The small plates restaurant needs to die.
“But it’s so European”, you may say. “You get to try so many things.” Well I say bullshit. Of course, there is nothing wrong with small sensible portions, and I don’t condemn the desire to want to eat all the dishes on a well-designed menu — I embrace it. But when it comes to small plates, there is a right way and a wrong way, and we’re not doing it right. As the world gets smaller and smaller, it’s only natural that cuisines bleed and intersect. The borrowing of flavours and techniques from different cultures is something I believe to be essential to good cooking and the betterment of cuisine as a whole. Chefs and restaurateurs incessantly proclaim their love for tapas after returning from Spain. How civilized it is to drink a small beer, or a glass of red wine and graze away at little plates of olives in their oil, and small fried fish so crisp and salted like the sea? But inspiration and imitation are different things, and the latter is often substituted for the former, often at the expense of tradition and authenticity.
I have often daydreamed of a version of my life in Spain. In this dream, I have no job but I have money, I drink like Ernest Hemingway and I spend the day bouncing around from taverna to taverna eating fried peppers, chorizo and clams, my chin glistening with olive oil. It’s a life where every corner bar is run by a good cook. But that’s what this type of food is — it’s bar food. That’s the problem with small plates. Somehow, somewhere in North America, we decided that tapas wasn’t a cuisine (which it distinctly is) and was instead a style of dining begging to be reinvented. The small plates served to keep drunkenness at bay while you drink in the bar suddenly became the hottest restaurant concept. The main difference, however, is instead of little tavernas opening up in town serving classic Spanish tapas, we have swank little restaurants serving modern cuisine shrunk down to tasting-sized portions. The whole identity of tapas has been co-opted and bears very little resemblance to its former self.
Tapas is not the only small plates dining experience suffering from a sort of culinary cultural appropriation. So, too, is the mezze of Greece and Turkey and the banchan of Korea. These dishes are the salty, briny snacks meant to awaken the palate, and prepare you to feast on the meal to come. They themselves are not a meal. So when I hear, “The menu is like Greek tapas, I recommend you take three dishes per person for a full meal” I want to scream because not only is there no such thing as Greek tapas, the distinct and wonderful history of each of these culinary traditions is combined so clumsily that it completely misses the point.
I’m not suggesting we return to a classic appetizer, main, dessert menu formula — I personally love the communal aspect of sharing a meal with friends and family. It’s just the idea that 12 small plates on the table constitute “family-style dining” is absurd. Imagine sitting down with your family for Thanksgiving and on the table are two slices of bread, four roasted carrots, six Brussel sprouts, a ramekin of mashed potatoes and instead of a turkey, there are two turkey wings. It would be outrageous, you’d be banned from ever serving Thanksgiving dinner again. Whose brilliant idea was is that somehow larger portions are for an individual, but many microscopic plates of composed food were suitable for sharing? It’s so backwards.
We should borrow another thing from the clever Spaniards and add variable portion sizes to the menu. In Spain, if you want to eat a meal of tapas, you don’t order 12 plates of food, you order larger portions. Typically these are divided into three sensible options, a tapa (a snack), a racion (a full, meal-sized portion) and a media-racion (a half portion). We could and should be doing that. My issue with what we do here is not that we’ve strayed too far from what’s traditional, it’s that we’ve decided to adapt the small plates cuisine to suit our palate without exploring how to best use the format. Imagine arriving at your favourite small-plate restaurant and instead of the waiter suggesting three small plates per person, they instead suggested starting with a few small snacks, choosing one or two larger portions as the centrepiece of the meal, and a few half-portions for accompaniments. It would require slightly more flexibility in the kitchen, but only in terms of prep, and would allow those of us who want to eat a real meal — and those looking simply to lightly graze — the opportunity to enjoy the same food, but in dramatically different and better-tailored ways.
That’s the thing, though, about cultural appropriation: what starts out as a genuine admiration for something new and different often ends up being copied and reconstituted by people who don’t fully understand what they’re copying. Food is ruled by trends, and while trends are fleeting, small plates seem to persist, mutating so far from the food on which it’s based that it’s become something entirely different. Perhaps the concept endures because fundamentally the idea is good, even great. But I hope that if it is truly here to stay, we learn to do it better because as it stands right now, this confusing, unsatisfying table full of fake-ass Greek-Turkish-Japanese-Tapas nonsense can go straight to hell. ■