“All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.” — Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (1878)

We’ve been discussing plate ups in class the past couple days, the “chef as artist,” and what Nietzsche says resonates with me as one of those aspiring chef/artist types. It’s sometimes overwhelming, especially at this early stage, to consider how much energy is expended in each plate of food. Not just the hours of labor devoted to prep time and service, but the many waking hours (and likely sleeping ones too) given to honing the elements and presentation of the plate until it is perfect. Chef L. showed us this short film by Guy Savoy, and it left me in awe, slightly breathless: spine-shiveringly inspired. But there is much, much work to be done.

*image from thepariskitchen.com

*images from The New York Times

*one of my plates from nutrition class: fresh pasta with tomato sauce, cannellini with sundried tomatoes, sauteed broccoli rabe

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“Know why you cook.”

[This post brings together two previously unrelated drafts that were backed up in my blog writing queue. One was based on a talk I attended last November by René Redzepi, Executive Chef at NOMA, aka the best restaurant in the world. The two-star Michelin restaurant serves modern Nordic fare with an emphasis on foraging, (for) local ingredients, and a philosophy of cooking that celebrates “time and place in Nordic cuisine.” The other “draft” was a lone quote by Gustave Flaubert: “the art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”]

Here is a decent synopsis of the Redzepi talk, which centered on three specific moments that transformed him and helped define his culinary career. I particularly enjoyed his story of transforming the ugliest carrot he had ever seen (his words) into something incredibly beautiful and delicious–by gently sauteing and basting it with butter, treating it as if it were the most expensive piece of meat he could buy. The farmer who dared to send him this first apparent monstrosity now supplies Redzepi with a steady stream of such “vintage” carrots. During the talk, Redzepi also passed around plates of piquant pickled rose petals and ramp buds for the audience to sample. On the whole, he seemed like a pretty low-key guy, soft-spoken, genuine, charismatic in the understated way that people who possess a quiet confidence tend to be. There was a brief Q&A session afterward, during which one person asked the question most relevant to me: what advice can you give to an aspiring, presumably ambitious, chef?

His answer was plain, but full of conviction. “Know why you cook.” He said it again. “Know why you cook.”

When I was going through my blog posts today, this phrase for some reason spoke to me in juxtaposition to the quote by Flaubert. They seem to be saying sort of opposite things: one that you should have an idea of why you’re doing something in order to do it (well); the other, that you’re essentially discovering why you’re doing something as you do it. But what clicked for me just now, is that these two ideas are very much in tune with one another–you can’t know why you cook unless you’re cooking up a storm, and you can’t just hang out waiting for the beliefs that drive your writing to magically reveal themselves before your pen hits the page. One speaks to the process of knowing; the other the importance of it. There’s a reason why you feel compelled to cook, write, or [insert passion of choice]–find it, know it, run with it. God knows how far it will get you.

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Sole roulade with tapenade, pommes puree, vegetable medley, balsamic reduction, beurre blanc

Numbers, knowledge, and a little bit of power

One way of looking at food and cooking is as a numbers game. Especially if you’re calorie-conscious or on a weight-loss regimen, numbers play a critical role in how you maintain or achieve a healthy weight. But even for everyone else, while keeping track of your intake of fat, calories, etc. may not be essential on a daily basis, I would argue that a firm knowledge of what you’re eating, numerically speaking, is important to understanding, assessing, and appreciating food. I’m currently in an introductory class on nutrition and sensory analysis, where we cover the nature of taste, how to perform a sensory analysis, the biochemical structures and bodily functions of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, and how to incorporate more wholesome, nutrient-dense ingredients and low-fat or no-fat methods of cooking and flavoring agents to produce food that provides your body with enough energy, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals, while still tasting good. This last point is critical to acknowledge because, all food trends notwithstanding, we’re told that consumers consider taste to be the #1 factor with regard to food choice. 9 times out of 10, real food consumed with balance, moderation, and variety in mind will bestow you with everything your body needs.

The thing is, we all know that eating isn’t just about obtaining 20-35% of your calories from fats or 28g of fiber. So while knowing these barometers is helpful for eating well, and getting the numbers right might mean good health, health is not the only reason we eat food.* In America, there’s an emphasis on health because our nation lacks it and needs to restore it. Hence all the talk on eating stuff that’s “good for you.” Well, food may mean numbers to your body, but is that what it really means to you? I seriously doubt it.

A couple dishes that exemplify the sorts of dishes we’ve cooked thus far:

wild mushroom and goat cheese tortellini, poached shrimp, tomato sauce with basil

seared scallop, smoked tomato sauce, whole grains salad, spinach

*See the WebMD article, “Michael Pollan’s 7 Rules for Eating,” for a brief discussion of what Pollan calls the ideology of “nutritionism” and the myths it propogates.

