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Ingredients v. Technique


Jinmyo
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A friend was making stuffed ravioli with Alice Waters recipe. A disaster for a recipe.

The friend said he was lucky he waited till I came to start stuffing the pasta.

He had made the pasta using an Alain Ducasse recipe and it was superb.

Alice Waters either did not know the technique, or hardly cared if the reader did...

The recipe pointed you to a page 100 pages forward where in another recipe the technique about how to make raviolis was discussed.

I was shocked that one like her would allow for such a mistake. Also, I would think the first recipe of a ravioli should have the complete directions, and any recipes for the same dish later could reference to it.

But someone in Alice Waters team really did not care.

It saddened me. I hope my cookbook does not have such glaring mistakes. We tried very hard to keep the sequence correct. Now I have to hope it does not get changed during editing.

I have never understood the fuss about CP. But I was not here in its prime time.

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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 you write so very well. And you raise amazing points. Thanks!

Did you taste the dessert made by Colleen Apte at the Javits Center earlier this year?

It was made with canned corn and was called Cornucopia (sp?). It was delicious. And it really did a great job in sharing the importance of having a perfect balance between ingredients and technique.

It was a perfect example of what you say. And a glorious one at that.

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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.

I can't quite get with this analogy. That there are better cooks than others is not in dispute. But the "best" may not always best meet your needs. And I'm not talking about preference.

Lets take cars. A Mercedes is "better" than a Mini. But if I live in a medieaval Italian town with very narrow streets with very tight corners and very limited space to park, then the Mini meets my needs "better" than the Mercedes. The fact that I know the Merc. to be the "better" car is an irrelevancy. It's not that I "prefer" the Mini-its just that is the "best" horse for that course.

Similarly,if I really fancy a steak then I need the chef who prepares steak the "best". That chef not be the best chef around but boy can he cook a steak. Other times I may want "the essence of canned corn" so I go to Adria or whoever. Similarly if i want Indian food or whatever.

Hence there is no real dispute because as has already been said, the dichotomy is false, or meaningless at best. My argument is not that some foods, wines, chefs etc. are not better than others. Of course they are, but so what ? Ultimately its about whether you construe the world in terms of hierarchies (which is fun to do) or whether you realise that your own needs are infinitely variable and require different ways of being met at different times to the point where the hierarchies become meaningless.

Edited by Tonyfinch (log)
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Tony - I don't believe the dichotomy is false. I just believe we've approached this subject from a place where we are having trouble locating it. Because if I approach it from the other direction and say, French restaurants are inherently better then Italian restaurants because they practice a more complex version of technique, we will then be in dispute. Except coming from this direction, I can't get the Italophile/ingredient pro members to draw the line at which they believe technique has gone too far.

The line for me, and this is the point I was trying to make about the violin, is that I will never believe that great ingredients alone, even if they are prepared perfectly, could make for the world's best restaurant. Like classical music, I find the personality of the chef needs to be an element of the meal because it evokes something that is beyond the ingredients. Just like Isaac Stern playing a strad expresses more than the insturments tonality. So it isn't that a Mercedes is better then a mini, it's that Mercedes has engineered a certain feel in the way their cars drive. It doesn't just drive like a generic car that costs 50,000 pounds

So for me, any restaurant, regardless of category, that doesn't create a personality to their food, can't be considered the best restaurant. Even if it is delicious (this is one of the problems I have with Ducasse by the way.) And the dischotomy exists in somebody else feeling differently about that. Because if nobody steps up to articulate it, I don't understand why are always disagreeing about this French/Italian thing.

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The line for me, and this is the point I was trying to make about the violin, is that I will never believe that great ingredients alone, even if they are prepared perfectly, could make for the world's best restaurant.

No you're right. My point is merely that one doesn't always want to eat in the world's best restaurant, even if we could agree that there was one and which one it was.

In fact the times people want to eat in the world's best restaurant are probably far fewer that those times they want to eat in other restaurants. They realize that they are not eating in the world's best restaurant and insofar as they think about it at all their response is "yeah so what?"

So if we approach the topic on the basis that this cuisine is better than that cuisine, yes then there will be a dispute. But if you approach it from the basis that this cuisine meets my needs sometimes and that cuisine at other times then where's the dispute?

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Well of course if you reduce food to a utilitarian purpose there will be no dispute. Take a simple dish like pasta. How many places are famous for their pasta dishes? Considering how many Italian restaurants there are, somebody name some pasta dishes that are famous on a worldwide basis? Babbo's Mint Love Letters? Marchesi's Raviolo Aperto? Not saying this to denigrate pasta (which I intend to do later,) but the reason there are so few famous pasta dishes in proportion to the number of restaurants that could serve them is that they are too easy to make. Or saying it another way, too difficult for a chef to calculate a technique that diners will find interesting when comparing it to non-pasta dishes.

I think that no matter how far down the food totem pole we go, personality trumps. It's that one tweak of technique that makes a place special. Even steakhouses. Peter Luger's is the best steakhouse because of a combination of the best meat, unique aging program and a certain way of cooking the beef. The style is not only delicious, it is unique to them. And it's what makes them different from 100 other steakhouses with delicious steaks but which are void of personality.

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Well you keep threatening to diss pasta but I've got a funny feeling its the pasta course in Italian restaurants you're talking about rather than the ingredient itself.

In fact if you look at the menus at many of the high end French restaurants pasta is used quite widely-there's often a raviolo of this or a lasagne of that or a canneloni of the other incorporated into the dishes and it forms the main part of the dish in many first courses.

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Actually, it is evidence of exactly the opposite. The best chefs are using ravioli techniques as simple means toward what Heston Blumenthal calls "flavour encapsulation": the pasta keeps the bits of duck, or fish, or whatever, together, so that their flavours are concentrated and explode in the mouth rather than being dissipated in a soup or sauce.

Nonetheless the eGullet world awaits your antipasta thread with breathless anticipation. Bring it on!

Jonathan Day

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

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Actually the type of ravioli you are describing, which is in keeping with the "black truffle surprise" ravioli I had at Trio, is different then what I am describing. For a time in the 80's, French chefs started serving ravioli stuffed with foie gras, lobster, or other non-traditional Italian fillings. What they served at Trio was just a method of delivering the black truffle flavor. "Ravioli" only had to do with the purpose of the package, and not conveying "paste."

Okay. I'll put the pasta thread on tonight. I've been tweaking the corners.

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