Skip to content

Tall Food

Post date:

Tall food is a nineties restaurant plating affectation that came and went. Whatever was destined by looks or flavour to be on the same plate was stacked as high as it could be. The tall food in the feature photograph has the following layers that are, as far as I can ascertain, from bottom to top:

1) A jus, because things came with them back then. The colour makes me think it might be a salmon jus but it’s flecked with two types of sesame seed, possibly referencing the eighties’ love for differently coloured peppercorns.
2) To  the front is some picked ginger in what, circa 1997, might have been called a garnish construction in the style of Frank Gehry.

Pickled Ginger
– Peel the skin off the ginger root or, if it is very fresh, use a spoon to scrape it off.
– Slice it as thinly as you can.
– Leave the slices in warm water for about a minute.
– Dry them by pressing between two pieces of kitchen towel.
– Pack into a glass jar, cover with a mixture of sushi vinegar and sugar to taste.
– Cover and place in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

3) The base is spinach – sautéed not wilted.
4) I’m guessing here, but the fact the steamed and green-ended carrot sticks are pointed and crossed suggests the chef/plater is trying for an ironic chopsticks thing because everything was ironic back then. [Note: The food in the photograph is arranged too “casually” to be authentic nineties but they’ve got the retro cheesy irony right. But no, I don’t miss the nineties.]
The salmon. It’s glazed with something that looks like a combination of butter, soy sauce and honey.

This is also good glaze for steamed carrots. The three ingredients have a powerful affinity like that between balsamic vinegar, black pepper and strawberries.

In passing, pickled plum and shisō [ume shisō; 梅しそう] also have an amazing affinity. The pickled plum brings sweetness and bitterness while shisō brings umami to the table. Add salt and you have an addictive combination that hits all taste buds.

6) To top it off, a piece of steamed pak-choi that, like the pickled ginger, would would go well with the salmon.

I won’t deconstruct this next, but food rings were the equivalent of slip-form shuttering and gave height to amorphous foods resistant to stacking. Kitchens had sets of various diameters and depths.

Tall food never delivered its promised cross-section of flavours. A single prod would compromise whatever structural integrity there was, and the construction would unceremoniously collapse or topple. It didn’t matter because, for one wondrous minute, tall food existed as an impressive and magical edifice. Few images survive. The ninetees had no smartphones, Instagram or culture of photographing food and thinking everyone cared what you ate. It’s thus all the more important to remember tall food because its legacy lives on. Fastcodesign beat me to it by a few years [rats!] and made the salient point that tall food was a way of making new American restaurant output look different from that of the rest of the world, and thus identifiable as a thing.

I first became aware of this trend jumping the species barrier to architecture with MVRDV’s Netherlands’ Pavilion for the 2010 Hannover EXPO. MVRDV had been working up to this with their 1997 Leidschenveen Town Center project but the Hannover pavilion represented various Dutch landscapes stacked into a pavilion and people saw in it a Dutch ingenuity to make the most of available land. There’s no way of knowing now whether people actually believed this or if it was just some PR thought implant.

What we do know is that the stacked look took off and, within five years, everyone was doing it. You could make your building look deconstructed yet constructed at the same time, escewing expensive curves in favour of easybuild blocks having a degree of cantilever limited only by your budget.

MVRDV are still doing it. For an image-thirsty audience raised on novely, the only real challenge architectural image providers have these days is to see how much coverage can be generated by regulation cantilevers not erring on the side of mundanity. [c.f. Architectural Myths #12: The Daring Cantilever]

OMA made great contributions to the genre, with their Museum Plaza (left, below) in Louisiana first hitting our screens in 2003. After the divorce, REX couldn’t get it up. Stacked buildings hit a ceiling, or at least their engineering consultancy fees and estimated construction costs did.

By the time ZHA added curvy stacks to the genre, there were already new buildings that were horizontal stacks [the new landscraper?!] or a bit of both.

We’re now working our way through the variants.

[The semester after the New Inhumanism post, I amused myself riffing on post-and-lintel construction in the style of OMA.]

There’s not all that many ways buildings can be made strange. The persistence of building stacks is testament to the eternal architect challenge to deny the intrinsic sense of column and slab construction but within budgetary constraints. This game has two levels: the higher one has the larger budgets and sheer unlikeliness of cantilver is presented as – and obediently taken to be – an indicator of design excellence.

Even if the other level achieves everything with budgets less stellar, the dogged pursuit of maximum cantilever to budget ratio is still presented and accepted as an indicator of design effort. As long as images such as these next flood the internet, stacked buildings will live on as a student trope and not just another item in an architect’s bag of tricks.

Municipalities like stacked buildings, or at least allow themselves to be convinced the device breaks down the mass of a building that is most likely to be significantly larger than anything around it. The power of this narrative as an indicator of design effort shouldn’t be underestimated because it gives stakeholders and non-stakeholders alike a means of comprehending and, if need be, defending the building. Big money is at stake.


[c.f. Moneymaking Machines #4: 2 World Trade Center (a.k.a. 14% MORE BIG!!)]

What we have then, is another way of making buildings not appear as big as they are. Existentially speaking, this is a denial of facticity, as is choosing to represent a number of tenants or functions that may not correspond with its reality, or implying a sequence of construction/assemblage that didn’t happen. These all indicate an absence of authenticity. [c.f. Existential Architecture: Being There] This is no surprise.

In the nineties, breaking down the mass would have been spoken or written with quotation marks around it to show the writer wanted to convey the meaning of creating the appearance of a smaller apparent mass. This wouldn’t happen now. Post Modernism cared more about the representation of something than its reality and, although the style may have gone the way of tall food, its lasting damage was to make us comfortable using language formerly used to describe reality, to describe representations of it. This is not ending well.  

In the meantime, the artful composition and the objet d’art are our currently prefered ways of making breakfast and dessert look different. The former is faux-architectural and the latter faux-natural – which makes it faux-architectural as well.

• • •

Searching for images of tall food wasn’t easy but this one caught my eye. Hats off to Mattia Salvia over on VICE, who decided to cook some of the recipes from Marinetti’s 1932 Futurist Cookbook (reissued in 2014 as a Penguin Modern Classic.) Making food look like buildings predates making buildings look like food by more than half a century.

Salvador Dalí had his own take on tall food as artistic statement.

Although it still needs curating and the weight of an accompanying manifesto, the Misfits’ Cookbook is a collection of nineties’ recipes labouriously compiled circa 1995 in Word on a Powerbook 140. It has no photographs but, even just glancing through the section for poultry, Chicken stew with white wine (p15) is a stunning dish in the old-school French style. Chicken in lime, ginger and soy sauce (p20) is delicious and quick. Chicken Pascal (p23) is a recipe that arrived in Tokyo from Paris and should really be named in honour of Pascal’s girlfriend’s Moroccan grandmother. Duck with Campari and orange (p20) was mentioned in Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel, The Secret History. I immediately imagined how wonderful it would but never made it. The sweet & sour sauce (p50) I still make occasionally.

• • •

This next photograph appeared in a May 11 Guardian article.  Yuk hwae is, starting from the bottom, cucumber, raw beef, Asian pear, and egg yolk. The two colours of sesame seeds never went away.