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A great chef vs. a culinary genius


Wesley1
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I was recently talking to the Pastry Chef at my work about my future plans in the food world, mentioning how i longed to join those working in the best kitchens. I mentioned a number of example places, the obvious Keller, Boulud, Trotter, Ripert, as places of interest, because of their high level of standards and quality.

To this, im pretty sure, he laughed to himself. He began telling me that a restaurant cook like myself was very different from those in the upper realm of the food world. He told me they were "crazy" and "insane" and that they in fact must think the same of us (restaurant cooks).

Now i should have asked him, and i am afraid i missed out on the opportunity for a good conversation, but i didn't. But what exactly was he talking about? are they really that different? Isn't the only difference the quality of both product, leadership, service standards? I know there is a certain level of originality involved that some chefs cant match, but beyond that; what is the fundamental difference? And how much different is cooking in one these kitchens as opposed to working in a nice restaurant?

Im looking forward to hearing peoples thoughts.

Thanks, Wes

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I was recently talking to the Pastry Chef at my work about my future plans in the food world, mentioning how i longed to join those working in the best kitchens. I mentioned a number of example places, the obvious Keller, Boulud, Trotter, Ripert, as places of interest, because of their high level of standards and quality.

   

    To this, im pretty sure, he laughed to himself. He began telling me that a restaurant cook like myself was very different from those in the upper realm of the food world. He told me they were "crazy" and "insane" and that they in fact must think the same of us (restaurant cooks).

   

      Now i should have asked him, and i am afraid i missed out on the opportunity for a good conversation, but i didn't. But what exactly was he talking about? are they really that different? Isn't the only difference the quality of both product, leadership, service standards? I know there is a certain level of originality involved that some chefs cant match, but beyond that; what is the fundamental difference? And how much different is cooking in one these kitchens as opposed to working in a nice restaurant?

Im looking forward to hearing peoples thoughts.

                                                        Thanks, Wes

First off thamk the margarita gods for hitting me early tonight, look working for the big names is huge BUT it all depends on what it is you want to end up. :earn tricks and receipe methodss etc and get on down the road -- make you own name - burn your own way into culinary genius - just take the ideas further!@

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I'm not sure if this is helpful, but I'll give it a go. I've dined at Alinea - genius, right? And recently I ate at St. Louis' closest equivalent - Niche. When I finished the tasting menu I knew I had eaten food from a very, very good chef. But it was not a meal from a genius. It took me a long time to figure out why I felt that way, but ultimately it was when I said to my spouse, "There was only one thing in that whole meal that was unique or that I cared enough to want to learn more about." He had an outstanding "reuben," but while playful, was easily constructed components that had been done before. Niche is a nice restaurant, but not genius. Every time I see a post in the Alinea topic, and see dishes they've created since what I had (one year ago), I see repeated moments of genius.

(edited to add a very important 'not')

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Attention to detail.

Are you asking what the difference is to work in their kitchens or to run one yourself?

The working-in part perhaps is all attention to detail. I have friends whom worked in "best kitchens", for example bouley, per se, guy savoy etc. Out of what I picked out from our chats is their quality control they constantly pursue. It's all the little things that matter, what most overlook and skip on.

The pastry chef that scoffed at you was quite rude. I would of squished one of his tarts or something. Don't let him bother you, if you want to work in one of these prestigious restaurants just call-in for a stage/trail. Out of that one day or week you are in their kitchen, you can pick up many numerous new things you never seen before.

When I worked in nyc for a pretty renowned restaurant, it was the little things that impressed and stoodout, these things continued to impress me till today. One thing that I never seen was the changing of our chef coats. Right after family, if we had time to eat or not. Everyone would swap our dirty coats for nice clean ones. That showed me despite their huge laundry bill, that the little extra step just improved their role in this industry in caring.

Jim

Edited by stealw (log)
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"Most diners believe that their sublime sliver of seared foie gras, topped with an ethereal buckwheat blini and a drizzle of piquant huckleberry sauce, was created by a culinary artist of the highest order, a sensitive, highly refined executive chef. The truth is more brutal. More likely, writes Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, that elegant three-star concoction is the collaborative effort of a team of "wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts, and psychopaths," in all likelihood pierced or tattooed and incapable of uttering a sentence without an expletive or a foreign phrase. Such is the muscular view of the culinary trenches from one who's been groveling in them, with obvious sadomasochistic pleasure, for more than 20 years."

-Anthony Bourdain- Kitchen Confidential.

