Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen
The professional food world is giving me a headache.
As in some kind of cultural food fight, forces are battling for dominance, although most of the time it doesn't seem like one faction even knows the others exist. But what they have in common is a media bullhorn that may be too loud to hear us talking back.
First up are the eater-tainment folks. I've borrowed this clumsy word from the restaurant world to encompass the Food TV-Iron Chef-Chopped-Top Chef-MasterChef televised approach to cooking where food is a prop, celebrity judges rule, and no one seems to actually ever eat more than an assessing nibble. Whenever I watch Padma Lakshmi holding court at the head of the Top Chef dining table I want to give the woman a baked potato with sour cream and encourage her to dig in.
I know I sound like I don't know how to have fun. But there are a couple of generations who are at risk of thinking that this is how you cook. Many of them grew up without a parent in the kitchen and if the media is their only cooking teacher, they may start throwing fistfuls of salt into every recipe, as Food TV's Anne Burrell does, or think that if they can't assemble a dish in two minutes like Today's Al Roker (and his off-camera battery of food stylists), that they're a failure and will more likely call for take-out than set their own cooking pace.
Cookbooks seem somewhere between lost and confused as they veer away from big league restaurant chefs to more books from celebrities (Mario Lopez? Really?). Or we get tomes about individual ingredients, as with the new Sugarbaby, touted by its publishers because "…no one has set out to do a cookbook with recipes on cooking with sugar (on the stovetop) -- until now." How have we managed to survive without a recipe for cotton candy?
Guilt At The Grocer's
Then there are the purists who can make you feel guilty for buying out-of-state blueberries and are smugly judgmental that you don't grow/cultivate/butcher/pickle/sausage grind your own. It's enough to make you want to lie about being a member of a CSA or food coop. Don't get me wrong. I am totally an advocate for creating a sustainable food supply and buying from local farmers, I am devoted to my local weekly Greenmarket, I know we must be knowledgeable about where our food comes from, and heck -- one of the core missions of The City Cook is to promote small New York food merchants. But it can be both costly and time-consuming to stay on the true food path. Most of us have to make choices and we shouldn't be made to feel bad because we do.
As cooking has entered popular culture and developed caché, and as artisans and food politicians gain in influence, agribusiness is working hard to both subvert and subsume this emerging new world of food. They still have the deepest pockets, control the prime real estate on supermarket shelves, can spend millions on renaming high fructose corn syrup "corn sugar," and have the most lobbyists to protect their government hand-outs: Twinkies cost less than an organic apple because of subsidies and where is the sense in that?
Food In The Laboratory But No Eating Allowed
And then there's molecular gastronomy. This study of food chemistry combined with the use of unconventional technology has produced an intellectual avant garde of cooking to create innovative flavors, textures and structures. If you've seen the word "powdered" on a menu it's probably come out of a kitchen that is as much a laboratory as it is a place to cook.
Spanish Chef Ferran Adrià is praised for legitimizing this type of cooking at El Bulli, his landscape-changing restaurant near Barcelona where he calls his work "deconstructivist." I never ate at Adrià's restaurant even though a few years ago I was within 25 kilometers of the place. Maybe I just didn't have enough patience to get a reservation or the money to pay for the meal. Or maybe I just wasn't curious enough and preferred seafood paella. But I give Adrià credit for bringing technology to cooking in a way that provoked a fresh look at what chefs can do in a modern kitchen. It changed things forever, even if not everywhere or for everyone.
Chef Adrià is closing El Bulli in July. Last year Jay McInerney wrote about its legacy and the end of this culinary era in Vanity Fair. See our link below.
Whether it's in painting, architecture, music, film, literature -- or cooking -- the avant garde is essential to challenge the status quo and inspire innovation. Some of what is invented may be brash or downright ridiculous, but from the non-conformist comes the ideas that keep us modern.
Still, when it comes to the avant garde in food, what about flavor?
In the U.S., Grant Achatz's Chicago restaurant, Alinea, is the mother church of molecular gastronomy. He's won all the awards that are win-able: he's been named the James Beard best American chef, been given 3 stars by Michelin and 5 by Mobil, and convention calls his the best restaurant in the country. But Chef Achatz has also been aggressively treated for stage-4 tongue cancer and while the last public reports are that he is thankfully cancer free, it's also said that while he continues to invent dishes like lamb with akudjura, nicoise olive, and a veil of eucalyptus, he needs others to taste for him.
Film critic Roger Ebert has had his own health nightmares after surgery for thyroid cancer that took away both his voice and also his ability to eat. But that hasn't stopped him from writing a rice cooker cookbook called The Pot And How To Use It.
I suppose you could liken both Achatz and Ebert to doing as Beethoven who wrote symphonies when he was deaf. Some human acts -- in this case, eating and enjoying food -- are so sensory and sensual that our memories let us essentially experience them without taking a bite. Or can they?
And now Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, one of Microsoft's founders and the head of a technology investment company, has produced a provocative new book called Modernist Cuisine, The Art and Science of Cooking.
I admire its achievement. It's 6 volumes, 43 pounds, 2,438 pages, and as Dr. Myhrvold likes to often mention in interviews, each set has 4 pounds of ink. It took five years to produce with two co-writers and a core team of 18+ chefs working in a laboratory, complete with a $250,000 freeze dryer, that Dr. Myhrvold built within his Intellectual Ventures company in Seattle. The book combines technology with food science and history. What it doesn't seem to be about, however, is eating.
In a Q&A about his book in Fine Cooking magazine, Dr. Myhrvold included a recipe from Volume 5, this one for a hamburger. It requires (his words) "…a bun toasted in beef suet; the glaze on the bun is made from suet, tomato confit, beef stock, and smoked salt. Then comes layers of maitake mushrooms and sous vided (Me: is that even a verb?) romaine lettuce that's been infused with liquid hickory smoke. Next, a vacuum-pressed tomato, a slice of cheese made from Emmental, Comté, and wheat ale; and a beef short rib patty that's been ground to vertically align the grain. Next a layer of cremini mushroom ketchup with fish sauce."
Reading this made me want a peanut butter sandwich.
In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Dr. Myhrvold talked in detail and with passion for his book's effort, thoroughness, and scope. But in the entire 16 1/2-minute interview, not once did he use the words "flavor" or "taste." I get the point that he's an advocate for using technology in the kitchen. But he also claims to be interested in food. As with Roger Ebert, I question whether you can write about cooking food without also writing about eating it. But the Myhrvold book is sold out everywhere and even at $625 a copy, is waitlisted. So someone must want to know how to sous vide some Romaine… .
And in the midst of all this, the rest of us are trying to figure out what to make for dinner.
I think we should turn down the volume on the food media, get re-acquainted with our Greenmarket and neighborhood markets, find a real butcher (if you live in New York, our shopping database can help you get started), open our copies of Julia Child, and make some Coq au Vin and mashed potatoes. You won't need a computer-guided rotary evaporator for the potatoes, a heritage breed bird for the stew, or Tom Colicchio in your dining room to tell you if everything's been properly cooked.
One taste -- yours -- in your city kitchen is all you need.