rumination 31: a martyr and a millionaire…

One of my biggest criticisms about food media today is that they tell us what is “good,” instead of telling us what we need to know in order to determine what is good, for ourselves.  They tell us where to eat and who to know, without a deeper conversation as to why. My recent blog post […]


One of my biggest criticisms about food media today is that they tell us what is “good,” instead of telling us what we need to know in order to determine what is good, for ourselves.  They tell us where to eat and who to know, without a deeper conversation as to why.

My recent blog post about my meal at Kong Hans Kælder touched upon this, and opened a thought thread that I’d like to chase further down the line.  It has to do with quality, and the difference between craftsmanship and artistry, and personal preferences.

Those of you who have read my blog for some time know that I have – with a few exceptions – been fairly critical of Modernist cooking (or, what is otherwise referred to as “Molecular Gastronomy”).

It’s not that I don’t like Modernist cuisine (although a lot of what I encounter nowadays is just not good).  Like anything else, there are good examples, and there are bad examples of it.  But, generally, I find that Modernist cuisine puts too much distance between the chef and the diner.  There are wide gaps in time and space between the concepts, the prep work, and the plate. Often, what lands in front of the diner is the product of an assembly line.  Much of the work is done ahead of time so that everything can be tweezered into place within a matter of seconds – not that speed seems to matter, since much of it’s cold anyway.  And as a result, flavors are compartmentalized, segregated, instead of suffused together with heat and time, that wonderful coupling that produces soul.  As a chef once quipped, “It’s like eating mis en place.

But these are all practical matters.  On a more philosophical, big-picture plane, a lot of Modernist cooking is conceptual.  And, while concepts drive innovation, and innovation brings progress, they are often detached from the basic, emotional satisfaction that I desire most from food.  A few, truly great thinkers have managed to trigger nostalgia or evoke emotion on a plate through conceptual cooking (giving rise to the alternative name for Modernist cuisine: “Techno-Emotional”).  These are the masters, and they are rare: Ferran Adrià at elBulli; Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck; Enrique Dacosta at Quique Dacosta; Jordi Roca at el Cellar de Can Roca.  But, as innovative as these chefs are in creating a sense of nostalgia, or evoking emotion at the table, ultimately, the experiences they create are fabricated – proxies for actual memories, actual feelings.  And, in my opinion, these chefs’ greatest legacy is not the deliciousness of their food, but rather, their ability to communicate their ideas, their thinking, and their perspective through their cooking.  They inspired a whole generation of cooks to imagine, to reach, and to approach food in new ways.  That’s powerful.  That’s important.  But sadly, in so doing, they also (inadvertently) distracted a whole generation of cooks from actually cooking.

Fixated on the cleverness and showmanship of Modernist cuisine, the second wave of Modernist chefs diluted the message and devolved the movement into a shallow shadow of the original.  Either because they completely missed the point, or allowed themselves to be misguided by food writers who missed the point – or, more likely, a combination of the two – these chefs (and restaurateurs) focused on the superficial aesthetics of Modernist cooking – the stylized plating, the table-side tricks, the transformation of ingredients with additives, and the ceaseless stories that seemed forced into being for the sake of putting on a good show.  The conversation was no longer about a different way of thinking about food, it became about a different way of presenting food.

And why shouldn’t these chefs have capitalized upon this exciting, new movement?  Led astray by food media into a cloud of hype, the dining public missed the point too.  And it became an eager audience for the good theatre these chefs could provide.

But, even if you filter out all the noise, the premise of Modernist cuisine is largely untenable.  As I said years ago (and, was ostracized by some for saying so), it cannot last.  Modernist cooking is a movement, not a foundation.  It is more art than craft.  This is not to say that Modernists have contributed nothing to the canon of culinary knowledge.  But, with the exception of a few, key take-aways – like the original, Modernist spark of thinking about food in a different way – which, are worthy conversations to have with the existing body of classical work, most of what we associate with the Modernist movement will not endure.  Going back to a point I made earlier, this is because Modernist cooking is driven more by concepts than by basic, human needs.

As with all good theatre, this show must end.  Ultimately, we must return to reality, and focus on the pleasures therein.

This is why I have always been a proponent of classical cooking.  (It is important to note: my use of the term “classical cooking” here is not limited to traditional, Continental European cuisine. Rather, I refer broadly to an approach to cooking that I further define in the following sentences.)  Driven by techniques that have been refined and tested over time, its “philosophical, big-picture goal” is practical – satisfying universal human needs – not conceptual.

