Art of Understatement: Florence Knight

 

With the arrival of the new Audi A8, we speak to Florence Knight, former head chef at Polpetto and Sunday Times food columnist, about subtlety, the importance of quality ingredients and how to excite diners without going over the top.

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How does subtlety play a role in your cooking?

I believe in sourcing the best quality ingredients at the height of their season and working hard to coax out their inherent flavour. I like to see ingredients in their most natural form, rather than overly processed. So I’ll spend extra time and attention on what might be seen as small things, but that mean a lot to me—like keeping and protecting the tails of a roasted beetroot or the green tops from radishes.

I begin a dish by working with one ingredient as the main player then only sparingly introducing new flavours. I find it cleaner on the palette and more elegant.

I do my best to plate food with a light touch that looks natural without being over-dressed. It’s all about finding a balance. It’s also important to me not ‘over touch’ food. Let it be natural on the plate and let the whole ingredient speak. I don’t like seeing things that are too chopped, or too prepared.

How will this influence your new restaurant?

Subtlety will always play a huge part in the way I cook, from the choice of ingredients right down to the description of the food on the menu. There’s something exciting about having food served and not having it overly explained. It makes one think a little more, and the surprise that it creates, is important.

Why do you opt for understated over showy?

Some would say that it’s easier to put something on a very fancy plate and go over the top with garnishes. It’s much more challenging and interesting as a chef to take things that possibly aren’t as sought-after—like an underused cut of meat or a vegetable that's not so readily available, and introduce the diner to a new experience.

Can pared back food like this still have a big impact on diners?

Absolutely. For me, as a chef and a diner, I think it’s much more exciting. You can distract people with too many colours, or textures. They can miss what you’re really trying to emphasise on the plate.

What chefs or restaurants are doing a great job of serving refined dishes?

People who do subtlety well often have a good sense of themselves. To be understated like them, it’s important to say no to trends and stay true to yourself.

There’s been a massive move towards chefs, people like Ollie Dabbous, doing refined food, but in more casual, accessible dining spaces.

Another example is Lyle’s, which has a clean, simple environment, that lets the food have your full attention.

What’s the secret to creating an understated dish?

Quality of the ingredients is key. As soon as you start stripping things away, there’s nowhere for a chef to hide. A good test for any cook is to ask them to make a balanced dressing and plate some soft salad leaves. You would be surprised how many pitfalls there are. Everything has to be perfect—the ingredients, the balance of flavours and the technique.