Being in the zone

Happy belated Thanksgiving! Hope you had your fair share of turkey and fixins and of course, family dramas; b/c what would a holiday be without some sinfully delicious bickering and inspired choice of sig-Os on the side?

Back at school, I’m in a new trimester — new schedule, new classmates and the like. On top of culinary labs, I’m taking a couple classes to fulfill my academic requirements as well.

I’ve also been thinking about coming up with a more specific focus for this blog. While I enjoy the open-air nature of it, I feel like the possibilities sometimes drown out the inspiration. As I move forward in culinary school, I’m hoping I’m always one step closer to discovering those key ingredients–the herbs and spices, techniques and nuggets of knowledge that get me giddy–the elements that will help shape both this blog and my culinary career.

One important thing I’ve learned so far is this: I love cooking. As in the physical act of it. I haven’t developed a full-blown passion for certain flavors or ingredients, let alone regions or cuisines. But part of what I love about cooking is being “in the zone”: the intense focus and the feeling that nothing else seems to exist. Perhaps you’ve entered it yourself while playing piano or soccer, practicing yoga, writing an essay or story. It’s that state of being so utterly absorbed in doing something to the point that you lose your awareness of it, along with your sense of self, time and your surroundings. L reminded me that it sounded a lot like “flow,” a positive psychology concept first proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. In an interview, he describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”[9] 

That is exactly how I feel a lot of the time when I’m cooking. It’s also when I feel my happiest and most creative. I’m confident my interests in flavors, ingredients, regions and cuisines will reveal themselves in time, and I’m certain that continuing to cook is the best way to ensure their full expression. In the meantime, I’m cooking because that’s when I feel most alive.

Letting the world in

For the past few weeks, I’ve been in and out of a minor funk. Nothing serious, but at times I felt sluggish, distant, unbalanced, a bit off. I’ve been trying to fight off the haze for the last couple days by taking advantage of the beautiful fall weather and foliage in Roger Williams Park. In these periods–after a break-up, a move, hearing some unexpected news–I’ve learned that even though your instinct may be to hole up, allowing yourself to open up to what’s around you is ultimately the key to moving on.

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Inspiration from off the beaten past

As a child, I used to like some oddball ingredients. Chicken feet, beef tripe, pig ears, and bologna were some of my favorite foods. But perhaps my most eccentric penchant growing up was for fish eyes. While my brother dove in for the cheeks, I preferred to stab my chopsticks right in the bulls-eye of the socket and fish out the goopy optical orb. I would stick the whole thing in my mouth, ingest it by some combination of sucking and chewing, and conclude by letting a cleanly polished, perfectly white, perfectly spherical eyeball drop onto my plate. If it weren’t for my parents, who would often save me one cheek in the spirit of fairness, I might would never have known the glories of those precious morsels of meat. I don’t remember when I stopped eating fish eyes–probably around the time I started noticing what I wore and who I hung out with–but sadly, I can no longer bring one anywhere near my mouth. I’ve developed a strong textural dislike of anything resembling slime, and fish eyes are definitely slimy–surprisingly meaty, but slimy nonetheless.

I’m a little sad because I don’t fancy these foods the way I used to. I do still like munching on them on occasion, but as much for the whiff of nolstagia as for the actual pleasure of eating them. However, they’ve evolved from simply foodstuffs into a potential source of creative inspiration for me as an aspiring chef. Artistically, being a chef is about creating food that enables me to define and express myself, and a big part of that process is reincarnating food from my past. Not just re-creating it, but bringing it back to life, perhaps in a different form or dress, and preserving the essence of what it was. Creation as preservation: self-preservation.

Clash of the titans

I’m working on a couple bigger posts, but in the meantime, an hors d’oeuvre, if you please: Frank Bruni’s recent op-ed in the NYT, “Unsavory Culinary Elitism.” Bruni takes on a pretty volatile interface, that between food and class, as he points to a recent clash between two food world titans that “exposes class tensions in the food world that sadly mirror those in society at large. You can almost imagine Bourdain and Deen as political candidates, a blue-state paternalist squaring off against a red-state populist over correct living versus liberty in all its artery-clogging, self-destructive glory.”

Bruni puts Anthony Bourdain on the chopping block for his characteristically blunt and unflattering remarks about Paula Deen, and rightly so, even if Bourdain did have a point, as he usually does. Paula Deen does not help matters by skirting Tony’s apparent concern for her audience’s health, as she seems more intent on landing a low blow of her own. Perhaps she skirts it because there isn’t really a good reason why “regular families” need to add ridiculous quantities of butter to the food they cook at home…though maybe it’s because only then would home-cooked food be preferable to the fast food burgers these families would otherwise be gorging on? I don’t know. But instead, as Bruni points out, with her rhetoric Deen turns the argument into a class issue by targeting the very comfortable perch from which Bourdain speaks. Not that her own perch isn’t just as peachy.

