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.