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Ingredients v. Technique


Jinmyo
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Well, it's pixelly but it's a legacy item.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Fat Guy said:

First, the top restaurants in any given region are typically all getting the same ingredients from the same suppliers. It doesn't matter whether they serve the scallops simply roasted or with a strongly flavored sauce. They're still the same scallops. Occasionally you get a restaurant like Craft where the ingredients-purchasing operates a few percent above what the other top places in the market are doing, but that tends just to be a question of price -- Ducasse gets all those ingredients too, and some better -- and doesn't have any general applicability because there are only a handful of restaurants in America pursuing that program.

Having said this (very true) statement. I think that all agree that cooking as discussed here is fundamentally ingredient driven. I may say that *all* good cooking is fundamentally ingredient driven. I guess to that degree we take off from there.

To what extent does a dichotomy between ingedient and technique exist.? Not much IMO. I tend to view it as a bar graph. Ingredients alone will take flavor/dining pleasure so high on the graph. Ingredients + refined and ever more refined technique will extend the bar furthur up the graph. But it all starts with pristine raw materials (well, not always maybe, but it does lend an advantage).

Matters of the same (ever more intense degree) rather than conflict driven.

Just a coupla pennies. Fascinating read gentleman and ladies!

Nick

Edited by ngatti (log)
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Robert S - I didn't see your last post until after I posted my last post. So the question is, at what point along the continuum of technique applied does the ingredient side of the argument believe the application of technique shoud end?

Cathy L - Do you really think that Alice Waters improved on Julia by going to better quality ingredients? I thought the rap against her is that when she went to better quality ingredients, she discarded technique in their favor. Nobody would be questioning whether CP is the top restaurant in the country if she cooked those ingredients like Ducasse or Passard.

Steve, fortunately, I saw your last before posting my latest, which I have therefore deleted.

My own answer to your question is: it depends. If I find myself in a situation where technique is in the fore, then I say, let it run. I'm up for it. Conversely, if I'm in a place where simplicity is called for, then I'd say well enough is best left alone. Everything has its own time and place. (Turn, turn, turn.)

Sorry, FG, I don't see an argument here.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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Sorry, FG, I don't see an argument here.

But you're wrong.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The River Cafe in London was one of the best marketed restaurants of the 90s. It actively stressed the primacy of ingredients and proposed that the chef's art was to know just how to apply enough technique to get the best out of them. Yet the chefs (Rogers and Gray) were not anonymous-far from it. They became well known media faces and the cookbooks from the restaurant sold in millions.

A few dissenters asked why are we paying top money for unmucked about ingredients, but not many did. People appeared almost relieved that they could relax knowing that the food was going to be delicious but undemanding. They did not WANT to be gastronomically challenged by the chef's techniques. They felt SAFE.

Its no accident that this was/is an Italian restaurant (yes I know Pumpkino, I know) and this is why people like Italian food.

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Oooh, nice one Tony.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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I have to say that the River Cafe is a place where I enjoyed many a meal. In particular on a sunny afternoon in May at one of the outdoor tables devouring a 12 hour slow-roasted pork shoulder. But Rodgers and Gray are just a variant of the "best ingredients" style. They aren't famous for applying technique, they are famous for evoking ingredients. And would one ever say that The River Cafe was the best restaurant in London? I wouldn't as much as I liked the place. That mantle had to be left to MPW or someone like him who was running in full gear during the same time period. In fact. I thought Alistair Little was better then the RC during the same period even though the styles were sort of similar.

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Well you would be surprised if a chef wrote as Julia did because that is exactly what Ferran Adria says. Now there's a guy who gets the essence of corn from canned corn and admits it.

It sounds to me that you assume that canned corn is always going to be a lesser-quality ingredient than fresh corn. Would you also say that fresh tomatoes are always preferable to canned -- no matter what the time of year? And, if I may continue to put words in your mouth, that fresh ANYTHING is always better than canned. Does that extend to other types of preserved foods as well? Can ham never match the magnificance of fresh leg of pork? Must bacon be banished from high-end kitchens? Are both canned AND dried beans to be eschewed in favor of the purity of newly-shelled?

Of course, I'm taking that argument to the reductio ad absurdum. Have you considered that Adria's use of the product might be based on a belief that canned corn deserves to be used for its own good qualities (such as consistency)? To me, the assumption that quality of ingredients is defined primarily by "freshness" is disingenuous. The best ingredients are the ones that offer the most flavor, that exemplify the essence of the item. If canned corn works for Adria, whose use of technique absolutely requires the best flavor input, who am I to cavil?

Julia wrote -- and continues to write -- within the mores of her time. When she gave a way to "improve the flavor of canned peas" it was not necessarily because she thought they were worthy in the first place; they were an ingredient her audience knew, and she was demonstrating a technique for making them into something more edible. So I can't really see that one must take precedence over the other.

