Most of those who watched Disney’s masterpiece, Ratatouille, fell deeply in love with it. It was not only the unique concept, the incredible animation, and the vibrant Parisian feel that blew everybody away. It was also the incredible attention to detail the characters paid to cooking that was incredibly unique, and that is actually one profound element of French cuisine and the French culinary culture in general.
That said, many have wondered if any of those who frequented Gusteau’s ever went there to satisfy their hunger as much as they wanted to indulge in a delectable meal. The meal portions were too small to imply they were any filling. However, they were so visually appealing and super delicious that they turned eating from just a routine to survive into a wholly pleasing dining experience.
Still, having this happen at an upscale restaurant in Paris somewhat sounds normal. In our minds, Paris is always associated with high-quality, delicate food that is typically served in small portions. This is actually the essence of a modern culinary movement called contemporary cuisine. In this article, we will explore what contemporary cuisine is and see how its evolution shaped the way we are currently consuming food.
Contemporary cuisine, which is also known as contemporary food or modern cuisine, is a modern culinary movement that incorporates many different culinary styles and combines old and new cooking methods, ingredients and flavours with the modern trends created by the cultures of the world.
Put more simply, chefs following the contemporary cuisine approach tend to mix unusual ingredients, cooking techniques and culinary influences from the world communities to create new and creative dishes that satisfy both the eyes and the taste buds and convert eating into a vibrant experience.
Contemporary cuisine also focuses on using fresh, in-season and local ingredients and cooking them in a way that preserves their nutritional value to create new healthy dishes. So yes, food produced in a contemporary way happens to be way more nutritious than that cooked in traditional cuisines.
In this context, contemporary cuisine was also impacted by globalisation. As countries are now closer to one another than ever and, therefore, more influential, an enormous variety of foreign food products, cooking traditions and methods burst open. This typically resulted in endless possibilities of new dishes that match every taste, need and preference.
This makes contemporary cuisine pretty much based on innovation, where chefs have full freedom to explore different flavours, ingredients and techniques to create new, tasteful dishes.
Evolution of Contemporary Cuisine
The origin of contemporary cuisine can be traced back to the second half of the 20th century. It started in Paris and gradually spread to the rest of Europe and the world. The more time went by, the more prominent this contemporary cuisine movement became, crystallising during the 1970s and 1980s.
So, how exactly did everything start?
In post-World War II Europe, a vigorous invasion of the consumerism culture shook the devastated continent. More and more people gradually turned into consumers, buying and consuming more products that they did not necessarily have or need before. More and more people opened up to the new modern products coming from the other side of the Atlantic.
As a way to cope with modernity, French chefs started experimenting with different ingredients that they were not familiar with before. They combined cooking techniques and came up with brand new ones to create new innovative dishes and, therefore, offer more diversified menus.
In the 1970s, a few French chefs led by Alain Chapel, Michel Guérard and Paul Bocuse called for abandoning the traditional, elaborate and mostly heavy style of cooking in French cuisine and instead going simple. They wanted to focus more on quality rather than quantity and create lighter yet more innovative dishes.
This approach came to be known as Nouvelle Cuisine or contemporary cuisine.
Characteristics of Contemporary Cuisine
The more the world has become globalised, and countries came closer in the following decades and with the rise of Internet usage, the contemporary cuisine movement started to spread and influence other countries and cuisines as well. The huge variety of ingredients that became available to chefs allowed more innovation and creativity that gradually made this new culinary movement take shape.
There are four main characteristics of contemporary cuisine.
1. Fresh Ingredients
Besides coming up with new cooking techniques, chefs in contemporary cuisine place massive importance on using fresh, high-quality ingredients and natural flavours in order to create more delectable dishes. They prefer organic, free-range that were most preferably grown locally.
This was actually mentioned in the Ratatouille film, if you remember well. In the scene where Collette is teaching Linguine how to do things right, she says, “The only way to get the best produce is to have first pick of the day and there are only two way to get first pick. Grow it yourself, or bribe a grower.”
Now, apart from the bribing thing, to get this high-quality first pick, chefs carefully choose which farmers to deal with. They need ones who pay attention to things like keeping soil healthy, using organic fertilisers, and doing hand weeding to grow organic crops that have more enhanced and profound flavours as well as nutritional values.
2. Healthy Dishes
While using fresh and non-chemically-treated ingredients has a substantial positive impact on health, another characteristic of contemporary cuisine is actually producing healthy dishes that meet the dietary needs of the guests. This does only stem from using organic ingredients but also extends to the methods of cooking.
Contemporary cuisine also pays good attention to the new dietary trends that came up during the past century. So contemporary chefs focus on creating healthy, delicious dishes that still meet the dietary and healthy needs of different people. These include, but are not limited to, vegetarian and vegan dishes, low-carb dishes or gluten-free dishes.
3. Visually Appealing Presentation
Another essential characteristic of contemporary cuisine is how artistically presented the dishes are. Contemporary chefs always want every dish to be unique and displayed in a way that appeals to people.
More elaborately, chefs pay close attention to the arrangement of the food items in the dish and how much their colours are matching one another. The more beautifully presented a dish is, the more elegant it will feel and the more satisfying it will be for the guests.
In fact, food plating is a common art nowadays that is essential for every contemporary chef to master in order to provide a well-decorated dish and add more value to the dining experience.
