Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Will Cooking be the High Art of the Twenty First Century?

CNN's Eatocracy blog has an interesting bit of video of Chris Cosentino (of San Francisco's Incanto and Boccalone) imploring young chefs to learn the fundamentals and the classics.  Watching this, I had a weird flashback to my old grad school days studying 20th Century American Literature and very similar instructions from successful writers to young aspiring modernists to learn their classics--their iambs and dactyls, their Ovid and their Milton.

I would hardly argue that a cook doesn't need to know how to make an omelet, braise meat, or chop an onion.  That seems pretty obvious.  But, when  Cosentino insists not that a young chef would gain a lot from it but rather that he or she MUST know what a demi-glace is or how to make a shirred egg, suddenly I'm hearing old schoolmasters insisting that if you can't conjugate the Latin you can't possibly construct a passably readable sentence in English.

It's taken me almost a decade, but I've now come to terms with the fact that, a hundred years hence, video games will be the high literature of current our decade, studied with groans by countless classrooms of bored high school students.  But maybe, just maybe, there will be a similar canonization of the great chefs, with cooking being instituted as one of the great expressive arts of the early 21st century.

Or maybe not.  But, all the signs of a coalescing "high art" are starting to appear.


NMissC said...

Cooking a demi-glaze for the first time (from the method in Raymond Sokolov's The Saucier's Apprentice) was a transforming experience for me as a cook. About the same time, I started planting fresh herbs.

I really don't think this is using past or obsolete methods, it's using a method that produces a result that can be achieved no other way, but that isn't used often because of the large cost in ingredients and labor. Understanding the taste and texture is really important, even for cooks who never climb that mountain again and use shortcuts. You need to know the cost of those shortcuts.

He's saying that there's a bundle of knowledge and technique one needs to do this craft. That's not new. If this is a sign that cooking is becoming a high art (I don't think it is) that occurred a century ago. The lesson from Cosetino's piece is really "The French have still won," that fine cooking is defined in the way they codified it.

Restaurant and home cooking have sets of skills one must have to achieve anything at all in a way that is more like making furniture than it is like making a poem.

Robert said...

I myself also learned an awful lot about cooking sauces (at home) when I attempted a demi glace, which in my case I took from a copy of Escoffier that I had gotten for Christmas. That said, I stand by the point that while young chefs would stand to gain a lot from learning such techniques it doesn't necessarily mean they MUST learn them to be good at what they do (unless, of course, they're looking to work in Cosentino's restaurant).

Yes, it's true: the French have still won. But, I predict over the next few years that the importance of the traditional French techniques will fade. Let's watch and see!

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