We're talking about another X-Y axis here: flavorful ingredients vs. those devoid of flavor, plotted against "technique that improves flavor" vs. "technique which obfuscates flavor or wipes it out entirely." Hmmm -- I'll work on that more after I eat. I hope others might take it up in the meantime.

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It( The River Cafe) may not have been the best but it was certainly one of the most popular and hard to book, despite being in the higher price bracket.

If there is a dispute here (and I'm trying hard to find one) maybe it lies in the difference between what is seen as "the best"-which according to Steve means that which applies the best technique-and that which is best liked.

There is a restaurant near me which seves basic Italian food in an upmarket setting. It is by no means cheap and people there have money. It is jam packed every night. Along the road is a far "better" restaurant which charges similar prices. It is often two thirds empty.

This indicated to me that you can go on all you like about "better" and "best" and its a game we like to play- but the truth is more people want to go out and eat a steak than want to go and eat Pied de Cochon stuffed with morrells,sweetbreads and foie. And sometimes so do I, despite the fact that I can cook a steak at home and I recognize that the Pied is a "better" dish.

Edited by Tonyfinch (log)
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Julia’s assertion, in essence, was that bad ingredients could be covered up by good technique. Not that good ingredients wouldn’t improve the product, but that they weren’t essential to good cooking. I think that relatively few people – including Julia – would defend this view today. To Steve Plotnicki’s point, did Ferran Adria really say that quality of ingredients is unimportant? It would be interesting to see the citation.

The question I posed was whether or not starting from the immediately available ingredients and then deciding the techniques that will maximise their flavour was relatively modern (less than 100 years old) in French culinary thinking. The opposite approach would be that in planning or choosing a meal, you could start from decisions about the dishes you wanted rather than with a trip through the market. Restaurant menus might well be seasonal, but could be fixed for a long time. You would not find a daily varying menu, decided after the chef’s early morning trek to market. Is cuisine selon le marché a new invention?

(I assume, of course, that before the advent of trucking and refrigeration, all cooking was more seasonal than it is today. I am not talking about obtaining strawberries from Israel or peppers from Holland in mid-winter, but about choosing the menu based on specific ingredients that were superb on that day. Whether in restaurants or at home, people would presumably not eat asparagus in the depths of winter. The issue is whether, at the height of the asparagus season, a chef would feature asparagus because it was especially beautiful that day.)

Note this is an historical question more than a logical one.

A second question is whether the application of more and more technique, however skilful, to fine ingredients can ultimately be detrimental to their flavour or aesthetics. And here, again, we need a criterion. If the purpose is to create exciting new flavours, then more technique can be better. If it is to bring out the flavours of the ingredients themselves, then I would assert that too much technique – saucing, puréeing, reshaping, otherwise transforming – can get in the way. This is certainly the case in some of the elaborated, multi-layered recipes of the grande cuisine.

Which is not to say that ‘Italian is better than French’ (a meaningless statement in whichever direction you put it) but that too much treatment can get in the way of the flavours of foods themselves. There is a technique to knowing how much technique to apply.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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The discussion is not so much about ingredients against technique. Apart from JD's excellent summary. But rather different sorts of technique. Noone (I believe) is disputing that better ingredients make a better dish).

As Numero Uno pointed out the techniques required to exploit 'naturalistic' culinary aesthetics can be as demanding as those which adopt a more involved presentation & exhibit 'technique' by the ladleful.

These things go in fashions & you can take your pick.

I'm reminded of presentational styles for music:

A large-scale example might be the great tradition of western orchestras as exemplified by the Vienna/Berlin Phil versus the Authentic music brigade.

The first with stacks of instrumental textures (e.g. heavy vibrato, I typed an extra r there but managed to delete it) and instruments which have technically evolved since the time of the composer display 'technique' prominently.

The second with ropey old cat-gut strings, faster tempi, and instruments which offer significantly less amplification sound more 'natural'. It is hard to argue they require less 'technique'.

Though they do gesture away from the mythologisation of the performer (i.e. the chef/conductor as artist is replaced by a less exalted self-description).

However the reduced claim that one is just 'getting what the audience of the time would have heard' is still self-evidently false. They are both dependent on huge amounts of technique just presented differently.

Wilma squawks no more

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the top restaurants in any given region are typically all getting the same ingredients from the same suppliers.

This may be true in New York. It may be true in Paris. It is not true here. It is not true in the other parts of France I know well. It was certainly not true for Chez Panisse when I lived in California: they sourced at least some of their ingredients from their own gardens.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Cathy L - Do you really think that Alice Waters improved on Julia by going to better quality ingredients? I thought the rap against her is that when she went to better quality ingredients, she discarded technique in their favor. Nobody would be questioning whether CP is the top restaurant in the country if she cooked those ingredients like Ducasse or Passard.

