I’ve had plenty of good food in my life. I’m lucky enough to have wonderful chefs as friends, fellow foodie lovers and plenty of restaurants to visit in almost every city I’ve visited. I’ve eaten handmade dumplings with native herbs in New Caledonia, slow-cooked Merino lamb on the side of the mountain, wild venison I shot and butchered myself cooked into a lemon myrtle and chocolate venison pie. I’ve devoured Mark Southon’s pork and puha, along with anything he’s ever made – all delicious but nothing compares to the fresh made habanero mustard on smoked BBQ. Fraser Shenton’s treatment of seafood still inspires me after a single lunch in 2016. Matt Lambert’s degustation at The Musket Room in New York remains a highlight, particularly eating off the green egg in the backyard garden of the restaurant. And in November, I can’t wait to taste more of Sid Sahrawat’s magic now that he and Chand have taken over The French Café. Travel to a city in the world and I’ll give you my list of recommendations compiled from the travellers, cooks, food writers and food lovers I trust most.
But a good dish and a good meal are not the same. I’ve eaten baked beans on toast with melted cheddar on top and felt the joy of laughter, simplicity and friends. I’ve sat cross-legged for the Passover Seder and eaten the maror; the bitter herbs and overcooked lamb but smiled and taken my fill of the sincere prayers. There is an element of ritual in a good meal that you cannot find in food alone.
The sacred ritual of a good meal means a spacious table with cosy seating; a place people can be comfortable to sit and take their time over a meal. There are copious glasses – for water, wine and aperitifs. There is noise, perhaps the pre-requisite; either a table full of people or a room full of strangers or simply a noisy heart, but there must be noise. Scrape of knife on plate, clink of glass against glass, laughter and the dull swoosh of a napkin and crumbs falling to the floor. More laughter. Silence in between mouthfuls, followed by an intense volley of eye contact, smiles and chewing around the table; when food evokes another layer of pleasure on top of pleasure derived from the company. Finally, the ritual is complete when plates are surreptitiously swiped clean with fingers that meet lips and then stacked. The table cloth splashed with wine; that final special bottle opened from the cupboard.
Sometimes, you look up from the best meal you’ve ever had and realise the restaurant has closed around you and the chefs are sitting at the table with you. Sometimes you realise it’s 2am in the morning and your dinner guests are going to need to sleep in the guest room or scattered over the couch. Occasionally, after the best meal you’ve ever had, you clean up after breakfast and start preparing ribs for the slow cooker because someone else is coming for dinner.
There’s no such thing at the best meal, it’s just one that follows on from the next – it’s the always accessible magic of bringing together the elements of table, space, time, food, attention. The best meal I ever had and that I dine from frequently is the way my heart feeds on the intentionality of nourishment with people I care about.