Penelope Grundle is a life coach, New York Times best-selling author and twice-Editor of Australian Vogue. She is also NUPSA’s resident advice columnist, in accordance with the terms of her Community Service Order (Crimes [Sentencing Procedure] Act 1999).
Ah, mes enfants… Is it that time again already? One more glorious annus; another year, with all its triumphs and frustrations, now drawing to a close. Though I do not ordinarily confine self-reflection to fixed points in time – it is a constant soup we should bathe in, moment to moment – the end of a year is as good a time as any, I think, to look back at the road we have travelled and then forward at that which lies ahead of us.
It is not, however, a time for regrets, which only wrack the mind and dim the soul. Do not look back and reflect on all the things you didn’t do, but sit quietly in your own company for an hour (it’s surprising how many people are afraid of this), consider your achievements, and all you’ve discovered about yourself in a single revolution of the Earth. You’ll be surprised just how much there is to be proud of, when you silence those dark and diminishing whispers and treat the path you walk with kindness.
But the past is fog. Learn from it, yes, but do not cling to it. The vapour will only twist and coil from your hands; it is gone.
Before I turn to this month’s question – our last for the year – I have one terribly exciting announcement to make, my darlings! My little sojourn with NUPSA this year has been such delicious fun (and your letters of thanks so touching) that I have decided to stay on as NUPSA’s monthly advice columnist in 2019.
Isn’t it wonderful? Oh, the adventures we’ll have together.
As a student, I’m pretty poor most of the time, so I don’t really get a chance to experience fine dining. Do you have any cheap suggestions on how to spice up student cuisine and make it more exciting?
Sick of Schnitzel
Dear S. Schnitzel,
First of all, darling, my suggestions are free (though anything but cheap), so you needn’t worry there. Your question is one I commonly receive; we all eat, from kings to paupers, and in every nation across the globe – except for Madonna, of course (whom, as I understand it, hasn’t allowed a single crumb to pass her lips in years) – and so the food we eat, and the manner in which we eat, concern us a great deal.
But when it comes to ‘fine dining’, there is a misconception here I feel I must address. Many students (and street musicians, who live on similar income) tell me that they wish they could feast like the rich – as if we were all sitting down to a mighty banquet every evening, a bounteous horn of champagne and venison, before cavorting around a huge bonfire like the Romans of old. (And yes, admittedly, we do this on occasion.) But the wealthy, it may surprise you to learn, live on the idea of food rather than the reality of it. Quantity is subservient to quality, and I dare say most of the celebrities you see online consume far fewer calories than you do, even on your limited budget.
The reasons for this, quite simply, are vanity and the illusion of restraint. People who eat less are generally thinner, and more likely to conform to the aesthetic standards of high society; malnutrition also provides a ready excuse for the deep unhappiness, lethargy and ennui that one-percenters carry about themselves at all times. It’s much easier to say, “Oh, sorry, I skipped breakfast this morning,” than, “I’m a 29-year-old luxury hotel heiress plagued by the constant realisation I’ve never contributed anything of worth to society.” (I speak hypothetically, of course.)
In any case, ‘fine dining’ – or ‘gastronomical pioneering’, or whatever else you wish to call it – usually amounts to fifty grams of edible material on a one-kilogram plate, arranged by some infernal geometry to look as much like modern art as it does like food. Fine dining is all about style, not substance, and so even a layman such as yourself can emulate it with surprising ease.
Let us take, for example, your schnitzel. For the moment (I imagine), it is student cuisine: laid out like a corpse on a mortuary slab, smothered in chips and swimming in a sea of gravy. Hardly fine dining. But let’s do something about that, shall we? I’ll show you how.
Take everything on your plate and quarter it. I don’t know how big your schnitzel is, nor precisely how many chips you’ve been served, but these are irrelevant. Quarter everything. Make four equal plates; they must be absolutely equal, down to the microgram. Use a ruler if necessary. (To quarter the gravy with precision, a syringe or eyedropper is handy.)
How foamy is that gravy? Not foamy enough, I’ll hazard. Foam is the purest and most essential platform on which fine dining rests; anything thicker or firmer is considered common. Introduce some egg whites or lecithin, than whip that sauce until it floats on air. (Your quarter-schnitzels will breathe a sigh of relief.)
Now that the portions and texture are correct, all the components of the dish must be arranged as artistically and impractically as possible for the diner. Try not to sit the meat flat on the plate; vertical is best, but if it cannot be achieved, try to arrange the quarter-chips in a sort of lean-to to prop it up. Or you could arrange them in a small cubist scene from Cossi Fan Tutte, or – if you’re feeling playful – in a scale model of the stadium seating from Madison Square Garden! The wealthy can dip their toe in the mainstream too, you know.
The plate itself, if possible, should also be of a strange and unaccommodating shape, fundamentally unsuited to the meal. And remember, above all else: symmetry is your enemy.
The final touch: this element of fine dining is more important than all the others combined. Your dish must have a narrative, true or not, to elevate it beyond the base sustenance of ordinary people. If your schnitzel is veal, where did the cow come from? (Denmark and Belgium play well, but if you’re unsure, don’t overreach.)
What was its name? What were its achievements in life, and how heroic was its death? Fine dining demands sacrifice; a cow that died in the arms of its lover, or headbutting a helpless child from the path of a speeding bus, will taste far better to the discerning pallet than one that lumbered stupidly through the doors of an abattoir.
Your chips will need stories too, of course. (A separate one for each would be best, if you can manage it.) Where were the potatoes grown? And how were they grown? In a field of orchids and lilies, soaked in Chablis and listening to Mozart, perhaps? I’m sure you can see how this would enhance their flavour.
Narrative is what truly distinguishes fine dining. It is the pièce de résistance, that little spark of magic that tells the diner, you are superior, and so everything you put in your mouth should be superior.
So you see, darling, fine dining is perfectly achievable, even on a student’s modest income. Style isn’t about cost; it demands only a little energy and creativity, both of which I’m sure you possess in abundance. Bon appétit!
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