Jan. 19th, 2010

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For a lot of foodies, there's an almost fatal romance with restaurants. You eat some good food while eating out, and restaurant cooking seems to be where it's at. Restaurants are innovative -- you don't find food at the in-laws like you do at restaurants. Cooks do their thing all day (or night) long out of love. There is the awesome supply chain, the varied skill set, the training, the apprenticeship, the knife skills that only come with hours of daily practice.

The guys actually working in the restaurant kitchens have a different story. The heat, the hours, the weird personality quirks bordering on diagnosable psychological neuroses. And, the cooks are the first to point out that there's nothing innovative in a restaurant. The head chef, yes, can substitute Pernod for tarragon in the Coquilles Saint Jacques -- but then has to do it for the rest of the life of the restaurant. The line cook can't substitute as the whim strikes. A restaurant dish is about consistency. The dish must be made the same way, 25 times a night, 365 nights a year. What's your favorite dish at your favorite restaurant...do you want it to be different each time you go there?

I have my top-3 favorite books when it comes to the real life of restaurants. The top book is by a real trained-in-the-trenches chef, Anthony Bourdain, and his (in)famous Kitchen Confidential. On the one hand, it describes life on the line as only Bourdain can. On the other hand, he describes an almost tender love of food in all forms that is poetic to read. This book is responsible more than anything else for me to decide to take the next step in my own slap-dash improv cooking. It made me want to learn the craft, even if self-taught. It made me understand that there was structure and tradition behind cooking, and not just throwing stuff together because it seemed to work that evening. It moved my understanding from groping instinct to craftmanship and history and the reasons why dishes are the way they are.

Number two on my list is Michael Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef. Ruhlman conned the Culinary Institute of America into letting him audit their courses to write a book. He originally wanted to learn how to make brown veal sauce like a pro, and maybe get a book out of the process. It ended up with Ruhlman being fundamentally transformed by the process, tradition, attitude, and commitment of being a cook.

I just finished Bill Buford's Heat. Christey bought me this book a couple years ago, and it just now bumped to the top of my stack, and to number three on my list. Similar to Rulhman, it tells the story of a dinner-party wannabe who is utterly transformed while learning the realities of professional food preparation. On one hand, it's a fun and witty arm's-length biography of Mario Batali, especially the alpha male hard partying side that isn't part of Batali's cultivated Food Network persona. Equally illuminating is Batali's strong business side (the job of a restaurant is nothing more than taking raw materials, altering them, and making money selling them to customers). But Buford, a magazine editor, takes his fun-for-a-month apprenticeship in Batali's restaurant and fully explodes it into a mid-life-crisis quest into culinary exploration in several trips to rural Italy. If you've ever read Carlos Castaneda ("I don't understand, Don Juan, I'm just a cultured city boy") and then tried to apply Castaneda to cooking, that's the flavor of Buford's book. From my own self-taught leanings and prejudices, I have to admit that when I came to the very last line in Heat, I actually cheered out loud. I await the sequel.

When it comes down to it, I don't know what I'm doing when it comes to cooking. I mean, I know what I'm doing a lot more than I ever did. I understand mother sauces, I understand meat and seafood. I understand techniques and ingredients in ways that would be surprising to me even two or three years ago, and this coming from someone who has had an interest in cooking since I was six. But, why is this so important to me? Hobbies are hobbies, but cooking doesn't seem to cover it in the same ways I enjoy fishing or computers or rebuilding engines. There are primal forces in food that influence behavior in strong unconscious ways, but I can't accept that the stunning pleasure in making a perfect béarnaise is related to an instinct buried in the DNA of my genus. I enjoy doing it, but in expressing my pleasure, these three books go a long way to help me understand myself.


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January 2012

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