Saturday, June 21, 2008

Industry Snobbery

I've been watching interviews at the latest James Beard awards at Lincoln Center in New York City. Or more accurately on the "red carpet" before the awards. If you're not aware, the James Beard awards are the equivalent to the "Oscars" in the movie industry. Celebrating every thing from chefs, authors, designers and restaurateurs. The thing that struck me was the apparent high level of snobbery associated with these awards. The chefs and restaurateurs interviewed come across as some of the most arrogant bunch of fat cats I've ever seen. The theme for the evening seemed to be who can act the humblest. Most of the interviewees were very wealthy restaurant owners or celebrity chefs. Most from New York. I was especially taken by the comments of the gray haired Italian dude who was sweating like a pig. When asked about the state of Italian food in the United States he said it had a long way to go. Seeing the surprised look on the interviewers face the damp Italian guy says it may be OK in New York or L.A. but in between it's a "desert". My guess is this guy has never been close to "fly over country" and couldn't find his ass with a mirror. What an arrogant prick! I often complain about Italian restaurants but to make a blanket statement like that shows the attitude of the James Beard awards and the people who select the winners. They are so out of touch with 98% of the industry and America. I think James Beard would be embarrassed at what these awards have come to represent. Snobs voting for snobs.

Would I want a James Beard award? Of course but it will never happen. Just as 99.9% of chefs in America will never have a shot. Whether or not I'm capable is questionable but the big reasons have been discussed in a previous post. I'm here to serve my customers. I serve what I think my customers want. I'm also tucked away in Caledonia Wisconsin. Not exactly a media hot bed. The same goes for most of my colleagues across this country. We are satisfied with what we do. We are satisfied with making our customers happy. We are satisfied to make a comfortable living for ourselves and our employees. THAT is what the restaurant business is about. It's not about red carpets.

I would like to mention a bright spot in the awards. It is every chef's dream to have that medal with the red ribbon placed around their neck. Adam Seigal's dream was fulfilled when he won the coveted award for Best Chef, Midwest. To Adam I say congratulations! It's nice to see a local chef win and it's even nicer to see someone who serves "real" food win. I have a small connection to Lake Park Bistro where Adam is the Executive Chef. My daughter is a food server there and her best friend, who had worked for me for two years, is a line cook. (I'm proud to say I've prepared him well) We also enjoy the restaurant and traveled to New York earlier in the year to attend a dinner prepared there by Chef Seigal. So I'm familiar with the Chef's style and the Bartolotta organization for whom he works. Chef Seigal serves "real" food with "real" ingredients using tried and true preparation methods. These days the trend in the high end restaurants is to serve multiple course "tasting" menus consisting of five, seven, 14 or even 21 courses of little "bites". Also common amongst these menus is something called "molecular gastronomy" who's practitioners are becoming more and more prevalent among James Beard award winners. This style of "cooking" uses unconventional ingredients and preparation methods, ie: liquid nitrogen, xanthan gum, and others that I have no clue about. The presentation of these plates are often contrived and bizarre. I call it "cooking with smoke and mirrors". Almost like a magic show. The preponderance of these "restaurants" are located in big media centers and get alot of attention. They also cater to foodies who continue to demand something new and different. It is also these foodies who nominate and select the James Beard Award winners. So it is with satisfaction that a chef who still believes in "real" good food won the award.

By the way, what I want to know is, what is the state of American food in Italy?


RAHiggins1 said...

A very well thought out, excellently written composition. I may never make it to Wisconsin, but your blog continues to make we want to go.

skip said...

It has been called a "movement" and a trend but "Molecular Gastronomy" or "Culinary Alchemy" as its been called, gets a bad rap and is completely misrepresented. Its not a method of preperation,its the science behind why food does what it does. Its a scientific approach to the kitchen that has been around since the 1800's. Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, Physiology of Taste, in 1825. Brillat-Savarin defined gastronomy as the intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns nourishment. Herve This defines Molecular Gastronomy as culinary transformations and the sensory phenomena associated with eating. What's wrong with using science to answer the whys of our culinary dilemmas. Should one salt a steak before, during, or after cooking? How does the shape of a wine glass affect the taste of a given wine? Science gives us real answers.