Steve, I think Julia and Alice each had a vision of what cooking in America could be, and each strove to overcome the limitations of a specific time. Alice didn't improve on Julia; she shifted the focus. The fact that CP has not retained its primacy suggests to me that the focus has shifted again: if most chefs can obtain great ingredients without dedicated foragers, technique becomes more important.

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JD--Steve P. is possibly referring to other posts of mine where I've talked about Ferran and the fact that he's unafraid to use canned corn in a particular dish because after he "applies technique"--to use the amusing language of this thread--it gives him the best end result versus all other options in that application. He's skilled and thoughtful and experienced and scientific and well-read and has an open mind and palate to figure out what to do with all sorts of ingredients--supposed Alice quality and supposed supermarket quality--and use them all when need be. For a good chef this isn't covering up for inferior ingredients and it really doesn't require much experience or much understanding of food to appreciate the difference. Better chefs make better dishes. If it is done well it is seamless--you taste the dish first and then once it is in your mouth you may try to figure out how he did that, how he got what seems like a pure essence or pure manifestation of an ingredient. Then again, you might not--you might just enjoy the moment.

Yes, it may have involved alot of "technique" but why should that have to be so transparent--as if applying techniques in some ways other than what you perceive to be "simple" is an inherent flaw? It's only an inherent flaw if after putting it your mouth it does not work--it doesn't taste really good--and then the techniques did not work or the chef's grasp of the value of those techniques--in service of creating his cuisine--let him down. Anything else on the part of the diner is just bias or self-limiting tunnel vision. (You see this in alot of the dinosaur/traditionalists, who are utterly incapable of appreciating things for what they are--and not what they wished them to be.)

I guess if you did want to start an argument you could consider the fact that I think the best chefs can do both--they can appreciate and cook simply with the purest best most politically correct media approved artisanally foraged or grown ingredients--AND--they can still correctly determine the potential value or attributes in more mundane, less pristine ingredients like canned corn or a commercial goat cheese or dried apricots or a clump of regular old fresh supermarket basil--and they have a deeper reservoir of creativity, skills, techniques, knowledge and palate from which to draw on.

Discussion of these two supposed camps--the ingredients vs. applying techniques--is almost inherently flawed, as Shaw in a previous post has done an amazing job laying out. Too often the naysayers--the traditonalists around here who say they prefer "simple" cooking or Italian cooking versus "French" cooking--are really talking about presentation or philosophy--how a dish "looks" when it is served and whether it looks like there was a lot of hand work that went into it or whether it looks like alot of effort and creativity and little steps went into it? I'd suggest relying on that visual assessment drives alot of this misunderstanding. One of the goals of the Adrias--and they have many goals--is to try to create things that taste more pure or more of themselves than you'd think possible--to use the freedom their culinary worldview provides them in order to tease or shock you into this realization--and this can be done with individual ingredients--textures or studies of a single ingredient--like pineapple--or this can be done with the way they deconstruct dishes--reworking the flavors and textures and ingredients of a dish--a clam chowder or a crema catalana flan--into something you wouldn't have thought possible. You taste pineapple which transcends any taste of pineapple you've had previously--which is the counter to the Alice Waters mythology which asks what could be better than a perfect raw pineapple? That is taken to be a rhetorical question according to the mantra; to Adria that is the jumping off point. Therein lies the real debate.

Why should you care how much technique was applied to effect that end result anyway? Isn't that something you are imposing upon a dish unfairly? Do you determine your enjoyment of a dish by how big it is?

I apologize for my wordiness, right now I have to get back to the El Bulli 1998-2002 CD-ROM and marvel at all the amazing ingredients.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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One of the goals of the Adrias--and they have many goals--is to try to create things that taste more pure or more of themselves than you thought possible--to use the freedom their culinary worldview provides them in order to tease or shock you into this realization

My question is how many people attend restaurants in order to be "teased and shocked"?

Many of us here might do so but the vast majority of the restaurant going public are not so interested in the food they're eating as in wanting a relatively unchallenging meal so that they can discuss business or sex or whatever. The amount of people who actually walk into a restaurant looking for the essence of pineapple or canned corn or whatever is tiny.

That's not to say that those chefs who are pushing out the boundaries of technique are not vital, merely that most clients have different priorities and focusing right down on the food isn't neccessarily one of them.

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It doesn't matter how many people attend restaurants to be teased and shocked Tony, for if they did they'd be just a culpable as the dinosaur/traditionalists looking only for familiar dishes or the "presumed best ingredients prepared simply without alot of overt technique applied" crowd reveling in Chez Panisse--all of them as diners are missing the overall point--appreciating things for what they are, living in that moment, enjoying and experiencing that dish.

