Art of Understatement: Florence Knight

 

With the arrival of the new Audi A8, we speak to Florence Knight, former head chef at Polpo 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 the season, and letting them shine when you’re cooking. I focus on one ingredient, and let the other flavours have a supporting role.

Some people add more and more flavours, I’m always thinking about stripping it right back. That’s elegant cooking, in my opinion.

It’s also important to not ‘over touch’ food. Let it be natural on the plate and let the whole ingredient speak. I hate seeing things that are too chopped, or too prepared.

How will this influence your new restaurant?

There’s nothing concrete because I’m so seasonal, but subtlety will always play a huge part in the way I cook.

It’s the same right down to the menu descriptions. There’s something exciting about having food served and not knowing much about it. It makes your brain think a little more, and the surprise that it creates is important.

Why do you opt for understated over showy?

It’s easier to put something on a very fancy plate and go over the top. It’s much more challenging and exciting as a chef to take things that possibly aren’t as sought-after—like an underused cut of meat.

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 be the star.

What’s the secret to creating an understated dish?

It’s the quality of the ingredients. As soon as you start stripping things away, there’s nowhere for you to hide. That’s why when I give someone a trial, I ask them to make something like a dressing. Everything has to be perfect—the technique and the ingredients.