Deconstruction isn’t a brand-new concept, but it is a trend that is rapidly catching on, especially in the pastry kitchen. It is all about playing around with the presentation of a dish, while maintaining its overall taste and identity. The purists are strictly against it, always faulting it in some way or the other. Others tend to be a bit more open-minded and embrace the change, and see what can be done with this new toolbox of opportunities. Let’s take a look at both schools of thought, and try to understand their views.
Conceptualizing a dish involves putting your ideas down on paper in the form of a sketch. And since I am terrible at drawing, I decided to seek the help of an expert. My friend and junior Souvik Das is an incredible artist. Using his brilliant sketches, let us explore deconstruction in some detail, how it can go terribly wrong, and how it can create a masterpiece. To keep things simple, we will limit our discussion to a single dish, a classic blueberry cheesecake.
A slice of blueberry cheesecake. A crumbly, buttery biscuit base; a rich and creamy layer of cream cheese; topped with a vibrant, slightly chunky blueberry coulis. It’s pristine, it’s simple, it’s familiar. All you need is a spoon to gentle push through those layers: first the sticky coulis, then the dense yet light cheesecake, and finally the brittle snap of the base as the spoon strikes the plate. You pick up all three layers in a big spoonful, put it in your mouth, and savour the moment.
Let’s try deconstructing the dish and play around with the plating. The three layers are put in a glass, but in reverse order, such that the coulis is at the bottom and a buttery crumb tops the dish. This “Inverted Cheesecake in a Glass” is definitely innovative. But does it add anything to the dish? Sure, it looks different, but it is better looking than a slice of cheesecake?
This is a bad application of deconstruction, and it is versions like these which bother the purist camp: why bother tampering with time-tested classics when the end result tastes the same? More importantly, there are some subtle components that an inexperienced chef will miss out on while trying to deconstruct a classic. The cheesecake layer in the classic version has the paradoxical dense yet light texture. For the inverted version, you need a thinner mix that can be piped or spooned into the glass.
Also, consider the biscuit base in our classic version. Sure, it’s crumbly, but it still holds its own, supporting the layers above. A mound of powdered crackers doesn’t really do it justice. You’re missing out on the subtle snap, that little bit of give when you cut it with the spoon. How do you bring that back into the dish? Add a tuile, a papery thin wafer. Not only does it add that textural snap, it adds another dimension of butteriness to the dish.
How can be play around with the fruit element? We could add fresh berries. Not only does it add a textural pop, the flavour of raw vs cooked fruit is radically different, so it brings back some freshness to the dish. You could play around with different berries and try making a variety of components which add an array of textures to the dish, something which wouldn’t have been possible with a classic mixed berry coulis, where all the flavours and textures would meld into a uniform whole.
Let us now examine this attempt at deconstructing a cheesecake. A pristine quenelle sits atop a buttery crumb, adorned with a tuile, whose rustic irregularity sharply contrasts the picture-perfect quenelle. A slick of blueberry coulis is brushed across the plate. Dots of raspberry coulis, tiny cubes of blueberry pastille and fresh blackberries are strewn randomly on the plate. That’s three berry elements with three colours, three flavours and three textures. Finally, tiny dollops of torched meringue for some added sweetness and a sprig of mint for colour.
This is deconstruction done right: you not only create a pretty-looking dish, you add more textures and components to create an end-result with the same flavour profile as the original. Eat everything together and you get a sum greater than its parts. And this is precisely why deconstruction is so challenging and polarizing. In inexperienced hands, you end up with a mediocre tribute to a classic. But with the right approach, you create a dish that gives the original dish a run for its money.
Deconstruction is tricky. Do it only when it adds something to the dish, something more than just a quirky look. Do it when you are sure that your version will evoke the same emotions from the diner as would the original. Because if it doesn’t, why even bother?