I have worked with talented Chefs, not known in the media ofcourse, but talented nonetheless. My experience with them goes from one end of the extreme to another. I've had Chefs who screamed at you, ala Ramsay and there were others that threw stuff at you when they gt frustrated. I would never put up with these people if they were not talented and had nothing to offer me. I am 5'10" tall and I am a bull at 220lbs. and I will trash you.

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No matter where you are..........Denny's, or Red Lobster, or Alinea, or Niche, or Trotters.......working in the restaurant/food biz is crazy. And a lot of us "crazies" take pride in that.

I know I do.

Basically, no matter where you work, there's always some degree of B.S. to be dealt with. Choosing your career and your niche in that career has a lot to do with the B.S. you can put up with and the B.S. you can't.

I know that I am not happy doing the same old thing, and I know that I would never work for a chain, or a grocery store. I stick with small business, where my creativity can flourish, and I don't have to deal with corporate suits and their out of touch ideas regarding the smooth operation of a busy kitchen.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to work in a more refined kitchen.....I say "go for it". You may enjoy the quality and attention to detail vs. just "slinging hash". I know I would not be happy if I worked for a low-end eatery. Not that there's anything wrong with it......it's just not for me.

Egos abound everywhere, but I would say even more so in a higher end restaurant. I think one of your major challenges there would be dealing with egos........they can be huge hurdles sometimes.

Maybe that pastry chef you talked to had that kind of attitude because he himself couldn't hack it in a higher end kitchen? Or not. Regardless, I would take his input with a grain of salt. :wink:

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.....He began telling me that a restaurant cook like myself was very different from those in the upper realm of the food world. He told me they were "crazy" and "insane" ....

I think they're obsessed and consumed by their own creativity, they're original thinkers, they're "big thinkers", and they have the courage to go for it.

The pastry chef that scoffed at you was quite rude. I would of squished one of his tarts or something.

That is just adorable, Jim. :smile:

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Obsessed and consumed but I would say by food, the couple I've worked for have lived food. Small libraries of cook books, subscriptions to all types of magazines, days off that revolve around food, restaurants eaten at etc..

Great dishes great products don't stay that way forever, it takes constant revision, what is the best then, may not be the best now.

I don't think having the courage to go for it is just it, but a believe in what you do, why I made a lousy salesman I didn't believe in the product.

But more importantly a desire to learn, food is such a broad subject with such a short time on this planet there is no hope for any chef to master it all. There is so much they need to learn from being a grocer, butcher, fishmonger, cheesemonger and on and on.

Great chefs are commis for there whole life, there was a reason why MPW made all ranks wear a commis apron. I always found the ones that know it all, missed it all.

Perfection cant be reached, but it can be strived for!
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I think that the word genius is used very easily in the culinary world...

I would not compare making a pea ravioli to mozart's 40th...

I would not compare making bacon and eggs ice-cream to formulating relativity...

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To quote Charles Barrier

"Among chefs there have only been 2 geniuses - Carême and Escoffier. Point was a purveyor of happiness."

I think it is a bit unfair to compare a single dish to mozarts 40th though. I do see some similarities that are very similar to a conductor, to watch a professional kitchen in full flow, with leads taking there own solos, the head chef keeping the timing flowing.

I do understand your point though, many are visionaries rather than true geniuses. Though I also would disagree with Barrier that Point wasn't.

Perfection cant be reached, but it can be strived for!
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Read Michael Ruhlman's "The Soul of a Chef". Keller came from pretty humble beginnings.

I have no idea how far you can go, but hard work and ability is what separates the pros from the wannabes. It has nothing to do with which cooking school you went to, etc. If you work hard, read, study, take opportunities to learn even if you're not getting paid, etc., it will make your dreams more possible.

I'm sure there are a lot of young cooks who have dreams like yours. Those who work hard, get to know people who can help them, and show that they are more interested in learning than in making money, will go a lot farther than those who don't.

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I agree with pretty much all of this and thank you all very much. i guess what i was asking was; as far as the work goes, is it the same idea only more exacting, more tedious, and more precise? How different can it be from the fast-paced, thrill of a busy line? or is the thrill not from the pace but from the product and standards?

And I guess that the pastry chef assumed i want to keep a restaurant cooks position for the rest of my life.

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Very different, though don't get the use of thrill, for thrills I go climbing, ride a bike etc.

To me I always found it an honour, you have fantastic ingredients, normally fantastic dining ware. So working with the best of the best, serving brilliant wines I always felt it was a disgrace not to do my best for the ingredient or the customer. So self pride is what drives me.

I've always tried to cook so that a customer wouldn't know whether the head chef was in the kitchen or not, or even whether he's running the section.

But then I admire the busy line cook as much as I admire the gourmet chef, both have a different set of skills.