Classical cooking tends to focus on deliciousness and satisfaction.  This requires a focus on quality of ingredient and quality of care, as well as attention to timing.  Food is prepared according to ripeness and readiness to maximize flavor, texture, and pleasure.  And it’s cooked to order – à la minute – so that it’s hot and fresh for the eating.  This kind of cooking narrows the gap between chef and diner, because it demands the presence of both in close proximity.  And, it demands a more sophisticated, more personalized skill set – one that requires an intuition that can only be acquired through a thoughtful application of time and experience, and not by rote repetition alone.  It requires the attention of all senses – touch, smell, sight, and sound – not just the ability to follow a formula.  These fundamental skills and knowledge must be mastered before anything else can be attempted.  Thus, classical cooking is first a craft before it is an art.  And because of that, it serves as a strong foundation upon which those who have mastered it may build.

In my post about Kong Hans Kælder, I anecdotally mentioned a conversation that I had with a chef about the differences between Eastern and Western food culture, and specifically, about the role cynicism plays in each.  The chef questioned why there seems to be far less cynicism in Asian food culture than in Western food culture.  While I attempted an explanation in that earlier post, I’d like to piggy-back on the foregoing discussion here to expand my answer.

Often, when Westerners speak admiringly about Asian food culture, we focus on the dedication of Asian chefs to their craft, and the quality of their work: their attention to detail, knowledge of their ingredients and their ability to showcase them.  We talk about their philosophy, their dedication, and the flavors they create.  We think of them as craftsmen.  We marvel at their place in a long line of craftsmen before them, and their role in preserving their craft by training their successors.  But rarely do we talk about them.  And rarely, do they talk about themselves.

Contrast that with the way we, Westerners, talk about our own food, restaurant, and chef culture.

I opened my post about Kong Hans Kælder with this observation: “It used to be that people talked about dishes.  Now, they talk about names.”   Or, in other words, instead of talking about the craft and its craftsmen, we now talk about the artistry and its artists.  It has always been easier to make icons out of iconoclasts, hasn’t it?  Naturally, we are excited by the pioneers, we gravitate to the bold and the brave.  They’re easy heroes for us to make and admire.  So it’s not hard to understand why the more artistic, culinary movements, like the Modernist, or the New Nordic schools of cooking, and their chefs have occupied an increasingly larger portion of the culinary limelight in our age of commercialized, mass media.*

Ours is a capitalist culture of self-promotion and enterprise.  As I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with profit. Artists must eat too.  But it’s awfully hard to be a martyr and a millionaire.  And even harder not to be cynical about it.

Why do we – as foreigners – celebrate the classicism of Asian cuisine and the craftsmanship of Asian chefs, but fail to celebrate classicism and craftsmanship in our own Western culture?

Why do we seek out the quiet, diligent craftsmen in Kyoto, Hong Kong, Chang Mai, and Shanghai, who have practiced their trade for decades?  We call them masters, and deify them for their dedication and expertise.  And yet, here at home, we reward the loudmouths for their derring-do and visibility, talents notwithstanding.

And why do some of the greatest chefs of our time and culture – including many of the great Modernist and New Nordic chefs – have a solid foundation in classical cooking, yet we don’t talk about it as being an important part of why these craftsmen have become great artists?

I’m not saying that classical cooking is superior, per se.  Just like everything else, there is good classical cooking, and there is bad classical cooking (at its worst, it sacrifices creativity and artistry entirely in favor of technique).

What I am saying is that the tenets of classical cooking are essential.  Its standards are established and unfailing.  Without them, there can be no artistry.  And without them, the rest is just temporary.

Story, meaning, creativity, nostalgia and wit: great.  But first, give me quality and deliciousness.

Classical cooking never left us.  We have left it.  Let’s go back.

* I find many parallels between Modernist cooking and the New Nordic movement, about which I have also been fairly skeptical, if not also critical.  As with the Modernist school of cooking, there are good examples among the New Nordic chefs – those original voices, who first dared to think outside the box within the borders of their region.  But, as with Modernists, there are far more bad examples – the copycats, who have quickly taken over the movement, stripping it of its uniqueness and spirit.  And, like the Modernist movement, the New Nordic movement has become susceptible to the hype machine of bloviating food writers and groupies, who, seeing the sun setting on the Modernists, have turned to dote on this new culinary movement au courant.  There is a bit of deluded grandeur.  That said, I think that the New Nordic movement offers a far more compelling and permanent culinary conversation than the Modernists did because it’s far more grounded in classical cooking.   New Nordic chefs focus on showcasing the quality of their ingredients.  And, New Nordic chefs put an emphasis on deliciousness (even if I don’t always think that their flavors are sophisticated or balanced).  Where I find the New Nordic movement weak is in its lack of voice and direction.  There are a lot of New Nordic chefs who clamor for recognition and respect, but have, in my opinion, done little to differentiate themselves from the pack.

