Food as art: An edible evolution?

An argument of epic proportions recently occurred in our group.

How to cook an egg—the subject matter of the argument—is one of the most important things you can cook in a kitchen according to many chefs. For example, many French chefs gauge the skill of a cook by how they make an omelet—which led to the famous cooking maxim:

“Show me how you cook an egg, and I will know everything about you.”

Our conversation turned heated over the proper way to poach an egg—that is, whether you should follow a traditional cooking method or whether modern techniques can (or should) be applied.

Here is the short version of the conversation:

Don Juan

Don Juan

“Cooking an egg in a water-bath for an hour or however long doesn’t compare to a traditional, four-minute poach! The yolk is totally different…”

Papi Chulo

Papi Chulo

“You’re insane. I cooked eggs at 64°C at Momo everyday for the past year. It’s the same: the yolk runs like a sauce. It f*cking rocks!”

El Resacón

El Resacón

“Yeah, it’s true. We cook our eggs the long way at 63°C too… it totally works. You get a perfect yolk—it’s one of our signature items, and it’s a totally stable method for cooking.”

Wolverine

Wolverine

 “Wolverine eats eggs RAW! Grrrr…..”
 
Don Juan

Don Juan

“You guys are crazy. Maybe you have magic eggs… it’s not the same yolk. Maybe we just don’t have magic eggs in Germany!Where can I get some of your crazy, magic eggs?”

“From a magic farmer, on a magic farm, with magic chickens? Where is that magical farmer? Does he have a magical  daughter? I want to meet him, and then meet his magical farmer’s daughter and have some magical farmer’s daughter sex. And then, maybe I can make some magical poached eggs like yours for breakfast on the magical farm for my new magical girlfriend…”

“Let’s hug it out… I can’t quit you, you cook so nice for me.”

**A disclaimer… before my friends decide to throw me a beating:

This accounting of the convo is my best recollection, with a few added pics because I have a crap-ton and don’t know what to do with them all! 

Long poaching, short poaching, magic eggs—something bigger than a “huevo-lution” was being discussed here, but back to this conversation in a moment…

Shortly after Poach-gate 2009, we ate a meal containing some of the following dishes:

Tortilla & caviar

 

Preciously shaped (read: Transglutaminase-glued) fish filets, gelled sauce stripes, fruit caviars—all of these techniques have become ubiquitous; made possible by a new wave of culinary inspiration, funny powders, and the blending of laboratory and kitchen sciences.

Tradition!But there’s a storm brewing on the horizon, and its name is tradition… does anybody else hear Fiddler on the Roof?

For some cooks, culinary traditions are non-negotiable: As Don Juan says, a poached egg takes 4 minutes in acidulated water, NOT hours in a Combi-oven or a water-bath.

Otherwise, the result is just NOTa poached egg, thank you very much. It’s something else; a modern bastardization of a classic technique, symbolic of so much occurring in a world steeped in respecting tradition and order.

Likewise, traditionalist cooks view funny powders as less a garnish and more something for line cooks to snort, sauces as something that shouldn’t be turned into cute little caviar balls, and foams as something with only one culinary purpose: to top a cold beer at the end of service.

This mentality is the result of a backlash against what many cooks term “the misuse” of the ever-expanding kitchen lexicon of the past 10 years. These same critics point to the random foams, spheres, and gels appearing everywhere this side of McDonald’s as signs that chefs have crossed-over from the netherworld of the kitchen into the realm of the pretentious artist.

Or the wannabe artist.

So is the cooking of modern chefs—the Michelin-starred names we whisper with hallowed respect and/or venomous jealousy— for sustenance or aesthetic value? Are such things mutually exclusive?

When does food, the stuff on the plate, transcend such labels and touch guests on a deeper level? And exactly when is it ok to use modern techniques (like the 64°C egg or alginate and the like) as a substitute for traditional techniques? 

When should tradition be upheld?

These are the questions that went round and round our dining tables at nearly every restaurant over the past few weeks. The conversations began at El Bohio, one of the most impressive meals that we had, and they continued at El Poblet–one of the least impressive. They were spurred on by every foam, every use of methylcellulose, every avant garde technique that we didn’t recognize and, therefore, questioned.

Then a revelation occurred at our last Michelin-starred stop—Dani Garcia’s Calima, my eventual restaurant-home for 6 months. After an inspired, Andalusian-based meal we chatted with Dani Garcia–such a cool guy– and then retired to Calima’s patio overlooking the Mediterranean Sea for coffee.

That’s when we turned around and spotted this:

Cocinacontraditión can be translated two ways:

1. Cocina con tradición = cooking with tradition

or

2. Cocina contradictión= cooking contradiction.

Let there be light!

A big thank you to Professor Kwortnik of the SHA for a semester of driving this point home:

El Bohio, a restaurant (and chef) steeped in traditional La Mancha cooking, relies on the flavors of the region to “tell a story.” Calima is similarly steeped in the traditional cooking of Andalusia, and does something similar with dishes based on gazpachos, porras, and seafood specific to the region.

By contrast, El Poblet struggled to tell their story. We saw a parade of gorgeous dishes that utilized new and wondrous techniques… but something was missing from the dining EXPERIENCE—it lacked SOUL, that intangible quality that separates good experiences from great ones.

Now, I´m not saying that a link to tradition ¨a Michelin star gets.¨ Like any good Hotelie will tell you, everything depends on circumstance… and for a bunch of high context, jaded cooks like us a connection to tradition will win us over everytime.

So while I don´t yet have any answers to our roundtable questions, I look forward to Monday when I embark on the next phase of this journey. My first teacher and school: Adolfo Muñoz at Restaurante Adolfo.

Fittingly, we ate at this restaurant on our first night of our 3 week journey–and we bore witness to the most classic roots of traditional La Mancha cookery.

The way I see it:  I am very lucky to start with a traditional chef… for the next 6 months, I get to find my own connection to the past.

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Food as art: An edible evolution?”

  1. Great post!

    You guys put the *other* egg debate (“which came first…?”) to shame. I wonder which will be solved first!

    Wishing the next step of your journey is as fulfilling as this one was filling.

    Best of luck at Adolfo – I know you will (continue to) make us all proud.

    XO

  2. […] I have blogged previously, Cocinacontraditión can be translated two […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: