I read something about myself today. In truth I've been reading a lot about myself lately, but today I read something specific. Another pastry chef in the Bay Area called me a Minimalist. At first I laughed out loud. Minimalist? As in Nouvelle Cuisine? One taste? One component on one large plate? A caramel swoosh on the rim? One dessert turned into dust or foam or maybe an empty plate with a waiter coming along and explaining what had been the pastry chef's concept? Caloric only in theory?
What does it mean to call me a Minimalist?
Can I use what I think is a more apt word for my work and my plated dessert philosophies? How about
Well, at any rate, it got me thinking.
And then I visited Chadzilla, a chef and team of chefs I've never met, but somehow feel allied with. This gaggle of cooks recently went to a cutting edge gastronomic conference in NYC, the Star Chefs International Chef's Congress. (Many a person interested in "molecular gastronomy" went to and did demonstrations there.)
Perusing through Mr. Chadzilla's photos from the trip and events, I saw many a name I know, either really know-- as in I've worked with and for them, or have been reading about them since they first appeared in (National/ Local/ International) press. Or chefs who also keep culinary notes in the form of a blog.
But where was I? In San Francisco toiling away over recipes I was trying to come out the way my mind and mouth wanted them to. In my own Minimalist sort of way. Heh.
Somehow the "molecular gastronomy" thing passed me by. Or, I've watched it come and linger but have looked at it with scant curiosity. Like seeing the '80's come back. Or worse, the '70's. Like many cooks, I have been reading about Ferran Adria and El Bulli since the late 90's. Intriguing yes, but not what has inspired my own food or gastronomic education.
At the Pastry Chef Conference I reached into my old-school mind and pried it open as far as I could manage. I listened to my old boss and friend Elizabeth Falkner demonstrate many a white powder interacting with food substances, and heard Will Goldfarb's convincing dynamic ideas on the subject of these "new" "chemicals."
(Intellectually it was intriguing, no doubt.)
But in the end, when I tasted that food, it did not move me.
And when I put something or someone in my mouth I want to be moved.
The mouth, after all, is a sex organ. It's an intimate place to ask someone to trust your skills enough to allow passage and an open mind, enough to savor, chew and swallow. N'est pas?
I go back and forth with the new edgy techniques and textures and flavor combinations and temperatures and all that these possibilities can unfurl in a culinary setting. I am old enough to know every innovation comes into being alongside skeptical glances or outright denial of worth. Painters denied photography as art. Punk Rock and Hip Hop were supposed to disappear and Jazz wasn't even considered music.
Where I keep getting to when I think about all the new fangled savory and sweet food arranged on fantastical plates and gadgets designed to hold it in place just so like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat, is that basic gastronomy still has a lot of knowledge on me. I still don't know everything there is to know about butter. Or flour. Or the magical egg.
There's still so much to learn about what humans have been doing with edible ingredients for thousands and thousands of years. And so I don't much care to learn what chemicals I'm not sure my body appreciates will do to the foods I like best in their rawest forms.
The smoke and mirrors don't fill me up. They don't still me or make me quiet. They merely make me puzzled.
Does that make me old-fashioned?
Calling me old-fashioned, I know, is not the same as calling me a Minimalist. What she meant when she said that was this:
My plated desserts say one or two, three at most, statements. I write about my desserts like I would fine art.
Or savory food. Examples below are from my current menu:
soft & evocative
poached pear, buckwheat cake &
brown butter crème anglaise
"This is a simple, subtle dessert. It is served room temperature to insure that the elusive flavors can be heard. The pear will be served peeled and halved but not cored so that its natural form can be appreciated. Brown butter is one of my favorite flavors. It’s nutty, rich, deep and intensely itself. The brown butter crème anglaise ties in the earthy buckwheat flour. Buckwheat cake is made with grain cold stone ground to order by Anson Mills... Garnish: balsamic caramel (not gastrique). As the dish has a lot of warm, soft, sleepy flavours, it needed a bit of acid/bitterness to pick it up.
almond milk gelee, melon granita, knoll figs
This dessert is also about how Sens is opening at the precipice of summer-autumn. Melons, the fruitier siblings of summer and winter squash, are transformed into granita with little to no sugar added! Our almond milk is house-made with whole, raw California almonds. We are sweetening it slightly with raw sugar and setting it gently with gelatin.
