Deconstructing the self-serve trend

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Over the past few years, consumers have become increasingly interested in understanding exactly what they are consuming. This has led restaurants, cafes and food producers to spare down their ingredients, converting chemical names into plain speech and allowing individuals to tailor their choices based on their specific preferences. One of the many outcomes of this development has been the ‘deconstructed’ trend. If you’ve been watching the last few series of MasterChef, you will be well acquainted with this trend. According to Fractals, “de-structured” cooking emerged in the early nineties, when Spanish chef Ferran Adriá started to produce dishes that contained all the ingredients and flavours of the original recipes, but presented in a different way.

However, of late, the deconstructed trend has gone from a gastronomical experiment to a widespread trend in fine dining and high-end drinks establishments. In 2016, deconstructed dishes went ‘viral’ on the internet, when a MasterChef contestant created a “deconstructed cheesecake”. Although initially treated humorously, this helped to leverage the trend, which is now widely accepted as a unique and imaginative way to serve food and drinks.

The deconstructed coffee controversy

CAFFEINE / A collection of Melbourne's best coffee places: The Kitchen at Weylandts . . . . Deconstructed long black

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Deconstructed coffee is a trend that has been received with much more cynicism. When writer Jamila Rizvi ordered a coffee from The Kitchen at Weylandts, Melbourne, she was bemused to receive the coffee in three beakers, containing an espresso, hot water and steamed milk. Jamila felt this was taking it too far, as did many of her followers. Lisa Wearmouth, manager of the café, claimed that the product was not a gimmick, but a way to allow customers to personalise their drinks:

"It's a thing for picky drinkers," she said. “When you get someone that comes in and orders a long black with milk on the side, generally they wanted a long macchiato — but they want to choose how much milk they want to put in that coffee. If we just put it all on the table, they can choose what they want and make it how they want to.”

So is deconstructed coffee merely a marketing stunt, or is this truly the latest in foodservice customisation? Well, it’s caught on. At Coffee Project in New York City, the deconstructed latte is sold in a different format as a way to ease people in to trying espresso in its pure form, truly appreciating the constituent elements of the latte on their own. Guests are instructed to drink from right to left, first trying the espresso, then the steamed milk and finally the latte itself. The joint also offers cold-brewed coffee pulled through a tap and infused with nitrogen via an in-house keg, creating a creamy texture without the dairy.

Here, the response has been more positive. In a video review of her visit, Serena Taylor describes this as being “so much more elegant and so much cooler of an experience” than the standard coffee shop fare. Writing for Pure Wow, Lindsay Champion says: “It is really cool to taste the elements separately so you can identify the chocolate and honey flavours of the espresso and the sweetness of the milk in the finished product.” Clearly, many people do see the value in the level of choice provided in deconstructed coffee service. In fact, in a poll by The Age, reporting on Jamila Rizvi’s post, 46% of respondents said that, if served a deconstructed coffee, they would “drink it happily”. One Facebook user said, “I love this idea because you never know how strong a coffee is going to be and you can make it however strong or weak you like it!”

Cocktails en flight

The trend is not only growing in coffee, but in all areas of foodservice. Deconstructed desserts are rife, with cheesecakes being as commonly separated as in their traditional form. Perhaps the latest in the deconstruction revolution is the deconstructed cocktail. In a sense, cocktails have been playful for many years, with martini flights – selections of miniature drinks with the mixers and garnishes on the side - a common feature in many bars. However, this has been developed into more innovative forms of late.

Just like with Coffee Project’s drinks, these de-structured cocktails are served in order to garner a deeper appreciation for individual ingredients and their complex flavour profiles. Considering that spirits themselves feature countless carefully-crafted notes, it makes sense to parse it all down, allowing guests to experience each element for its own merits, as well as then drinking them together in the cocktail.

Mixologist Ravi Aley says: “Making great deconstructed cocktails is a balancing act. It requires the use of the right levels of sweetness, sourness or bitterness. The art of adding flavour while still allowing the character of the base spirit to show through is not an easy task and requires an intimate understanding of the ingredients involved. Many well-constructed cocktails can be broken down into their core components which fit somewhere within the following five categories: Base Spirit –> Sour/Bitter –> Sweetener –> Flavour -> Lengthener. So, it’s possible to break down, de-construct and rejig something as staple as a Mojito, Caprioska or a Cosmopolitan.”

This practice has been taken up by various up-market bars, such as the Pullman hotel in Aerocity, New Delhi where orange marmalade is placed in a glass instead of a shaker and the rest of the alcoholic mix is poured in front of the guest from a tea pot, melting down the marmalade to enhance the taste.

Self-serve deconstructed

So what is the appeal in this trend? “People are looking for coffee equipment to fit into the styling of the restaurant,” Bob Pierce, senior vice president of the Americas for BUNN® tells Restaurant Business Online. “They want it to be cosmetically appealing to their guests.” Clearly, what guests are seeking here is for foodservice to become an experience, a holistic one where the principles of individualism, quality and creativity are embodied in every element of the drink, from ingredients and décor to presentation.

As Fractals explains, besides the experiential element, personalisation is the key draw in deconstructed dishes and drinks:

“The DIY approach to food could be especially engaging for millennials, that want to eat and drink their own way, but also for people of 30-35 years old that is looking for cool and sophisticated experiences. That’s why deconstructed food is now coming back in a new version that is maybe less related to elegant restaurants and more to parties and mundane events with a focus on DIY and extreme personalization.”

Peak hipster or the latest achievement in foodservice personalisation, the deconstructed coffee is certainly making waves.