I know there probably be a few that disagree but I very much believe in admire to aspire, which means eating in top places. I did it with an apprentice I had been working with. (This is at the close end of it all, not the true top, a chef who had worked with a great chef)

The apprentice had been working there for a year or so, I had eaten at a few of the higher end ones. So with my final pay check as I was moving on, I paid. All I'll say is he was stunned working behind the scenes there is much you can miss, but these meals don't come cheap.

I'll always have someone to admire as long as have a love for cooking, and never enough money to eat at all the places I wish to.

Perfection cant be reached, but it can be strived for!
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To quote Charles Barrier

"Among chefs there have only been 2 geniuses - Carême and Escoffier. Point was a purveyor of happiness."

I think it is a bit unfair to compare a single dish to mozarts 40th though. I do see some similarities that are very similar to a conductor, to watch a professional kitchen in full flow, with leads taking there own solos, the head chef keeping the timing flowing.

I do understand your point though, many are visionaries rather than true geniuses. Though I also would disagree with Barrier that Point wasn't.

we have to remember that Adria did NOT invent spherification. It is a known process for almost decades now, he was the first one to use it in cooking. Almost any technique and ingredient used in what is proclaimed as molecular gastronomy has been in use in the food industry for decades (xanthan, guar, metho, gellan, pectin, etc etc...).

Yes, admittedly these chefs are very perceptive, tedious, probably with amazingly good palates, but geniuses? nope, sorry...

if I would take Dali over Adria any day

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Great chefs are driven, often singleminded in their pursuit of quality and running a successful restaurant at a consistent level. They are keen to detail. Geniuses just think up shit and make it work, not always in a successful business. Great chefs remain employed. I also think there is a certain genius in most successful chefs in their ability to recognize what works. I also think guys like Harlan Sanders, Ray Croc(sp?), Wolfgang, and all those that created and defined "fast food" are geniuses.

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Its funny that the pastry chef said these chefs are crazy. Ive had some experience in a top kitchen and I can see where that point of view comes from. I remember my first day in that kitchen. I got there at 9 in the morning. BY 4 in the afternoon I was worn out not form the work but the little things. The extra steps they go to keep their kitchen clean. How meticulously organized the cooking tools were. I was unnerved by how noone at all talked, there was no music, everyones head was down. BY 12 that night after service, I was on my hands and knees scrubbing behind an oven, and I remember thinking how these cooks were crazy, they must all be tired and hungry I though, but they were still going fill Kilt. After a month or so I began to understand. It was this level of focus and dedication that allowed them to for instance make 20 course tasting menus flawlessly day in and day out. They all sacrificed the normal things Humans need. Proper nutrition, Exercise, sunlight, Healthy relationships with friend and families. Its not for everyone, to be a great chef you need to understand that Its all or nothing. The genius are the people who go beyond these sacrifices, they are the people who never let the lifestyle wear on them, the people who are pure in their focus. And yes I believe these people are insane.

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  • 2 weeks later...

To me, a great chef is exceedingly talented, demands the best ingredients, demands exact execution, and requires perfection in how the dishes are assembled and presented.

A genius chef is all the above but creates new dishes that are brilliant--blazes new ground by combining flavours and textures in ways others haven't done before.

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I think there is a... distinguishable difference, but also some major similarities.

Think.. what is the difference in drive, dedication, and perseverance between a Chef running 20 course, world renown tasting menus, and a Chef training for months to cook flawlessly for seven days under the scrutiny of a panel to earn Certified Master Chef? Nothing - what drives them is perfection, and they exhibit the same passion. How the passion is manifested though is what is the difference between greatness and genius, and this is true for everyone at every level of the kitchen. I think anyone can be a great chef by mastering technique, flavors, ingredients, and managing their kitchen successfully. I think anyone can be a culinary genius by mastering their mind and manipulating their ingredients to manifest that control. You don't have to be a genius to be a chef, and you don't have to be a chef to be a genius. Alice Watters is a culinary genius. She revolutionized cuisine in a part of the world; she took ingredients from her region and changed what everyone thought about them. She's not a great chef though, Paul Bertolli is.

Furthermore you have to wonder.. The CMC is flawless, but is he/she creative? (not always) The Genius is creative, but is he/she flawless? (not always)

"But then I admire the busy line cook as much as I admire the gourmet chef, both have a different set of skills." Exactly. I love kitchen work, but I have an (much stronger) inclination to overfill my brain with information and ideas than to work the hot line all the time. Some are the opposite. and both are necessary in the industry

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@RedRum not sure I said Adria was a genius ;-)

I actually have to kind of agree with Barrier there has been very few true geniuses, plenty of exceptional "artists" I know some of us hate the use of artist.

