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Tuesday
June

6

2006
12:08 AM



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Misguided, June 6, 2006  Today I got a call from a reporter. She was writing a story on the topic of a particular tumultuous discussion on eGullet. I unfortunately have not had enough time to keep up with all the sites I'd like to frequent, and eGullet is certainly a high quality site. So I had to go look up the thread to which she was referring. This particular discussion is entitled "Sincerest Form, Interludes after midnight". The topic is essentially a discussion of what's appropriate and inappropriate when it comes to various chefs copying food and dishes from one another. We've had our own brush with this debate here and here on tastingmenu.

The brief synopsis is this. During my last trip to Asia I ate at the Tapas Molecular Bar in Tokyo. The meal was a 25 course "molecular gastronomy" survey. The young chef was brand new and had recently come from Mini Bar in Washington, DC. He made it crystal clear to me during the meal that the bulk of the dishes he was serving he'd brought with him from his previous employer where he was not the head chef. I relayed all this information in my write-up along with the fact that I truly enjoyed the meal. Despite his forthrightness, and my conveying his words (both in the write-up and multiple times in the comment stream) some readers sill insisted on beating up on this young chef for ripping off Mini Bar.

The first issue is simple. The Chef at Tapas Molecular Bar (name chosen by management, not by him) was completely up front about where his dishes came from. So it's not like he  was trying to pass off the dishes as his own unique inventions. But this to me is a footnote in a the context of a much bigger issue.

I'll ask you the same question I asked the reporter today: why are the same people who criticize these modern more experimental chefs for borrowing dishes not criticizing every Thai restaurant they go to for serving so many of the same dishes? I'm serious. The problem is not copying. The problem is that we have started to judge food as we judge couture or popular music. And while the latest hit song may be catchy, quickly wildly popular, and hit all the right sugar and fat receptors (as it were), its shelf life is often relatively short. Hit songs are not classics. Classics have staying power. Great food to me is more like classical music or jazz. Does creativity play a role? Of course. But great compositions are honored and revered. Fans go to concerts to hear them faithfully reproduced in both traditional and also updated forms. Jazz musicians can play the same song twenty times with each rendition being both new and fresh as well as faithful to the spirit of the original.

The issue is also not about credit. Of course everyone should mention their sources. But wouldn't it be great if we got to a world where mentioning your source was almost irrelevant because everyone was more focused on the quality and consistency with which you materialized the particular dish, and not focused on whether you'd come up with your own personal signature or style.

Cuisines across the world have taken decades and sometimes centuries to evolve to their current form. Evolution and experimentation have resulted in perfect combinations of local ingredients. To think that our emphasis should be on asking young (or veteran) chefs to come up with their own styles or genres of cuisine is a misapplication of resources and priorities. Are we that bored of every single dish in existence on the planet that we need new ones created to keep our fragile interest? Don't get me wrong. I'm a fan of creativity. I'd just prefer that we reward chefs primarily for their deep and undivided commitment to quality, flavor, and freshness. Being able to reproduce those qualities at reasonable scale on a consistent basis is a pre-requisite for getting to find your own voice.

I'll leave you with this thought. For the young chef who travelled half way across the planet to his first head chef job at Tapas Molecular Bar, I am deeply grateful he decided to populate his first menu with dishes from his previous restaurant. These were dishes he knew he could make well. I know that over time he aspires to populate his menu with more and more of his own original creations. But even if he never does I truly won't care. As long as he and others focus primarily on quality and not "coolness" then I'll be a happy customer.

I hope some of this makes it into the reporter's story. I'll keep you posted when it comes out.

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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