As quoted from the, Dictionnare de Trevoux(1827) "it is not enough to know the principles, one needs to know how to manipulate". So after doing a bit of research, I decided to taste the "movement" and have eaten at a few of these places, one being, Moto in Chicago. Before he started his "smoke and mirrors magic show" Homaro Cantu, was Charlie Trotter's sous chef, so he is very well aware of tradition cooking and is actually a believer in knowing the traditional methods first and foremost. I had some fantastic dishes, out of the twenty, that had no "magic" involved at all. Chicken fried quail with crispy mac and cheese and white truffle powder. Barbequed pork belly stuffed inside of a halved and cored apple with a carmelized peanut sauce. Pretty straight forward if you ask me. The kicker was the silverware. These spiral contraptions, that were stuffed with fresh sage. A little too much fresh sage and that is all your going to taste, so why not keep it out and smell it the throughout the entire course. I thought it was genius.

I have also eaten at a couple of places where the chefs have worked for the godfather of misrepresented "mg" Ferran Adria, who has 3 Michelin stars and rated number one in the world by his peers... I can't remember the guys name @ Macarena Tapas, Naperville, who spent 4 years in Spain with Adria, has liquid empinadas(spellcheck)which were different but delicious and Room 4 Dessert in New York. Chef Goldfarb, dubbed "The Globetrotter Chef"(who happens to be on Food Network @ the moment, in a dessert competition) at R4D can be a little out there.Serves desserts only and has a dessert tasting menu.

The chef from L'Enclume, which is on my restaurant wish list, looks like a cross between Carrot Top and Albert Einstein and his food reflects that. Heston Blumenthal, The Fat Duck, England, who is working with scientists to see if he can amplify the sound of a crunch, is absolutely insane. Blumenthal studies the molecular flavor compounds of foods to see what works together and what doesn't. But saying that chefs using new tecniques are not serving "real" food is a little harsh. Thomas Keller uses "sous vide", as does Charlie Trotter. Talking to Chef Bowles, during a recent visit to Graham Elliot, Chicago, he uses science without the dog and pony show. The food there was top-notch.

I agree that it can be a little "showy" and down right weird at times but its a matter of the chef, his interpretation of the dish and how he wants you to "experience" your meal. Not "molecular gastronomy". Jump on you tube and take a peak at, Decoding Ferran Adria, Bourdain was floored by some of the preperations and presentations, Ferran laid in front of him. Adria's, El Bulli, has been operating at a loss since 2000 . And is subsequently the hardest restaurant in the world to get into.

IMO, one should read into the "term" or a little about its founders oxford physicist, Nicholas Kurti and french chemist, Herve This (pronounced teess), or Peter Barham, or Harold McGee before dismissing it entirely. Once you have read into it,you will then be able to seperate the fakers, imitators, and misrepresenters from the guys who are using science and chemistry to put out some unique and tasty food. BTW, Goldfarb lost.

Scott Sebastian said...

Thanks for the post Skip. Very interesting.

It's definitely a difference of philosophy. Call me old school but I feel food doesn't need to be manipulated to the point of disguise. I understand the "surprise factor" and pushing the envelope but I still question the over all motivation of doing so. As I said before, in the large media markets chuck full of foodies needing to be dazzled you need to reach deep into your bag of tricks. I don't see a future in it. I could easily be wrong ( I often am) but I see it more as a passing fad.

You mentioned the wonderful "traditional" courses interspersed with the "scientific" ones. I'm guessing they recognize the need for substance.

As far as being Charlie Trotter's sous chef? Not everyone cares for Trotter's style. (Yes I know he's done pretty well)

The fresh sage trick? What if you don't like sage? Call me a rube but why have a 21 course tasting menu when you're smelling the same thing throughout? Genius? I call it misguided.

The wine glass? That makes sense. A tool to increase the inherent values of a product not manipulate. The key word being inherent.

In general chefs will do what chefs will do. More power to these guys but you're talking to someone who has built his career by fighting for and finding good products, preparing them properly and serving them in a timely consistent fashion. Yes, it's old school but that's the book I learned from. As a result you'll never see me on the cover of a magazine. I'm fine with my place in front of the stove.

Again I thank you for the post. It's an interesting discussion.

Scott Sebastian said...
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