts Club in a romantic and elegant ruin of a studio in Clerkenwell.
You don’t meet many people who are ambivalent about cavolo nero. It’s a polarising ingredient in a way that makes Marmite look harmonising. Me, I like the stuff, but if I told you they were cooking it to within an inch of its life, mincing it smooth with anchovies and letting it get cold, even the confirmed cavolo zealots would run for the hills. But that’s exactly what Knight has done. A dark, emerald paste, full of iron and umami and smeared thick on pane carasau, the Sardinian semolina crispbread. What might have been a grating of parmesan on top turned out to be cured egg yolk and was better for it.
It stripped me of any sense of restraint with the first mouthful. I mean, the thing is the size of a dustbin lid and within 18 seconds I’d made it disappear. Afterwards I felt breathless, profoundly fulfilled and, I don’t know, like that moment in a werewolf pic where the guy wakes up in a deserted church with his shirt torn to rags and a horrible nagging feeling that, while he was in that slightly confused state, he may have just slaughtered and eaten an entire village. I’ve never really done “guilt”. This must be what it’s like. Wow! I like guilt.
Always make room for a croquette whenever life offers you one. Nice stuff in a fried shell cannot be bad. But Knight presents the ideal of the croquette. The casing is so gossamer-thin, it’s as though she blew it through a hoop like a child with bubbles and then pumped it full of a runny, uncontrollable brown crab cream. There is no way to eat it that isn’t basically disgusting to behold and consequently I wanted to line 20 of them up along a bar somewhere, at the end of a night of debauchery, and do them one after the other like shots.
There’s a gratifying theme in Knight’s cooking. Stuff arrives looking delicate, cool, restrained and then, with the touch of a fork, it gets mucky. Egg and smoked haddock are one of cuisine’s adorable old couples, but when the egg is water-bathed so even the white is barely set and the haddock collapses into silken slivers if you just look at it sternly . . . yeah, this is The Good Stuff.
“Eel, rocket, crème fraîche and roe” looks like a savoury custard slice. A mille glistening feuilles of fried stuff, inter-piped with cream and eel. Popping salmon roe spattered over its browned surface like the beads of a broken necklace. But the flavour work is outrageous. The way the sour in the cream plays with the fatty eel is just so assured, and there’s nothing in the gustatory or visual composition that isn’t equally aptly placed.
You’d think there was not much you could do to improve on “Clams, crème fraîche and wild garlic” and Knight obviously agrees. Honestly, I had to be physically restrained from standing on the table, waving my napkin and leading the crowd in chants of praise. It takes confidence, skill and humility in equal measure for a chef to present something as simply as this. Tiny clams, just coaxed into disrobing with a hint of winey steam and a bit of a jiggle. Just enough dairy to enrich the juices, just enough fresh herb and then rush it to the table where I’m sitting.
“Rabbit, cotechino, cabbage and mustard” was another breathtaking high-wire act. Rabbit can be lean and bland; cotechino, a fatty sausage made of unspeakable parts of pig, is strong and coarse. In balance, they are beautifully, almost impossibly well-matched. A smart, spherical wrapping of steamed cabbage leaf complements the stuffing with its mustardy, brassica undertones and, in case you don’t get the hint, there’s an extremely subtle grain mustard and cream sauce to reinforce the idea. Like everything at Sessions Arts Club, it is creatively considered and effortlessly gorgeous.
My impression of Knight is that she is not pretentious enough to do poncey plating but, to me, she operates close to the real principle of moritsuke. The food is beautiful, yes — but it’s an aesthetic arising from humility, restraint and some viscerally thrilling cooking.
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