01 December 2006 - 9:29 AM
The Cutting Edge
Over the holiday weekend, the Viking and I caught part of the ongoing festival of weirdness which was the 'Top Chef' marathon on Bravo. I don't like 'Top Chef' as much as 'Project Runway' partially because Tom Colicchio is no Tim Gunn, and partially because I have a much clearer idea of where the line between couture and what people actually wear is, and how the rules are different. Comes of having read all those fashion magazines when I was in high school, I suppose. Had I been as pointlessly addicted to Gourmet as I was to Vogue, perhaps it would be different.
There's another part of it in that I cook on something close to a daily basis out of necessity, not because I'm trying to product great culinary art. Due to the way the world works, buying clothes is cheaper than sewing for myself, so my sewing and knitting can be treated as hobbies and art. Eating out every night of the week, however, is not cheaper, and so cooking, while I enjoy it and wish to do it well, isn't something I can elevate to art every night of the week. Of any given Tuesday, I'm aiming for 'quick, tasty, and nutritious' not 'meal that will change people's lives with its excellence' or even 'meal that justifies my paycheque at this restaurant.' This makes it hard for me to relate to the contestants.
Then there is the physio-psychological component to food (fashion is, after all, just what you wear, but you are what you eat); food is deeply tied up with memory and emotional responses and a pile of other such stuff that fashion doesn't have to carry. Not full time, anyway.
And of course food needs to not just be different, or look pretty on the plate, but taste good. That puts an additional level of complexity on the 'Top Chef' concept as well.
The above is compounded by the fact that I don't eat out at 'fine dining establishments' on a regular basis. The money thing again. It occurs to me that part of why I get annoyed with the Slow Food Movement is that they're approaching food like chefs, whereas I have to approach it like a working woman who cooks, and our perspectives are too far out of alignment. It's like they're speaking Esperanto, while I'm still pounding rocks together. But that's another problem.
So 'Top Chef' baffles me more than it inspires me, and I didn't spend a whole lot of time paying close attention to most of what went on, though I did watch the Thanksgiving dinner episode because Anthony Bourdain was the guest judge (and he did not disappoint. There was a splendid moment when, after being presented with a plate of 3 white mushy starchy things, Bourdain turned to Colicchio and asked 'What kind of crackhouse are you running here?')
But yeah ... baffled. The instructions were to create a 'cutting edge' Thanksgiving dinner, incorporating the flavours of traditional Thanksgiving with avant-garde techniques and presentations. And while I can grasp 'avant-garde' in the context of fashion, I am unclear as to what that means in the realm of food.
I do get that sous-vide and 'foams' are currently trendy. Though I have pinned down that the whole sous-vide thing reminds me entirely too much of the old Daisy Seal-a-Meals of the late 70s and early 80s, and that's part of why I can't take it seriously. And foams are just silly. Flavoured air makes about as much sense as the 'three artfully arranged green beans with a drizzle of sauce' platings of the '80s.
But I could still sorta get why cranberry foam and sous-vide roulades were deemed acceptably cutting edge. The trendiness of the technique was what carried those things. The rest of it though -- really hard for me to tell what was going to meet that 'avant-garde' mark. Or how, if it wasn't, you could have improved it. Or at least made it cutting edge. The mushroom soup prepared by one contestant was deemed the best dish of the night, but it wasn't considered 'cutting edge.' What makes a mushroom soup cutting edge, anyway?
Likewise the whole dessert thing left me a little confused. I understood the critique that people have been offering flavoured crèmes brulées in restaurants for at least 10 years now, so pumpkin crème brulée did not meet the criteria. But what would be sufficiently avant-garde? If I put a tiny portion of pumpkin custard in an espresso cup and served it on a square plate with a shortbread petticoat tail and a small dollop of whipped cream and called it a deconstructed pumpkin pie, would that work? (I could even build up a whole case for the petticoat tail recalling the shape of a slice of traditional pumpkin pie and possibly make myself look witty. Or like I was trying too hard).
Would it help if instead of generic pumpkin, I used some kind of obscure heirloom squash? Limited my spice palette to, say, nutmeg? Spiced the whipped cream instead of the custard? What are the rules here, anyway?