Sunday, January 29, 2012

Food for Thought

I read an article over the weekend that provoked some questions about what we should value in food. The article’s three-way conversation (between two chefs and one well known author and television personality) came down in the end to a debate over ingredients or technique as paramount. 

Unsurprisingly given the cutting edge techniques employed by one of the chefs, he argued strongly that the tendency to exalt the ingredients over the chef is leading to mediocrity. It is a mistake to focus on just ingredients, he suggested. He asserted that if one is paying a certain amount of money to eat in a certain caliber of restaurant one should assume the ingredients are going to be high quality but what makes a meal rise above mediocrity is what the chef does. That the cooking is what counts. 

I so see the point. It’s bound to come up in every creative outlet in some form. In writing: if you have a good subject matter for a stellar story, how much is attributable to the word gifts of the author? If a photograph depicts something beautiful, how much value is placed on the eye of the person behind the lense? Etc. etc.  In essence he seemed to be arguing that quality cooking is about what the creative artist (here the chef) does with the raw materials he or she is given. 

Which is true. Except it obliterates some sad realities about our current food system. Leave aside for a moment that whether or not we “should” be able to assume a certain quality of taste in ingredients in a certain class of restaurant, I don’t think we always can do that. And leave aside for a minute that the kind of food this particular chef cooks is to the food most of us eat as haute courture is to jeans and a t-shirt. 

I’m not entirely sure where I come down in this particular argument. Being someone who both enjoys supporting local farms and purveyors and someone who is frustrated and infuriated by the trendy lemming-like rush to “farm-to-table” concepts, I get the frustration. Simply sourcing hard to find heirloom ingredients for a restaurant does not a five-star dining experience make. But at the same time, democratizing the awareness that foods grown, cultivated and bred in certain ways improves both the quality of those foods and their impact on the world seems like a positive step.

1 comment:

  1. I straddle the fence. Quality ingredients (ahem, move to California), really do make or break a salad, a meal, an experience, etc. On the other hand, skillful cheffing can make bad ingredients rise above and great ones sing. This is what makes food so great, it takes all three, the ingredients, the chef and the eater, to truly make an experience and that's some serious juggling for everyone....