As John Godfrey Saxe once said: “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”
Making a planning decision at Dublin City Council can be compared, perhaps surprisingly, to cooking up a sausage or some other dish in the somewhat anarchic kitchen of a reasonably well-oiled restaurant.
Step inside. Welcome to our planner’s kitchen.
Imagine that in this kitchen (read: planning department), where the dishes (planning decisions) are made, there are hundreds of shelves of ingredients (planning policy), but just one overriding cookbook (the city development plan).
This is the workplace to a bevy of hard-working cooks (planners) busily rustling up the dishes (planning decisions) to serve up to the customer (planning applicants) on the restaurant’s dining floor.
Meanwhile, an even harder-working team of waiters (administrative staff) races around between the demanding “customers” and precious “cooks”, taking orders, taking insults, calming nerves and endeavouring to deliver a “dish” (any dish) on time.
These “dishes” are sometimes elegantly crafted, sometimes under- or over-cooked, many times delayed, and on occasion utterly ruined.
Some of these dishes go straight into the bin, never to be see, eaten or read by the waiting customer.
To understand the kitchen, it is important to understand the role of the cookbook (the city development plan).
A new cookbook is produced every six years or so as the old one, ragged with use, is simply tossed in the bin.
It is always beautifully illustrated, imaginatively (re)written – the recipes rarely change – and is potentially a source of inspiration for wondrous dishes for cooks with imagination.
Like most cookbooks, the planners’ cookbook is paged through and admired for its pictures and flowery language, but is rarely read. Save, that is, for some of its specific and peculiarly prescriptively detailed suggestions on pot ratios.
This brings us to the first great rule of any successful dish: the ingredients, or to more precise, the balance and mix of ingredients.
The number of potential ingredients that can go into any dish are in theory infinite. But any planning cook will tell you it’s the exact mix, the exact proportions, the delicate balance, that’s the key. Two grams of this, half a kilo of that, a litre of X, a pinch of Y and the zest of a Z, and … voila!
In the “making” of their dish, every cook in our planner’s kitchen can draw upon all sorts of ingredients to determine the flavour, content, and acceptability of their dish. Some draw on inspiration, experience, or imagination. Others can’t, or don’t.
The cookbook can unfortunately be narrowly interpreted, and in the hands of an “Inherently Cautious” cook, can become nothing more than a rulebook to be slavishly and mathematically interpreted to methodically dish-out miserly portions of repetitiously bland, slightly bitter-tasting dishes.
Images of beautiful dishes are overlooked in favour of the index on how to work out the exactitudes of pot ratios and side coverages.
What is perhaps not appreciated outside the planners’ kitchen or the restaurant floor is that despite all cooks having access to and full use of the same cookbook and the same ingredients, what each cook personally chooses to take down from shelf and throw into the mix – what they have a particular taste for – can and often does determine the outcome of the dish.
A dash of this, a sprinkle of that, a liberal dollop of the other, versus a cautious sprinkle of something else, and the very same recipe ends up tasting and looking completely different.
This explains why very simple orders can generate very diverse responses from different cooks. This at-times wild inconsistency is tolerated by the punters because it’s usually impractical for an individual customer to find out what other customers’ dishes look or taste like.
This often results in a situation where the customer at Table A in the north-west of the dining area (assigned to an “Inherently Cautious” cook) is likely to be repeatedly given a very small serving of a standard dish, whereas over at Table B in the south-east, he or she may be served something more imaginative and generous by a “Solo Operator” cook, a type known for flaunting the rules of the cookbook.
“Inherently Cautious” cooks often ask the hassled waiter to find out from the hungry customer why they actually ordered their dish. What’s their motivation for doing so? How would they “justify” their tastes or “further explain” their right to even be at the table in the first place?
An “Inherently Cautious” cook with an over-dependence on the rigid details of pot ratios and side coverage can simply ruin a potentially delightful experimental dish, which then will sadly never see the light of day.
An inexplicable last-minute decision to lop off the top of the dish, an urge to slice through it and throw half of it in the bin, is surprisingly common.
“Inherently Cautious” cooks also have an inherent belief that most customers are a tad gluttonous – greedy even – and that cutting back on their quantities is a fundamental part of any successful dish. They believe they have a moral responsibility to ration because too much of a good thing is destructive.
