Thursday, May 7, 2020

Chefs, Touch, and Alice Waters' Credo

Over and over, one hears chefs repeating Alice Water's credo of "using great ingredients and leaving them alone," even though it's always been a lie.

No human being would ever willingly pay for ingredients that weren’t extensively fiddled with. If you merely slice a carrot and serve it on fine china, diners will not have some deep carroty experience. Not even if you steam the carrot. Or steam it and salt it. Or if you steam it and salt it and sprinkle it with marjoram and drizzle it with olive oil (though we're getting closer). You need to do way more stuff to even approach deliciousness. Culinary minimalism always struck me as a crock; a head fake.

Gastronomy is decision-making applied to ingredients. Deliciousness stems from two aspects: 1. the overarching structure of innumerable decisions being shrewdly conceived (hot fudge cod? maybe not....), and 2. the individual decisions (stir the pasta 17 times or 18 times? cut the onions 1.1" thick or 1.2"?) being harmoniously on-point.
Most people think it's about execution, but the magic is in the ongoing stream of subtle decision-making. Poor execution can be mitigated much more easily by smart micro-decisions than poor deciding can be mitigated by deft execution. This is why robots don't produce inspirational food.

"Ongoing stream of subtle decision-making" accounts for the mysterious and all-important "touch" people talk about. Touch isn't in the movements of one’s hands, which are easily imitated. It's in the awareness guiding those movements...which is unique. 
Subject, not object. 
Both the macro (big picture decisions) and the micro (in-the-moment decisions) are necessary. When your four-year-old prepares your breakfast by emptying out the fridge and stirring it all together, copious love might be applied at every juncture, but she lacks overall shrewdness. And a great recipe - a roadmap supplanting big-picture decision-making - lives or dies by the carefulness of its step-by-step execution.

If you haven’t invested jillions of decisions, you're just serving lifeless ingredients, and nobody wants that. Which is why I never understood why the credo of "using great ingredients and leaving them alone" is so meaningful to so many chefs. "Great ingredients"? Fine, I suppose, though I've eaten fantastic food made from humdrum fixings. But the other part seems nutty. Great cooking is the opposite of ingredients left alone. It's all about action and manipulation; imbuing raw media with the imprints of myriad micro-decisions. The more the better! That's why kitchen work is so frenetic! 

But lately I've seen the credo in a different light. Chefs don’t hear it the way I do. They take the frenetic action for granted. A violin player never questions his role of positioning notes in time and in pitch within a shrewd overall game plan. That professional proposition is a given. So what chefs are really getting at is....well, wait. Let me explain a little about chefs.

Chefs are not like you and me. First, they eat like crap. If you spot some slob shooting supermarket spray cheese directly into his mouth while driving home from work, odds are good that he's just got off his shift as a high-end chef in some shmancy eatery. Chefs patronize Wendy's, and may insist that the hot dogs at 7-11 are "surprisingly good". Two factors explain this:

1. Enough With the Food, Already
If you work around food all day, there's not much room for exuberant, aspirational chowhounding after-hours. I can relate. When I'm not sitting at a monitor drooling vacantly in tedious anticipation of the best possible next word, I write like a retarded baboon. My text messages are downright goopy. I'm the guy who doesn't use question marks, and who confuses "your" and "you're". I can turn it back on when I have to, but I'd mostly rather not.

2. Blue Collar
No matter how chefs pose and preen on TV, kitchen work is a blue collar profession. These are not Mrs. Howells, naturally drawn to refined experience. I recently wrote about how music, for all its training and supposed glamour, is a blue-collar profession  - which explains how I managed to go deaf by denying basic reality due to notions of being a get-'er-done tough guy. Both chefs and musicians talk a good game, but we’re non-lofty. 

Chefs are skewed in other ways. For example, they're hellbent on consistency. Not just in terms of quality, but also re: portioning and appearance. Me, I have fewer than seven neurons devoted to such considerations. Also, you and I are capable of shame, so we factor in health. A big reason our cooking doesn't taste "professional" is that we don't cynically pile on the grease and salt.

You don’t need to be a cynic to observe that a big part of a chef’s job is to stealthily inject pillars of salt and buckets of fat into food. That accounts for much of the added value of the very proposition of restaurants. Consider the croissant, some bygone baker's solution to the challenge of infusing the greatest possible quantity of butter into the smallest possible quantity of flour. As we customers crunch into them, murmuring with pleasure like entranced children, bakers survey us with cold, clinical eyes. The drugs have taken effect. Excellent.

Some criticize downscale restaurants for serving "greasy" food, but that just means a kitchen does a poor job of hiding it. Upscale food is even greasier, but there's an obligation to cover tracks. You can’t risk grossing out Mrs. Howell with naked truth. The mission is to get her off, via very many sticks of butter, while leaving nary a trace of the underpinning vulgarity. It's a bit like cheerful pitchers of brunch mimosas, or Mommy's big box of Chardonnay perennially in the fridge. Alcoholism may be the unspoken truth, but I’m certainly no derelict vodka-swilling lush or whatever.

All restaurant food is greasy and salty as all get out. Lousy chefs don't mind if you notice, while higher-end chefs get paid extra for furnishing a veneer of lofty cultivation, i.e. plausible deniability. 

So back to the question: Why do chefs love the notion of "using great ingredients and leaving them alone"? Here's what I‘m guessing they mean:
“Rather than cooking thoughtlessly, knowing abundant sins will be hidden beneath ponds of glistening fat and blizzards of salt, maybe I can step up and produce actual deliciousness without cynical cheats. I can work harder, investing talent, vision, and loving care in lieu of butter, lard, and sodium.”
Sure, the food would still be laboriously manipulated, primped, and processed to the nth degree. But if you eliminate the gauche shortcuts - and the contrivances required to hide their evidence - then, at least relatively speaking, you can feel that you’re letting ingredients shine. Less piggy button-pushing and more genuine art. 

There's never been any notion of rolling back to raw carrot shavings. Just rolling back to cooking as you and I have always conceived it: with real care and creativity, rather than expedient cheating. Chefs would be illuminated wizards rather than pretentious drug pushers. 

If correct, this explains why chefs raise their chins as they recite the Alice Waters credo. It's like drug lords swearing to go straight, or porn actors resolving to audition for legit roles. It's where chefs' musings take them when they're in an elevational mood.

This reads like a harsh condemnation of chefs and of the entire industry. That wasn’t my intent, and I'd fix it if I could but I don’t see how to walk it back. I actually love chefs. I love their work, and I love having my buttons skillfully pushed in any possible way (I'm both hog and Mrs. Howell). I devoted years of my life to worshipping/evangelizing/supporting all that, and don't regret it. But one can recognize hypocrisy and vulgar expedience even in beloved realms.

In fact, I suppose it took me decades to finally understand the meaning of Alice Waters’ credo because I was particularly unwilling to recognize cold hard truth. 

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