Sunday, October 3, 2010

On imitating the masters

Colman Andrews, in a dialog with Ruth Reichl on her blog, said:

I do think it’s interesting, though, that people (“our” people, the serious food folk) tend to think that they should be able to—that they have the right to be able to—reproduce the most elaborate and labor-intensive of restaurant dishes, when they would never think themselves capable of playing serious music or painting museum-quality art or imagine themselves capable of leaping into Scorcese or Coppola territory with their Flips.

I realized that, to some extent, I do have that belief, and I’d never thought about why.

Let me begin by saying that I’ve never actually tried making anything from a “top tier” chef’s cookbook, like The French Laundry Cookbook. If I’m cooking a nice dinner, it’s probably on the level of The Gourmet Cookbook. But I always felt, in principle, that a capable home chef like myself could cook from the fancy books. The quote above made me think more specifically about the limits and implications of this belief.

First, a few assumptions behind this belief:

  • A well-written and accurate recipe, on the level of the best cookbooks
  • A home cook with good technical competence—someone who takes the hobby seriously and has invested time in developing his or her skills
  • Access to good ingredients (e.g. good local vegetables and meats)
  • Equipment suitable to the task
  • Unlimited time for preparation and cooking

So given these assumptions, should we expect the home cook to reproduce the restaurant dish? My quick answer would be yes, but thinking about it some more, I would probably say that the finished dish might be 90 or 95% of the quality of the restaurant dish. A recipe cannot capture all the nuances of the circumstances, and the chef’s experience—including experience with the specific dish being prepared—may yield a better result. Your peppers may be hotter than the recipe intended. Your idea of “golden brown” may be a little more done than the chef’s idea. Your knife skills may be good, but not professional-level, and maybe your vegetables are less uniform as a result. The professional may also have the experience and gifts to recognize that these tomatoes—tonight—need some acid or sugar that’s not called for in the recipe.

So, really, I expect to be almost there, but that’s still pretty good. So what’s so great about these top chefs? Why do they get the money and recognition?

First and foremost, they can invent the great dishes. All I’m talking about above is the ability to reproduce the dishes, given good instructions. I’ve never had the slightest belief that I could invent a French Laundry dish. People argue over whether cooking is art or craft, and I think this is where we observe the distinction. To me, creating a dish leans more toward art, while cooking it leans toward craft and technique. When you talk about someone imitating Coppola, you probably don’t mean reproducing The Godfather shot-by-shot, frame-by-frame. You probably mean producing a novel work of similar genius.

Second, they can cook quickly and reliably (or run a kitchen that can do so). I assumed unlimited time for a home cook. It’s one thing to work for three straight evenings on dishes for six guests, who are all eating the same thing. If your mayonnaise won’t come together the night before dinner, you can start over. It’s another to serve 20 or 100 tables a night, with everyone at each table ordering something different, and realizing halfway through service that there isn’t enough venison for the special, and the hollandaise is breaking. (Related to this, I think home cooks suffer in plating compared to the pros. You can’t take all day to plate, or the food will get cold. And I don’t know how much the time would help you, anyway—I don’t think you can reproduce a Jackson Pollock by patiently placing each drop. You need the experience and touch.)

So I think the serious home cooks are justified in their expectation that they can reproduce the great dishes, to a close approximation.  But that does not mean that they have attained the genius of the chefs who invented the dishes.

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