Sep 12, 2011

planting thoughts: session 4, sunday p.m., 8/28

michel bras (chef at bras, laguiole)
vivre la cuisine
for michel bras, quality is a whole activity: it encompasses the cuisine, the ingredients and how they are grown, the architecture of the restaurant, how the staff are treated. the iconic gargouillou of individually cooked young vegetables is "a state of mind" emblematic of bras's approach to cooking. it changes with the vegetables, plants, and flowers that are available, and is his way of communicating through a dish the feeling of being in nature and of being aware of the season. bras calls the gargouillou "a way of looking at nature," an expression of the decades-long relationships he has with the farmers in his part of france, a statement of his belief that it's valuable to sometimes concentrate on what is perfectly ready in the moment. chefs are "marchands de bonheur," their task to produce emotion, delight, and joy in the diner, regardless of the type of food they make. a correctly prepared gargouillou is laborious but transmits a sense of joy in time and place to the diner. food can have the same effect even if less elevated: a tartine of bread selected with care for the right proportion of crust to crumb, just enough shaved chocolate, a few red berries, and a milk skin--simple, delicious pleasure.

harold mcgee (author)
the flavours of plant life
"plants," harold mcgee says, "are the chemical masters of the universe." the chemicals they produce from rocks, air, sunlight, and water make them taste different and, in some cases, delicious. these chemicals serve different purposes. the flavours and aromas of fruit are designed to attract and please animals; in a sense they are complex pre-cooked foods made by plants to be eaten. the flavours we associate with herbs and spices, on the other hand, are often chemical weapons plants produce in response to their environment. understanding the logic of this plant biology and chemistry helps chefs cook better. for instance, the undesirable green and grassy aromas in herbs are produced when the leaves are damaged and the chlorophyll in them breaks down. knowing that the desirable aromas are from oils in hairs on the leaves, slapping the leaves rather than cutting or crushing them produces an aroma with more desirable than undesirable notes. knowing that flavours are essentially a plant's response to the environment may also support the quality claim that organic agriculture makes. use of pesticides and herbicides reduces the stress crop plants experience and, if flavour and aroma compounds are plant responses to stressful environments, possibly makes them less flavourful as a result.

david chang (chef at the momofuku restaurants, new york)
food microbiology: an overlooked frontier
david chang claims that he didn't do well in school--"cooks are allergic to learning and scientific terminology"--but regrets it now. the most exciting projects at momofuku now center on learning how to use microbes to produce more delicious food. one misconception about food is that bacteria and fungi are bad. other than the yeasts and bacteria that make bread, beer, and wine, we think of other microbes as pathogens. yet, microbes can transform raw ingredients in an almost infinite number of ways. microbial growth on food is so affected by local climate and microbe populations that we should think of the flavours of microbial activity almost as another form of terroir. chang and dan felder, who runs the momofuku test kitchen, illustrated this with what they call pork bushi (inspired by katsuobushi, the inoculated, dried bonito that is ubiquitous in japanese cooking). they prepared pork the same way fresh bonito would be prepared for katsuobushi and were surprised when the usual aspergillus molds didn't take hold on the pork. instead, in the new york city air, yeasts from the pichia family flourished on the pork and produced savoury flavours similar to katsuobushi. but they weren't able to get consistent results until some professional microbiologists helped them refine their pork bushi production protocols. chang's goal as a chef is to keep learning more and, these days, learning more often requires chefs to move out of their comfort zone and challenge themselves by returning to the scientific method.

andoni aduriz (chef at mugaritz, guipuzcoa)
natural and cultural ecosystems
at mugaritz, andoni aduriz says, they try to work with what they have, to take the time to respond rather than try to control. taking time and care produces a special product worth waiting for. mugaritz is connected to the place in which it exists by relationships with suppliers, local history, and local culture. for example, the idiazabal cheese that they buy is endangered, the latxa and carranzana sheep from which milk idiazabal is historically made are wild-pastured and less productive than barn-raised sheep--mugaritz's commitment to buying and producing locally is, to aduriz, a critical form of historical and cultural support that keeps communities and traditional ways of doing things alive. what they buy is not only the flavour of these foods, but the time and care expended, the history and culture embodied in them. "our food is very simple," aduriz said, "we like to eat stories."

gaston acurio (chef at astrid y gaston, lima)
the power of food
food has the power to change things--gaston acurio has seen it happen in peru. the new peruvian cuisine began with chefs rediscovering peru's enormous biodiversity. peruvian chefs learned to stop hankering for products from other parts of the world: "using our biodiversity on our own plates felt like a scream of freedom." but after they'd found local ingredients that tasted good, they began to be concerned with justice for food producers, with food access for the poor, and with health. they realised that peruvian cuisine becomes sustainable only if all these pieces are in place--when client, chef, and producer alike are happy. they developed free schools where chefs taught people to cook to change their livelihoods, worked with producers to fight big businesses that were polluting the rivers and fields where food was grown. "all this is accomplished by the power in our hands," acurio said, "there is no limit to what food can change."

other posts about planting thoughts:
planting thoughts: a symposium without dissenting views,
summariessession 1session 2session 3

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