March 2007 Archives
My friends and I often wonder why Christopher Guest hasn’t sicced his brilliant ensemble of comic actors on the food world, the way he has on the similarly eccentric milieus of dog shows, folk festivals, and community theater. (Can’t you just see Catherine O’Hara as a Ruth Reichl type, affecting a new daffy persona with every wig she tries on?) Maybe it’s because the food world is preemptively amusing, offering such wonderful verité tidbits as Serious Eats’s mini-miniseries on Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten (pictured above). In the first set of episodes, Steingarten hires the wunderkind English chef Paul Liebrandt to be his personal cook for two weeks. Steingarten, known to the wider masses as an Iron Chef judge, is a natural on camera, roosting imperially in his apartment (which looks disconcertingly like Fred Sanford’s house) while Liebrandt sweats it out with grace. Sorry, ladies, Jeffrey’s robe never falls open.
Wolfgang Puck’s recent announcement that he will, from here on out, source all his meat, seafood, and dairy products from organic or “natural” suppliers who practice humane animal husbandry has been greeted with praise in some quarters and with skepticism in others. On Michael “Forcemeat” Ruhlman’s site, a guest blogger, a chef named Bob del Grosso, suspects that this is primarily a PR ploy on Puck’s part, and is also annoyed that Puck, like Charlie Trotter, is renouncing the use of foie gras. (An acutely unthreatening white man, Forcemeat seems to be getting a vicarious thrill these days from periodically turning over his blog to short-fused tough guys.)
Now, I’m not thrilled about yet another chef’s turning his back on foie gras, especially in this climate where some local legislatures are trying to pass laws against its manufacture, sale, and consumption. I don’t like the government legislating what chefs can and cannot use in their kitchens, and on these grounds I oppose even the trans-fat bans that are catching on around the country. My position, as I stated in my Beard House chat, is that, apart from human flesh and endangered species, nothing should be off-limits to a chef.
But I think all the doubters should lay off Puck vis-à-vis his embrace of natural and humanely raised meat and dairy products. Here’s an industry leader trying to do the right thing, and people are taking shots at him for it. I must confess that, prior to interviewing Puck for The United States of Arugula, I, too, was inclined to write him off as a cold, calculating publicity hound of dubious fashion sense. To my surprise and delight, I found him to be a thoughtful, gracious man who spoke with disarming candor and wasn’t hesitant to critique himself and his far-flung enterprises. (When we last spoke, two years ago, he was particularly agitated over the quality of the frozen pizzas sold under his name by ConAgra, the food-processing giant. “They fucked it up, so we have to start all over again,” he said.)
Meanwhile, as Puck gets raked over the coals for actually taking a stand, few in the food world have bothered to critique, or even pay attention to, the ridiculous proclamations of Irene Rosenfeld, the newish CEO of Kraft. It’s an index of how much consumer tastes have changed that Kraft, dark empire of processed cheeses and scary lunchmeats, has been struggling of late, its profit margin nipped into by smaller companies offering products more recognizable as food.
Yet Rosenfeld, in a February interview with the Wall Street Journal (I’d link to it, but it’s subscription-only), seemed to give little thought to fixing the company’s problems by offering healthier and better foods. Instead, she remarked that today’s consumers “think about assembly as opposed to necessarily cooking.” She was excited about “this new product we just launched in January called Deli Creations. These are hot sandwiches that are made with our high-quality ingredients like Oscar Mayer meats, Kraft cheese and A1 and Grey Poupon sauces. But what’s so cool about them is, you stick them in the microwave, it takes 60 seconds, and it tastes freshly baked.” No comment necessary.
She also described what she perceived as the inefficiency of supermarket layouts: “Today, if you want to make a salad, you have to go to the produce to get your lettuce, you have to go to the meat and cheese sections–which are in two different places–to get your meat and cheese, and then you have to go to a third section to get your salad dressing.” Leaving aside the fact that many people derive pleasure from the act of walking section to section–it’s the closest approximation many Americans have of the old, small-town rite of “going marketing,” as James Beard put it–how lazy and lard-arsed do you have to be to complain of visiting four different sections of a store with a pushcart in front of you?
Rosenfeld oversees an operation far larger than Puck’s, yet few in the food world are giving her any stick for her barmy pronouncements and tin-eared business strategy. I’m not opposed to Kraft itself–a proper Philly cheesesteak demands Cheez Whiz, after all–but it’s the mega-companies, more than anyone else, who have to start getting with the times (as Burger King suddenly seems to recognize) and changing the way they go about their business. Wolf, I’m with you–and it looks like I’ve just given you more publicity.
In The Rock Snob*s Dictionary, Steven Daly and I included a definition of the sulky genre known as emo, noting that, “given the hypersensitivity of the genre’s practitioners, most emo artists recoil at being called ‘emo,’ claim their music is unique and uncategorizable, and insist that you don’t even know what the term means anyway.” Now, the foremost practitioners of molecular gastronomy are taking a similar position. In a recent blog post, Michael “Forcemeat” Ruhlman* recounted how, in an onstage conversation he had with Alinea chef Grant Achatz at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, Achatz, whose name is synonymous with molecular gastronomy in America, argued that the term doesn’t apply to him. Forcemeat further cites a “Statement on the ‘new cookery’,” originally printed in the U.K.’s Guardian, in which molecular-gastronomy gods Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal, along with Thomas Keller and Harold McGee, protest that “the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ does not describe our cooking, or indeed any style of cooking,” on the grounds that the phrase was coined in 1992 “to name a particular academic workshop for scientists and chefs on the basic food chemistry of traditional dishes. That workshop did not influence our approach.”
Adrià, Blumenthal et al. undoubtedly mean what they say, but at this point, they’re being pedantic. Language gets bent and morphed by popular usage, and the term “molecular gastronomy” is a good example. Whatever its obscure origins, the term has been repurposed to denote the kind of audacious, wildly inventive, rigorously lab-tested, visually striking cuisine that Adria and Achatz, especially, practice. “Molecular gastronomy” is, simply, a useful term to describe what they do. And complaining about labels is so emo!
* So nicknamed because of his borderline obsessive use of the word in his book The Soul of a Chef. Sure, it’s a legitimate culinary term, but Ruhlman just loves to type it: F-O-R-C-E-M-E-A-T. There are probably Freudian implications to this.