"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Annals Of A Reformed Foodie–When The Going Gets Baroque, It’s Time To Turn Off The Sous Vide

Frank Hart, executive chef at Mirabelle, a new upscale restaurant in Washington had learned his métier in Lyon, polished it at the Cooking Institute of America  (CIA) in Napa;  worked his way up from small, organic restaurants in Jenner and Mendocino to more well-known brasseries in San Francisco, then on to a stint as a sous-chef in George Bush’s White House, and finally chef of Mirabelle.

Frank prided himself on quality, uniqueness, flavor, and simplicity; and had resisted  the wave of designer chefs who placed more attention on palette and architecture than on taste.  Because of his training and years in France, presentation  for Frank was a matter of complement never contradiction.  While he was attentive to color, texture, and placement, there were no confections, no frivolous bits, dips, and dabs; no complex bowers; and no lone, Cajun-spiced cashew on a field of basil, salsify, with a corona of raspberry coulis, the piece de resistance of the bright new English chef in his new restaurant on the Chesapeake.  Cuisson, perfectly-textured sauces, and unusual but perfectly balanced combinations of ingredients were what Hart was after.

The movie Big Night features two Italian brothers who in the 50s open a restaurant in New Jersey.  For months Primo turned out remarkable, unique, brilliant dishes derived from traditional Italian dishes but transformed into unique unmatched dishes.  Yet despite the best food that South Amboy – or New York City – had ever seen, only a few patrons visited the restaurant; and when they did, they asked for the dishes of Catania, Naples, Abruzzi, and Sicily there mothers had cooked. Primo’s brother suggests that he give in a little and cater to American tastes.  After all, the restaurant was their living, not just a place of haute cuisine. Never, said Primo.  Never. 

Image result for images movie big night

Frank was never a prima donna.  He knew how well he cooked, how other serious cooks respected his judgment, his perfection, and his unique creativity.  They valued his sense of innovation which never relied on artifact or presentation.  To his knowledgeable colleagues and to the loyal and appreciative, conservative patrons of his restaurants, he was simply a master of ingredients with a natural, God-given ability to understand taste.

Rene Redzepi is a Danish chef and co-owner of Noma, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen.  He has become well-known for his foraged menu – sea grasses, wild herbs, wood ear, periwinkles, and sea spiders – and for his minimalist presentation.  One or two periwinkles hidden in a bed of sea oats or a quail egg in a nest of ocean brush. 

For 15 minutes Redzepi and a companion nibbled on various petals, leaves and shoots, attracting stares from onlookers in a campground nearby, who no doubt wondered at their sanity and zest for roughage. “So much of what you see here, it’s edible,” said Mr. Redzepi, who regularly dispatches his staff to collect the scurvy grass and sorrel, as well as what he called sea coriander, beach mustard and bellflowers. All of these make their way into his dishes, along with puffin eggs from Iceland and musk-ox meat from Greenland. (Frank Bruni, NYT, 7.6.10)

Image result for redzepi noma food images

William Deresiewicz wrote an article in the NY Times (A Matter of Taste 10.27.12) in which he contended that not only has food gone Baroque, it has replaced art as creative expression.  Far from applauding this phenomenon, he criticizes the 30-Somethings who have given up the depth, intellectual challenge, excitement of the mind and soul that great art has always produced and become content with the architecture and painterly displays of fish, meat, fruit, and vegetables.

Young men once headed to the Ivy League to acquire the patina of high culture that would allow them to move in the circles of power. Now kids at elite schools are inducted, through campus farmlets, the local/organic/sustainable fare in dining halls and osmotic absorption via their classmates from Manhattan or the San Francisco Bay Area, into the ways of food. Food, for young people now, is creativity, commerce, politics, health, almost religion

A good risotto is a fine thing, says Deresiewicz, " but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.  The foodie culture has developed an elaborate cultural apparatus that parallels the one that exists for art, a whole literature of criticism, journalism, appreciation, memoir and theoretical debate. It has its awards, its maestros, its televised performances. It has become a matter of local and national pride, while maintaining, as culture did in the old days, a sense of deference toward the European centers and traditions — enriched at a later stage, in both cases, by a globally minded eclecticism

The author, however, forgets that we are a nation of faddists  moving from one craze to another, often assembling and conflating them to add cachet.  Hardcore foodies are usually into yoga and biking, hipster clothes and thrift shop fashion. One should not make too much of the foodie craze, because it is already being folded in to popular culture, and will eventually morph into something unexpected.