There is also tendency on the part of other cooks, those who fancy themselves as the architects of a nouvelle cuisine, to focus on how the dish looks – paying a great deal of attention to pretty external crusts and tastefully applied glazing – rather than how it tastes or works.
These “Wannabe Architect” cooks get out their measuring tape to check the height of the layers in any cake or soufflé.
Timing is crucial to cooking any dish. A successful dish tends to take seven to eight weeks. Any longer and there is a risk the dish (or customer) gets burned.
Sometimes, due to indecisiveness (the cook keeps changing their mind on what they trying to deliver), or a lack of experience (the cook doesn’t understand the recipe), the dish will be delayed for months.
Meanwhile, some very simple dishes are made in a matter of minutes, but kept in storage for weeks, unbeknownst to anybody.
Sometimes an individual cook will unexpectedly go AWOL at the very last minute just as a half-prepared dish is due to be served to the anxiously awaiting customer.
In most cases, this is due to sickness. On occasion, however, it happens because a cook is panic-stricken by the Herculean task facing them – the dish is simply too big and too complex and there isn’t enough time.
Have no fear, a more senior and level-headed cook usually steps in to the rescue … and promptly hands this challenging dish over to a junior trainee cook, who may have just arrived just a few days ago to the kitchen.
With perhaps minutes to go – an impatient customer is anxiously waiting, a panicking waiter is pacing up and down the kitchen – this very junior cook somehow manages against all the odds to pull the dish together.
The level-headed senior cook returns to briefly taste the dish and, with a pinched nose, perhaps adds a tiny sprinkle of their own favourite spice, and the dish is allowed to leave the kitchen. The senior cook congratulates the very junior cook on a job well done.
It’s not uncommon that exasperated, well-respected or frequent customers will hassle the waiter to hurry the cook to speed up the dish. Some cooks oblige. Most scoff, and a few may even decide to keep the dish simmering for longer than strictly necessary.
Where things can and do go horribly wrong with timing is a very last minute (very often THE very last minute) panicky change of heart. A perfectly good dish lovingly made over hours, days, or sometimes weeks can be destroyed by the heavy hand of a more senior cook.
Dishes have been known to be radically altered in mere minutes – flipped upside down, or turned inside out. At 2pm what looked like a perfectly delightful 10cm storey or layered chocolate cake can at 2:25pm look like a 4cm squat smudge of something else.
Or, one minute a cook is just about to grant the customer’s order, and the next a more senior cook decides the kitchen is going to refuse the customer’s order instead.
Too Many Cooks
The old adage “Too many cooks spoil the broth” is true in any kitchen. In our planners’ kitchen, when too many cooks get involved in a dish it’s usually in one of two ways.
The first is over-consultation and the over-sharing of opinions among the most inexperienced cooks – even while the customer is impatiently waiting on the restaurant floor. Their intentions are good, but the results are usually half-baked.
Different tastes and opinions can lead to an incoherent dish that just ends up looking and tasting, well, off. This is sometimes known in the planners’ kitchen as a “dog’s dinner of a dish”.
The second is the unfortunate habit of different sous chefs of varying levels of seniority deciding to add or subtract, at different times, unbeknownst to each other, and sometimes for no particular reason at all, pinches of this and dollops of that.
This is an altogether more subtle and hidden cooking process. Less of a dog’s dinner, but certainly a recipe for disaster. The dish can end up unworkable, inedible, or downright stomach-churning to the paying customer.
Now if you ever visit this particular restaurant and your hopes get burnt, your dreams go up in flames, or it’s simply too difficult to swallow the planning decision served up to you, these tasty titbits of information may assist you, if not in querying the pickle you find yourself in, then at least in mulling over how your planning decision may have been made.
I hope you haven’t lost your appetite for a more beautiful, liveable, and urban Dublin.
Next week: How space and time in Plan-et Dublin gets distorted inside Spaceship DCC. With everything from black holes to white dwarfs and futuristic pod living.
If you missed it, check out part one of this insider’s guide to Plan-et Dublin: on the different breeds of planners who walk the corridors of the council’s planning department.