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5 replies on “rumination 31: a martyr and a millionaire…”

My own pet theory for why modernist cooking is associated with “flavors [that] are compartmentalized, segregated, instead of suffused together with heat and time, that wonderful coupling that produces soul” is that this configuration is – whether the parties involved know it or not – easier to think and write about. If there are only four clear elements in a dish analyzing the relationships between them and forming a cogent opinion is not so hard.

Compare that to the difficulty of appraising, say, a Oaxacan mole, for which most people flail about for a while and then fall back on vague ideas like “complex” and (my favorite) “haunting”.

Being easy to package, talk about, and argue for seems like an underrated component in how appealing a critic finds a dish (or restaurant, or cook, or cuisine).

I do apologize that my first comment, based on reading one post, is a negative one – but this is wrong on so many levels – so I have to….

It is true that many “modernist” food experiences are austere (at best) if not downright cynical. But I balk at the suggested notion that anything new is mostly bad and a passing fashion at best.

Coming from the hi-tech industry – there are myriads of examples of bad products and bad technologies, honed by evolution into reasonable products that work rather okay (iphone, thermapens, combi steam ovens, iPod, any microsoft version 1 product, etc.).

The kitchen, being a rather traditionalist (a generalization, but examples: it took over 20 years for Japanese Aesthetics to make a name in the US and Europe, sous vide had the same adoption rate, etc.), makes it difficult for technologies to permeate and therefore evolution works slowly. Much slower than the hype driven technology market (just compare to how quickly the really bad version 1 Apple Watch flew off the shelves).

Technology can not turn a bad cook into a good one. Period. For example, bad sous vide experiences were rampant ten years ago. Does that make sous vide a bad technology? Setting the steam incorrectly on a Rational may make your buns dry or wet. Does having a badly trained baker means Combi steamer is a bad technology.

Possibly the oldest (or at least – one of the oldest) techniques is smoking. Damn it but how many extraordinary barbecue places are there (and this is as traditional as they come: Texas cattle drive meets polish immigrants and Jewish Brisket)? People drive around the country looking for excellent brisket (where usually the texture issue is not having enough patience to wait for it to soften up). The great experience is too rare indeed.

And no – adding the “I am honest and therefore I don’t use the Texas crutch, nor do I use a Stoker device to control fan the coals” to placate the reason that their 6 hour Brisket is as tough as nails – does not alleviate the disappointment. Become a good pitmaster first (buy a Thermapen and a fork and keep the honesty remarks to yourself – these Romantic remarks only works for Paul Bertolli and Rick Bayless because they are indeed THAT GOOD).

But good technology does eventually penetrate and you start seeing the good quality technology starts permeating the business (thermometers used for cooking, and not just for safety checks, Pacojets used – and not abused – by good ice cream craftsmen, combisteamers outside of Ikea kitchens, hydrocolloids as an ingredient – true it is – like traditional versions of flour, corn starch and arrow root – sometimes abused, Stoker for barbecue control, PID for espresso, etc.).

Molecular Gastronomy is an awful term. I think it had honest roots trying to say something like “bridging the gap between food technologists and chefs”. Where “food technologists” are the chefs who toil in the labs of General Foods or Nestle, and the chefs are the technologists applying the craft of heat and time to appropriate ingredients to make food at a restaurant. Instead, the term eroded into star trek food vs. traditional stews.

As a foodie I love good food. Sure, at WD-50, I have to serve as an exegete for my fellow diners (otherwise they tend to lose the concept). Alinea is so good it does not need exegesis, and neither do the ROca Brothers. I also love the outstanding (and traditional) Pakistani food at Shalimar, the Ban Mi’s at Saigon Sandwich, the Philly cheese steaks at Amato’s, and the unctuous Albacore at Sushi Nozawa, the awesome brisket at Snows and Franklin’s and even Dr. Hogly Wogly’s Tyler Texas BBQ.

As a foodie, one quickly discovers that there is no such thing as good technology, good food fashion, or even good ingredients. There are great chef’s that care deeply for their craft and for their ability to deliver a superior product. At that point, any technology you put in their hands, and any ingredient made available to them will be judged by how it improves the result. Everything else is marketing hyp.