Bobby Benson is a Los Angeles chef, easily recognized on the Santa Monica beaches thanks to his bright red scarf, Elton John oversized lime green sunglasses, and fanciful plays on knickers and sailor boy outfits.  Food in his restaurant is all about theme - Los Angeles kitsch, retro Hollywood, and hip, gay, beachfront cool.  The food is part of the B-movie cachet – donuts served with dinner, hamburgers with echoes of Rob’s Big Boy, Kahuna burgers, and Whoppers but garnished with bacon, Halloween candy corn, and jimmy-spangled muffins.  He, like Rene Redzepi, has a reservation line filled with Hollywood A-listers. 

He is a fan of Quentin Tarantino, especially Pulp Fiction, and especially the 50s car-themed restaurant where Travolta and Uma Thurman go to eat and dance. The issue is not so much with the foods per se but the iconic nature of them. Ironic has its limits, and while an occasional burger at a White Tower in a sketchy neighborhood is definitely in, a Big Mac is not. The cult demands intent, desire, patience, and time.  The architecture and the painterly display of bits of candied ginger, gooseberries, and organic Malabar cashews have been taking over the food. 

Image result for images johnny restaurant pulp fiction

Not only are professional chefs going overboard, but amateur cooks are spending thousands on state-of-the art grills, expanded power kitchens with industrial-quality Viking stoves, large butcher block centerboards, track lighting, sets of Dehillerin, German Solingen steel, and Japanese sword-edged knives, library shelves filled with spices, and two refrigerators and two freezers.  They concoct Chinese, Lao, Thai, Roma, Kurdish, and Bambara dishes at considerable expense and time.  They photograph their creations, post them on social media, and write about them on blog sights and Messenger. One cook wrote exclusively about sous-vide, a discovery that would revolutionize cooking, guaranteeing through slow cooking perfect cuisson, perfect temperature, and absolute perfection.  There was nothing that he didn’t prepare on his sous-vide machine, nothing he didn’t try. Another foodie wrote about his expresso machine and how he made perfect Italian coffee.  He sourced the beans from a special grower in Brazil, contracted an Italian American roaster in New Haven who roasted in small lots to order.  He bought highly sensitive engineering-quality gauges for pressure, temperature, and time.  He claimed that his coffee was as good as that in Camucia.  It was not.

An American traveler once went to Camucia, a small town in Tuscany; and when he found what he thought was the perfect expresso – strong, but not bitter; creamy, chocolatey, rich, dense, with just the right amount of foam – he asked the bar owner how he did it.  The barista was happy to explain about the ingredients, the machine, the technique, the practice, and the patience.  Without any fancy equipment other than an old, well-seasoned Gaggia, he knew how to make perfect coffee. Just pay attention, said the Italian, pay attention.

Image result for image cafe in italy traditiona gaggia expresso machine

Chefs worldwide have been able to cook with such precision.  The chef at Makoto, a traditional Japanese restaurant in Washington, tested his grilled mackerel for doneness with a long needle which he inserted in the fish, took it quickly out, and put it to his lips.  French chefs have understood cuts of meat, how they respond to heat, and when they are properly cooked.  It is this understanding of meat and the oven or grill in which it is cooked that obviate any sophisticated high-tech mechanisms.

The point is, food is food – sustenance, nourishment, psychological fulfillment.  Making it any more than that suggests that we have too much time on our hands.  Rather than spend time on the pursuit of real art, we fool around with the simplest thing we can manage – cooking – and call it an art form.

The good news is that the Baroque turned Rococo, and then burned itself out, ran into the 19th century which demanded less show and more substance, fewer frills and excess, and far more reflection and consideration.  And so it will be with foodies – they will soon burn themselves out and a new generation of more subdued and serious chefs and cooks will emerge.

Meanwhile the rest of us cook what we learned from our mother, fathers, and grandmothers, what we pick up on the Food Channel, and tidbits and recipes from neighbors.  Although we cook and eat because we have to, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t some fun in preparing something the neighbors might like. 

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