(Robert--have you read the Slate diary this week by Mark Furstenberg?)

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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I am not sure whom the "you" repeated throughout Steve Klc's note is supposed to refer to. I am going to take it as generic rather than personal. Nor do I see how comments about "dinosaurs" or "the amusing language of this thread" particularly move the conversation forward.

Nonetheless I will clarify my own point of view.

I am neither defending Alice Waters nor attacking any other chef. Nor am I trying to establish or defend a "camp" or promote one cuisine over another. I enjoy eating and cooking both simple and more elaborated dishes, traditional and modern, Gordon Ramsay and the River Café and the Fat Duck. (Yes, yes, I know that there is controversy regarding the latter, but please take Blumenthal as a proxy for Adria, since I have yet to dine at El Bulli).

I did ask a question about culinary history: is the Waters/River Café/'cuisine selon le marché" idea really new, or not?

And I do think that there is a point where excess elaboration can leave things tasting "other than what they are", which seems to me to be the point of the exercise.

I remember a chaud-froid de canard montmorency (this is a duck, roasted and then reformed with liver and foie gras, coated with a chaud-froid sauce which is in turn made from brown sauce, chilled, decorated with almond-stuffed cherries) served at a festive dinner in a Paris hotel. Perhaps because the sauce and the filling weren't well balanced, the flavour of the duck itself vanished under a range of cloying/salty tastes. At a lower level of pretension, I end up being served, at business dinners, quite a lot of dishes that would have tasted far better if the hotel chefs who prepared them had focused less on saucing and garnishing and more on the main ingredient itself.

And, for the avoidance of doubt, I don't determine my enjoyment of a dish by how it looks, or how big it is, or how I think it was prepared ... but by how it tastes.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Fascinatinger and fascinatinger.

The conversation is certainly getting rarified. I never realized that diners approached their meals with such a hair-splitting sense of what was on their plates. Aside from Adria, Blumenthal et al; I didn't think many chefs did either. The discrete model as practiced by the aforementioned is new to me. I and many that I know have usually used more of a heuristic when it comes to matching flavors. Great ingredients and good craft= good food if you will. Even chefs that achieve truly great food (Keller, Ducasse among others), seemed to me to use a more 'touchy feely' model. I had assumed that their culinary greatness lay within their individual and unique talents (taste, 'foodview'), rather than the deconstuction of flavors to the -nth degree.

Just an observation; From the Ripert Q&A, I get the feeling that his attitude is also a heuristic. Kind of "I know what to do with this" type of attitude.

Carry on...Carry on.

Nick :smile:

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Steve, I think Julia and Alice each had a vision of what cooking in America could be, and each strove to overcome the limitations of a specific time. Alice didn't improve on Julia; she shifted the focus. The fact that CP has not retained its primacy suggests to me that the focus has shifted again: if most chefs can obtain great ingredients without dedicated foragers, technique becomes more important.

Gee I don't think I can agree with this. Especially since Julia's co-writers were French women. I think Julia was most interested in recounting French cooking as a way to improve the quality of people's lives. The "French program" of dining is paramount to her efforts. It exists outside the quality of ingredients. Her potato gratins exist outside of type of potatoes one could have purchased when her books were first published.

The dichotomy here, or the pending disagreement we have been having trouble finding, has to do with philosophy. What Waters did was to say, here are ingredients that are so good, you don't have to use a chinois to screw around with the texture. And many people latched into that approach as "better." Personally I don't see it. I think of great ingredients as if they are great instruments. And while a stradivarius might sound great no matter who plays it (providing one has proficient technique at the top level,) it's presence is always secondary to the personality of whomever is playing it.

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I looked through Alice Waters' first book, the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, published in 1982. I was sort of surprised to see that many of the recipes and the special meal menus toward the end of the book actually were far more complex and "technique-driven" than I'd remembered (probably because I only cooked the simpler ones). Also, many of the recipes seemed to be French-influenced. In the second Chez Panisse cookbook, the one co-written with Paul Bertolli in the mid-80s, the food seems more Italian (probably because he was the chef at that point). And the last three books seem to be even simpler.

In the introduction to the Menu Cookbook, Waters says: "I have not attempted to oversimplify the problem of obtaining first-quality ingredients. . . . In the same vein, I have not attempted to simplify the complex preparation of an apparently simple dish. Remember that the ultimate quality of a dish is determined initially by the worth of the ingredients and the time and effort expended by the cook. Certainly some dishes require a less complex presentation, but those are usually the dishes which require an additional application of diligence in the selection of the raw ingredients."

So it seems she was saying back then that if you're going to make a simple, easy-technique dish, then you have to have really good ingredients, rather than the ingredients are so good, we don't have to do anything to them. Note that I haven't eaten there and am simply extrapolating from her cookbooks and my experience cooking from them.

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