4. Smaller Portions
In contemporary cuisine, portions are usually smaller than usual. As we have seen in the film, the Ratatouille dish that Anton Ego was blown away by had a very small portion that no way was filling but was instead intended to offer more pleasure.
As it turns out, smaller portions are more likely to make us more excited to try a new dish. We start to take small bites, and we taste them more thoroughly without even realising it. Smaller portions actually contribute to offering a truly indulgent eating experience and an even memorable one.
That being said, there might be another reason why fancy contemporary restaurants serve smaller portions. Some believe that smaller portions are not a necessary element that French chefs enlisted within the characteristics of their Nouvelle Cuisine. On the contrary, it was rather a result of using high-quality ingredients that are often hard and, therefore, expensive to get. So serving smaller portions was a must.
But apart from that, serving smaller portions actually helps minimise waste as much as possible. Contemporary chefs use new and creative ways to utilise every part of the ingredient. If they have leftovers, they repurpose them in new dishes. This, in return, creates less waste and has a better effect on the environment.
Consuming smaller portions also teaches guests the very same thing. Traditionally, when food is served in large quantities, like in an all-you-can-eat buffet, people tend to get themselves way more food than they actually need to be full. So, all of that that they do not eat ends up as waste, and this directly affects the environment.
However, when people are only served smaller portions, which they can definitely finish, they learn gradually to eat enough and not too much, better use their food resources, produce less waste and protect the planet.
So yes, serving smaller portions does emphasise minimalism. In fact, contemporary cuisine’s tendency to simplicity pairs well with the ever-growing minimalism movement that many people are adopting nowadays as a way to break free from maximalism and consumerism and encourage more mindful consumption.
Trends of Contemporary Cuisine
As a result of all of that and with the continuous evolution and development of contemporary cuisine, these four characteristics and many more influenced many current culinary and dietary trends which a growing number of people are trying and following.
In a previous story, we have discussed protein alternatives that best suit anyone following a vegetarian or a vegan diet. These are a trend of contemporary cuisine as they call for less meat consumption for better health and a cleaner environment.
Some of these alternative protein sources were natural, such as legumes, nuts, seeds and grains and others were artificial like the many plant-based meat products that add additives to non-mean protein to make it look and taste exactly like meat.
The growing consumption of fungi is also another trend of contemporary cuisine. Fungi are highly nutritious foods that can help maintain good health without having a bad impact on the environment.
In the next section, we are going to explore two more common contemporary cuisine trends which you, yourself, might be familiar with.
If you are into improving your overall lifestyle and getting more productive in particular, you must be familiar with those millions of my-6:00-am-morning-routine videos on YouTube where people usually eat a bowl of oatmeal topped with chia seeds, Greek yoghourt, peanut butter and a mix of berries for breakfast.
Well, this very bowl is a trend of contemporary cuisine which the Internet is very much helping to spread.
If you think about it, you will find out that this very common oatmeal breakfast bowl fully matches the characteristics of contemporary cuisine. First of all, it is a relatively small portion. It is pretty healthy, given that it incorporates fresh, balanced ingredients. It is also, usually, presented in a visually appealing way.
Oatmeal is just one type of many currently trending bowl meals which all share the same composition: a base, a topping and a garnish. Bowl meals can be savoury as well, served not only for breakfast but also as quick lunches, snacks or even dinners and typically providing a good combination of nutrients.
In this context, bowl meals are pretty versatile, and anyone can play with the ingredients to come up with their very own bowl meal. For instance, they can add noodles, pasta, or rice as the base, top them with minced meat, chicken, salmon, mushrooms or beans as the protein source, choose whatever vegetables they like and sprinkle any sauce of their choice and every time, a new bowl meal will come up.
Another common trend that is a great display of contemporary cuisine is what is known as ethnic fusion dishes or fusion cuisine. This refers to the new culinary creations that combine different dishes from different countries or blend two different cooking methods. These creations then become a sign of unity between countries.
That being said, fusion dishes do not necessarily need to combine certain dishes, but they can combine only ingredients. A fusion dish can result from making a dish from a certain cuisine with spice and ingredient replacements from another cuisine. For instance, using seaweed wrappers to make spring rolls.
This creates endless possibilities and opens the door for more creativity and more fusion creations.
While this theoretically sounds so nice, fusion dishes can pretty much introduce unexpected flavours that some may find both surprising and delightful, but others still consider strange. Yet, no matter how they turn out, every fusion dish is still unique, and more people may gradually accept it the more they try it, just like our experience with the sweet and sour sauce.
One of the very famous fusion dishes is the sushi burrito or Sushirrito. As you may have guessed, this dish mixes between Japan’s first dish, sushi and Mexican burritos. No, they do not roll rice and raw fish in tortilla bread. Instead, sushi is made using its full original ingredient but into the cylindrical shape of the burrito.
Another example is Indian tacos which replace tortillas with Indian bread to make Mexican tacos. Likewise, there are kimchi quesadillas where a tortilla bread is filled with the famous Korean fermented cabbage, combined with cheese, stir-fried and cut into quesadilla triangles.
Contemporary cuisine is an ever-evolving culinary movement that has been shaping the way we eat for over half a century now. Every day, more trends emerge, offering an even wider range of possibilities to enjoy food even more. It also changes fast in a way that makes us even more excited about the new trends yet to appear in the near and far future that can help bring us more together.