A few months ago I was yet again confronted with my own mortality, though this time it thankfully didn’t involve a visit to the emergency room. No this time it was my mortality as a cook. You see, I happened my way into Horizon Books one day not so long ago to get a cup of tea and flip through a magazine or two; at least that was my intention. Amy, the owner of Horizon Books comes over to me while I was waiting for my tea and ever so innocently asks if I’ve heard of the new cookbook, “Modernist Cuisine”.
“It’s that one that costs something like $650, right?” I replied not thinking much of the question.
“Yes, and we have a copy downstairs if you want to look at it.”
Boy did I! It’s not often one gets to read through a cookbook that costs $650 and I was curious to see what could justify such a price tag.
“Meet me downstairs when you get your tea and I’ll show it to you.”
It sounded like an innocuous enough offer. I truly thought I would go down, look through it for a few minutes, scoff at the price tag, drink my tea, and leave. What really happened was much different. Looking through the book felt like I was being plummeted by rocks. I was amazed, not amazed, “wow”, but amazed, “shocked!” I’ve been the kitchen for 30 years. I think I do a pretty good job. But after just a few minutes flipping through this book I was apprehended with the thought of my own demise as a chef. It’s the most important cookbook since Escoffier’s “Guide Culinaire”. We ordered a copy for the restaurant.
Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” As I stood there reading that book I realized that it was an evolution moment for me as a chef. I either adapt or go extinct. There are many restaurants and chefs who were at one time on top of the pile, but because they either could not or would not keep up with new developments in the cooking world their cuisine became irrelevant. While they may have made a statement years before, they no longer do because what they are cooking no longer has any meaning to anyone. I have always feared going down that path. The idea of keeping The Cooks’ House relevant is always at the back of my mind. I’m not the strongest, the most technical, or the most intelligent cook, but I do pride myself on my ability to see through layers of bullshit and get down to the meat of a situation. I realized right then that I have to adapt or become irrelevant. Fifty years from now, the ideas and techniques presented in “Modernist Cuisine” will be the norm in most kitchens. The chefs then, will look back at our cuisine now, and think to themselves, “How quaint”.
How quaint…that’s not exactly how I want to be seen as a chef. I stand at an intersection in my cooking. Going north and south is the current road I am on; simple, pure flavors that are allowed to come alive without much influence coming from me. Intersecting this road coming from the west and east is the new direction of food and cooking. My problem is to merge these two roads into one; it’s the same problem that plagues every chef as each new generation of chef rises and takes their place.
There is nothing in me that wants to make a gel out of tomato stock, wrap it around liquefied pasta and serve with an foam of ionized parmesan cheese. I am still insistent on my original premise that food needs to be served as close to its natural form and taste as possible. But what this book has shown me is that there are better techniques that have been developed that can help me achieve my vision of food, and I intend on using many of these techniques. This will require the purchasing of equipment I never thought I would; pieces like a vacuum pump, flasks of various sizes, a laboratory hot plate, and other odd pieces of equipment. My study of “Modernist Cuisine” has taught me that a modern approach to cooking doesn’t mean I have to sell my soul to molecular gastronomy. It has taught me that after 30 years in the kitchen I still have a lot to learn.
I don’t think restaurants like El Bulli and Alinea will be the norm in the future, but what I do think is restaurants like mine who use the techniques innovated by those restaurants will be. The generation I am training will use these techniques more and the generation after them will put them into full use. I personally can’t wait to see where food is 40 years from now. I know one day my food will be seen as outdated, and that is good, I just hope it happens later rather than sooner.