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Back to the Roots

Posted in Food & Entertaining

 


The latest issue of Los Angeles Magazine has landed in my mailbox. It’s the Food Issue. Last month’s was the Chef’s issue. You would think this city has no more pressing concerns than where to eat, what to eat or to find out who the latest chef on the rise is. Being a chef has been the trendy profession of the last dozen years or so and I am hoping this trend is on the wane.

If I can run a parallelism between young chefs hungry for culinary stardom and rock musicians hungry for the Hall of Fame, the similarities are manifold: photogenic faces, a willingness to do whatever it takes, multiple tattoos and a devoted female following who will sleep with them on the sole basis of their fame (female chefs, while still a minority, tend to be more restrained). Both professions, by the way, require a dedication to a craft and long working hours and, sometimes, reliance on substance abuse of one kind or another.

Notice I used the word “craft” and not art. There is a lot of disposable music out there but the one that endures will ultimately be equated with art. Food? Not so much. There is nothing of lasting value in what goes on a plate – it gets eaten much faster than it was made. Great chefs, from Careme to Keller, end up leaving a legacy in the way they transformed the way food is thought of, techniques are refined and even national policies in matter of food are carried out. Local, sustainable and organic movements owe a huge debt to people like Alice Waters (technically, not a chef) and to all those who came after her, down to Rene Redzepi and his foraging based menu.

But, art? Anyone can learn to cook. Some of us have more refined palates, some are willing to dedicate more time to it than others and some go as far as reaching that pinnacle where cooking does become a complex scheme involving deconstruction, liquid nitrogen and sixteen different elements on a plate. But it all goes back to feeding other people, an extreme act of love. A chef without a diner is not much of a chef. And I wish some chefs would remember that – from assembling expensive concoctions with unlikely pairings just to push the envelope to spewing opinions on national tv  or behaving despondently or abusively in the kitchen for the sake of a meal, it’s all getting out of hand.

I found professional cooking late in life, a career twist that was rather unplanned. I learnt a few lessons that will stay with me forever, namely how to recover from culinary disaster and how to make dinner with the saddest ingredients left over in my fridge. I also learnt it is very hard work, that requires focus, dedication, the ability to work as a team and that, as a chef, you are only as good as your latest hire. But it also crystallized in my mind that it’s only food, handed down from one cook to the next for hundreds of years and that cooking it with love and care is the best gift I can give a customer.

All Western cooking is steeped in the French tradition (by way of Italy, as it was Caterina de Medici who brought her Italian chef to the French court when she married, thus giving birth to a culinary renaissance. I had to belabor this point…). To paraphrase Chef Keller, every time we make a hollandaise sauce, and we make it perfect, we honor the multitude of those who made it before us. My mother makes pasta the way her mother taught her and I follow in their footsteps. At the core of every dish, no matter how wacky, there has to be a respect for history and an understanding of the cultural place that food holds. Gimmicky and novelty are only as good as the traditions they carry.

Famous chefs are often asked what they would like as their last meal. Invariably, the answer entails something extremely simple: a creamy French butter spread on crusty bread, perfectly scrambled eggs, a rare steak. No one has ever chosen a 20 ingredient dish. Because for food to succeed it needs to pull at our emotional strings.

And the chefs who grace the covers of magazines, who endorse pots they want us to buy, who write books full of recipes we will never make in the absence of a battery of cooks helping out in our home kitchens, should not forget that. If I have to sit through one more bacon ice-cream, I am going to go mad.

I had dinner at Mario Batali’s Osteria Mozza a few years ago. The music was too loud but Nancy Silverton’s fresh mozzarella was delicious, whatever pasta I ordered was perfectly executed and then the baked cardoons came out, in a restrained bechamel sauce, hot and soft and creamy. The way my mother has been cooking cardoons since I can remember.  Mr. Batali’s apprenticeship in the Apennines above my hometown was distilled and honored in that humble dish which showed an understanding of every woman who, for the last few centuries, picked that hard and stringy vegetable and made it great through trial and error.

It’s that emotional perfection that I expect from great food. Whether it’s a donut from the corner store or the $300 meal I will save for. It goes back to honoring the first and foremost reason one should cook for: love. Not fame, loudmouth opinions or even a Michelin star.

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3 Comments

  1. Any chef, who doesn’t wear a hairnet, and especially one who has long hair, should be shot! I can’t stand to watch chefs on TV shows who have long hair and are swinging their hair, scratching their head, or double-dipping their spoon: ick! I’ve seen it happen and it grosses me out. Beards too deserve a hairnet. It doesn’t matter to me how delicious their concoction is, if there’s a hair in it, it won’t taste good! I don’t like Keller and Bayless for this reason. I don’t think cooking is on the wane yet. I don’t think it has even peaked! Americans are too frantically eating themselves into the grave.

    November 18, 2012
    |Reply
    • I think it’s all for show – it wouldn’t be cool to wear a hat on tv! But there are strict regulations enforced in professional kitchens and covering head and facial hair is one of them. As well as washing your hands after touching your face. But you don’t see those chefs on tv ever washing their hands or changing gloves. Wouldn’t make for interesting viewing I suppose. Inspectors in California are very strict and I would like to think it’s the same all over the country

      November 19, 2012
      |Reply
      • I can see how TV chefs would be concerned about their appearance by wearing a hairnet or some type of hair covering. I’m glad to hear about the regulations in professional kitchens. In the last couple of months TV chefs began washing (barely) their hands (Without soap!) Then, gradually they began using soap. These chefs profess to be “teaching” their viewers. Looks be damned: they should be wearing hair protection or at least have their hair pulled back. I also have to say that I’ve lost interest in the PBS cooking shows. Three excellent new cooking shows were only on for one season! It’s the same old same old. Now I watch Paula Deen on cable at my health club. She is very funny, warm, and comes up with some very innovative dishes. Most of the dishes I wouldn’t make myself because she makes them too fattening! But her handsome son cooks lower calorie dishes and I enjoy watching him!

        November 19, 2012
        |Reply

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