crunchy & sumptuous
sesame cake, cocoa nib cream dome,
& shuna’s famous dark chocolate sauce
A dense sesame-almond cake is served under cocoa nib pannacotta. Pannacotta is eggless custard set only with gelatin. Cocoa nibs are the interior of a cacao pod after its been fermented and roasted. First comes cocoa nibs, then come massive machines, sugar, cocoa butter and vanilla. → This is the “recipe” for chocolate. Cocoa nibs taste like chocolate without the melt-in-your-mouth quality and, of course, the sweetness. Be sure to get a taste from the pastry department if you have never experienced them before. I like that the pannacotta tastes mostly of the good cream and it’s chocolate personality comes not from something as heavy as chocolate or as drying and one-dimensional as cocoa powder, but from chocolate in its ‘raw-est’ state.
The cake, unbeknownst to the diner, is cut in the shape of a “doughnut” and its “hole” is filled with California Royal Blenheim dried apricot-caramel. (This adds a bit of acid to an otherwise similarly flavored dish.) The bowl is then filled with my famous, addictive, hot fudge sauce, and it’s garnished with what I call, “The Crunchy Layer.”
“The Crunchy Layer” is a little milk chocolate, a dash of white chocolate, cocoa butter, toasted sesame seeds, crushed cocoa nibs and a pinch of vanilla sea salt. (It’s like a really high-end Nestlé’s Crunch Bar.)
---From the Sens Dessert Descriptions for October 2007.
I think this is what it comes down to:
As a pastry chef I am neither a minimalist nor moderne. I'm not old-fashioned.
I am a Purist in the sense that I am interested in unearthing, celebrating, clearing the way for, paying homage to, finding, tipping my hat to, attempting to understand and presenting others with the
soul of subtlety.
god is in the details
I'm most interested in flavor, even when the flavor is barely imperceptible.
If you consider the person not interested in hitting you over the head with sugar, chocolate, candy, tall tuiles, conceptual plating, squeeze bottle art, disparate flavor combinations, wacky stabilizers, Americana, whipped cream, nouveau chemical applications, the same-ol-same-ol; Minimalist, then I guess I am.
I think I'm modern in that I want you to taste what you're eating in an elegant, reverent way. I like salt but I don't make salty desserts to be in with the In crowd. I am not the It Girl of pastry. Compared to my heros and heroines I know very little. I want my desserts to change the way you think about desserts. I want my desserts to introduce you to the possibility that the pastry chef should not be an extinct profession.
I want my desserts to make you think something less cliched about what flavor combinations work with what you've always liked and eaten before.
I'm interested in textures, but mostly the ones which exist in nature. I enjoy pairing ingredients together which are in season together but may not have been introduced in such ways previously. Cumin Pot de Creme, Warm Pear Soup with White Coffee Foam, Melon & Stone Fruit Gazpacho, doughnuts tossed in coriander-sesame sugar, a vinaigrette sweetened with dramatically reduced apple cider, and grapefruit-milk-chocolate mousse, just to name a few.
I strive for acid-sweet-salt-fat balance like my favorite savoury chefs do. I'm inspired by David Kinch and his perfect vegetable course. There are few dishes I've had the honor to eat which I've thought were perfect but Thomas Keller's Oysters & Pearls might have been the first. And watching it get produced night after night didn't tarnish its exquisiteness one bit.
You know what I think?
I think we're bored. And we have no reason to be! Look up at the stars! Wiggle your toes! Do you understand how these amazing things can occur?
Do you know why the same apple tree year after year produces slightly different apples? Do you know the exact moment when a watermelon goes out of season? Do you know why cornstarch thickens and then it doesn't? Do you know why one 4 oz. portion of fish cooks faster than another same sized portion from the same fillet?
How dare us. How dare us get bored. When there's so much to study! To learn!
I would rather be humbled than bored.
god is in the details
In the boredom we seem to have come to, we are looking for new things to keep us up at night. To keep our minds racing. So we can dull them later on with more, better and stronger drugs.
OK, enough tangential ranting.
The chefs, bakers, cooks and pastry chefs who inspire me might be considered old-fashioned by today's standards. They are people who made and make it their life's work to learn and share and teach and write, no matter the medium. They knit and photograph and dance and paint and cook and bake.
I would rather be focused than haphazard.
I would rather emulate than copy.
I would rather explore than innovate.
And I feel grateful to be inspired in a way that I have not been since many years ago. I am proof that time takes time. I am proof that I can remain me and strive for what I believe in in a culinary climate preferring the science of now over the science of long ago.
What's lovely is there's room for us all.