Having just tried looking up Sous Vide as I was trying to think of something that perhaps highlighted something modern. I got back to the variety of chefs that had been influenced by Point.

To find the pertinent quote

...In many respects what he did was to return to the essential bases which had become clouded with superfluous dogma and apply a little common sense...

Great Chefs Of France

Anthony Blake & Quentin Crewe

Now to me even in Adria's work I still see this, it is not Escoffiers/Repertoire de la Cuisine/Curnonsky, cuisine. Now perhaps Barrier may of changed his opinion many years later who knows.

I for one would like to see a family tree type thing of the great chefs starting with Point, I suspect many of the greats in a roundabout way have been influenced by him some knowingly others not. But then I suppose I see what Barrier is saying whilst influencing many he perhaps did little otherwise, unlike Escoffier where many bits still live on.

I also think perhaps even Alexis Soyer could be classed as genius.

Edited by PassionateChefsDie (log)
Perfection cant be reached, but it can be strived for!
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  • 5 weeks later...
I think that the word genius is used very easily in the culinary world...

I would not compare making a pea ravioli to mozart's 40th...

I would not compare making bacon and eggs ice-cream to formulating relativity...

really? because im sure mozart was following guidelines formulated by other composers previous, and anything new came from his personal taste. much that same way that one makes a sublime ravioli.

And doesnt it take the ability to look at things in different ways and to challenge accepted rules(taste, texture, or science) to do both the theory of realtivity and create a delicious breakfast-flavored dessert?

theres no likeness here? at all?

Edited by Wesley1 (log)
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I've been looking at this forum with interest for a while as it reflects people's stereotypes of what a genius is.

I am a psychologist by profession and have looked at this issue from various angles.

In a technical sense, genius has been defined as a score on an IQ type test above a certain level. This definition is simplistic and far too narrow to embrace the concept of genius.

In a societal sense, it tends to represent anyone who comes up with truly original ideas, often combining disparate elements to create something that others could not approach at that time (once the breakthrough has been made others may elaborate on it, leading to the phrase "standing on the shoulders of giants").

Genius is not restricted to one area (eg. physics, music, etc), although the pervasiveness and approachability of artistic endeavors mean that it often is associated with composers, artists, etc.

Because of the nuances and technicalities of many fields, it is only a person who understands the field fully who can recognize what true genius is. In many cases, therefore, we will not be exposed to ideas of this calibre and will thus not know that something is work of genius until someone tells us that it is. Without physicists telling us that relativity was a work of genius, most of us would never had known.

When someone looks at what they have been told is genius, they will often develop stereotypes as to what genius is (eg. has to be the areas in Art, Music, or Physics). This unnecessarily restricts what we think of as genius.

Interestingly genius is sometimes so far in advance of what anyone else is doing that it is often not seen as such in the person's lifetime (most of us can only appreciate genius in retrospect).

It is not the imitators or those who come up with minor variants who display the genius, but rather those who were the originators. Also, it doesn't matter if the techniques have been used before in another area; it is the use of them for the new purpose that indicates the presence of originality: genius is an extreme expression of this.

Cooking is an artistic endeavor. It is when the art goes into truly original areas that we come across genius. To my mind, we have seen a number of examples of this in recent times, many of which are outlined above.

Edited by nickrey (log)

Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"The Internet is full of false information." Plato
My eG Foodblog

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I am a psychologist and neuroscientist as well.

We need to understand something. That to be considered a genius, you need to achieve something immensely original, creative and inspiring in a field. BUT (and there is a big but...). The degree of complexity and difficulty of the chosen field plays a role.

Like it or not, there are professions and fields that are more difficult and complex than others. Sure, psychology and neuroscience are complex. my field is working in neuromaging, scanning brains in MRI and EEG machines to see differences in brain activation when processing faces.

I might find something very interesting. But there are very few people or anyone in the field cognitive neuroscience that will be considered as a genius. sure, neuroscience is complex and difficult. But not complex ENOUGH for one to be considered a genius.

I have met some of the most prominent people in the field, and I am lucky enough to be working with one. They are very smart, perceptive, their work is influential, but not INGENIOUS.

Same with chefs. There are very smart and influential chefs, but none can be called ingenious, in the sense that the field has limited complexity. Cooking is a difficult and complex field, requires multi-tasking, artistic perception. But in my opinion, it is far less complex than some fields of science or arts.