This spat between Bourdain and Paula Deen is exactly that, but the differences in their worldviews when it comes to food does well illustrate the sort of class divisions that Bruni is getting at. The antagonistic and hostile quality of their remarks is reminiscent of the “ill will and polarization” of our politics at large. As we all know, these sorts of petty remarks (“her food sucks”) don’t help the greater public health issue that is at stake and at the heart of this discussion. Neither person seems particularly wed to the cause, but because they are such influential figures in their respective circles, what they say and how they act will reverberate. As people in power, both would do well to spend more time embracing the responsibility to act and speak thoughtfully and less time abusing the privilege of having an open mic.

“What’s It About?”

I’m throwing on my TLG hat for one second to share this beautiful “About” page I just came across:

The Art of Eating is about the best food and wine — what they are, how they are produced, where to find them (the farms, markets, shops, restaurants).

colored squareTradition.
More often than not, the best food and wine are traditional, created when people had more time and when food was more central to happiness than it is today. We look for the logic of geography, methods, and culture that make good food good — that give character and the finest flavor. We visit passionate growers to understand why some raw materials are so much better than others. We seek the most accomplished artisans to understand their methods. Their best products, rare as many are, still set the standards of excellence by which even mass-produced food and drink are judged. Besides superior foodstuffs, we seek exceptional time-honored recipes, the products of generations of cooks. Not that everything old is good. The Art of Eating is also about the new when it’s better.

colored squareSimplicity.
On the farm and in workshops and kitchens, what is treated least usually tastes best. Gentle, minimal treatment produces the clearest, fullest flavor. The best vegetables are in most cases the very freshest, not stored at all but cooked as soon as possible after they are picked. The best olive oil is wholly unrefined. The best hams are patiently dry-cured. The most delicate fresh cheese is made on the farm with raw milk, and the curd is hand-ladled into molds, so it is broken as little as possible. The most flavorful honey is not only unheated but still in the cells of the comb, sealed by the bees under wax. Grapes for the finest wine are pressed, and the maker interferes as little as possible with the natural process after that. In the kitchen, too, the best dishes are generally simple. In the words of the great French critic Curnonsky, “Cooking! That’s when things taste like what they are.”

colored squareA Sense of Place.
The best food and wine have a sense of place that comes from soil, climate, tradition, and all the local influences that as a group exist nowhere else. Certain varieties of plants and breeds of animals evolved under local conditions. (Some places, not only vineyards, are ideal for particular foods.) Local foodstuffs combined with local culinary skills and traditions create the typical flavors of a place. The food and drink in The Art of Eating are mainly French, Italian, and American. Subjects range from great bread in California and Paris to the best chocolate, the most delicate and aromatic olive oil, wines of the Loire Valley, the ideal roast for coffee, dry-aged steak, farm cheeses of Provence, gumbo in Cajun Louisiana, the food and wine of Tuscany, cloth-bound Vermont cheddar, pizza in Naples, the great blue cheese of Roquefort, the current state of food in Paris, and many other, often unusual topics.

I’m inspired both by its content and its writing, which is simple but specific, assertive yet somehow understated–and altogether highly evocative. It’s easy to toss around terms like “cloth-bound” and “dry-aged” without really believing in them and what they stand for, but I believe true conviction stands behind writing as strong as the kind found here, and it inspires me to experience and discover firsthand what makes the best foodstuffs the “best.”

Thoughts on “A Casual Sunday Lunch”

When you think of mealtime on Sundays, I’m sure visions of stacks of pancakes, muffins and scones straight from the oven, french toast dripping with maple syrup, sausage links and crisp bacon slices, fluffy omelets oozing with cheese, and other indulgent offerings come to mind. To me, it also strongly evokes catching up with friends and lingering over several cups of coffee, so eating on-the-go is the last thing I would associate with a casual weekend repast. It never occurred to me to me to pair a proper meal with a subway ride, but I thought it was a fun, provocative idea.

“The subway is a familiar place, providing a necessary means of transportation for many New Yorkers. Its stairwells, turnstiles, platforms, trains and unpredictable elements are all-too-familiar to its dedicated patrons. One begins to know the exact time of travel from one destination to another. One begins to intuit the conditions of a ride, anticipating smooth stretches and knowing when to brace for a jarring turn. Through a series of familiar gestures, presented in commonplace locations in unfamiliar ways, we set out to challenge a habitual experience.”

Probably also because it feels damn good to take on, and pull off, something like that, which warrants going out and drinking obscene amounts of alcohol to celebrate how wicked and awesome you are.

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