The extend that a field impacts our everyday life and humanity as a whole is a necessary clause to define whether one who excels in that field is a genius. window fitting is complex, sure enough. But would one go as far to compare the best window fitter in history (don't know who that might be...) with Antoni Gaudi?

Einstein (in my mind one of the very few people in history that should be considered as geniuses) figured out and gave to humanity some fundamental laws of how the nature and the universe work. He achieved something that no other person has ever achieved and has been the basis for scientific research for 100 years now. Sure, Adria did something no one else did with his pea ravioli and mango caviar, and blumethal with nitrogen egg and bacon ice creams. But I would not go as far say that these had much of an impact in the way we perceive the world...

I understand that in the end, it is all down to semantics... as nickrey says, there is preconception of which field a genius come from. But I personally believe that this preconception is to a large extent justified. We tend to attribute the term genius to people coming from fields of high difficulty and complexity. I love food, I love cooking, I love the culinary world, but I would have to say that it does not suffice for someone to excel in the culinary field to be considered as a genius.

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We need to understand something. That to be considered a genius, you need to achieve something immensely original, creative and inspiring in a field. BUT (and there is a big but...). The degree of complexity and difficulty of the chosen field plays a role.

If we accept this definition of genius, it still leaves a lot unanswered. How do you quantify complexity? How complex is it to arrange different patterns from the twelve musical notes in the western scale? How complex is it to play chess ... a game with just six kinds of pieces and 64 squares? How complex is it to arrange different colored paints on a canvas? With these questions in mind, both gastronomy and neuroscience strike me as vast landscapes ... ripe ground for discoveries of genius proportion.

On another note, some of the attacks on people's originality strike me as equally unhelpful. Sure, Adria didn't invent spherification. Likewise Dali didn't invent paint, and Mozart invented neither the chromatic scale nor the piano. But all three used their chosen media to create things that are (at least in some important ways) unlike anything people have experienced before.

Edited by paulraphael (log)

Notes from the underbelly

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Very interesting post, with very valid points. Regarding the definition of genius, you correctly identified the first part of the definition (task complexity) but you did not see the second part (impact in human life)

The extend that a field impacts our everyday life and humanity as a whole is a necessary clause to define whether one who excels in that field is a genius

Einstein (in my mind one of the very few people in history that should be considered as geniuses) figured out and gave to humanity some fundamental laws of how the nature and the universe work. He achieved something that no other person has ever achieved and has been the basis for scientific research for 100 years now. Sure, Adria did something no one else did with his pea ravioli and mango caviar, and blumethal with nitrogen egg and bacon ice creams. But I would not go as far say that these had much of an impact in the way we perceive the world...

.

Adria, Blumenthal, Keller et al are great chefs, but I don't think a pea ravioli is changing humanity.

Even on the issue of complexity, of course there is no direct quantification of how complex is a field, but I guess it would be really hard to find someone who considers how to make a savoury ice cream more complex than mathematically formulating the relation of speed and time.

I do find your reductionism regarding creativity a bit out of place though... I guess following the same reductionism in cooking would be like saying that it is not that Adria invented beef...

I liken a chef to an orchestra conductor. There are a dozen of orchestra conductors that are considered the best in their field, bringing astonishing interpretations to the public. But their success is confided by the ability of the orchestra (like the brigade one great chef has in the kitchen) and the quality of the composition he conducts (quality of ingredients). Now the conductor has the immensely difficult task to combine those two, while creating an interpretation of the chosen music that is unique and moving (similarly how a chef combines his brigade and ingredients and uses his creativity to create outstanding food). A great conductor will take the best out of great orchestras and make less good orchestras better (the same way that a great chef will create amazing dishes with great brigades and ingredients, while make the best of modest ingredients)

I have been following orchestra music for quite a while and have been close to conductors (none of the top ones...), never heard of any conductor being described a genius.

In the end, as I said in my previous post it might all be down to semantics. Although I love food (quite frankly more than neuroscience and some arts) I personally cannot call any of the known chefs a genius (partly because having not tasted their food...). Here is another problem with haute- cuisince (availability to the public) but will not get into that...

Edited by RedRum (log)
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The classic definition was someone who creates one truly original dish in their lifetime. Believe me its harder than you think.

More prosaicly I would say someone who has the vision to reshape the industry. Historically that would be in terms of introducing a new paradigm or structure. It's not enough to create great dishes or a great restaurant. A culinary genius reshapes the entire landscape.

Off the top of my head Careme, Escoffier, probably Point, Bocuse, Alice Waters, possibly Senderens, possibly Robuchon, Adria.

J

Edited by Jon Tseng (log)
More Cookbooks than Sense - my new Cookbook blog!
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