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The four-star dilemma


rich
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I think it's misleading to try and compare cooking to basketball or music. Although there are certainly artistic elements in the menu planning, the pacing and the presentation, at it's core, Cooking is a craft, not an art.

The meat is either perfectly medium rare or it isn't, the oil is either exactly 375 degrees or it isn't, theres either exactly enough salt or there isn't.

and the ball either goes in the hole or it doesn't. your point?

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I believe you can cook four star at home. No problems.

-drew

www.drewvogel.com

"Now I'll tell you what, there's never been a baby born, at least never one come into the Firehouse, who won't stop fussing if you stick a cherry in its face." -- Jack McDavid, Jack's Firehouse restaurant

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I think Thomas Keller would have a hard time producing a 4 (NYT) or 3 (Michelin) star meal in his home.

"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 think we're confusing a few separate concepts here.  To start, I will say that I'm right there with Russ in considering the talent and facility portion first and foremost.

It strikes me as a simple fact that some people are more talented at coming up with fabulous dishes than others. The old saw that 'genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration" is correct in this case because talent depends on education, practice, experience and hard work for its full expression.  However, the more one is around any creative field (or perhaps any field of any kind) it becomes apparent that even though 100 people may accumulate the same experience and education, and even though they may all work just as hard, one or two of those guys will turn out product that is far superior to the other nintey-nine.  This is talent.  In the professional kitchen, talent is most easily demonstrated in the creative arena: coming up with the dishes.  This is like Verdi writing an opera, which we all agree is a more significant aspect of the art form than the interpretation of his compositions by performers.

There is also a talent aspect to executing the composition (singing/playing the opera, cooking the dishes, etc.).  Again, it is a simple fact that some people are better able to do these things than most other people, despite equal education, training, commitment and hard work.  If this weren't true, then anyone could play in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra if he worked long and hard enough.  This is where it makes sense to narrow the comparison a bit.  It really doesn't make sense to compare restaurant cooks to singers, because so much of what goes into a singer's talent is genetically/physiologically mediated -- this is not true for a restaurant cook.  Similarly, it doesn't make sense to compare a restaurant cook to a soloist, because a big part of being a soloist is interpreting the composition in a highly personal and individual way -- this is also not true for a restaurant cook.  It does make sense, perhaps, to compare a restaurant cook to a musician in an orchestra.  A violinist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra does not "interpret the composition" himself.  His job is to assist the conductor in executing the conductor's interpretation of the composition, and the more skilled the orchestral violinist, the better he is able to perform this function.  If the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra plays 1,000 performances of La bohème with 100 different conductors, there will be 100 different interpretations.  Still, however, out of many hundreds of equally hard working violinists, only very few can play in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.  The difference?  Talent.

In many senses, the head chef of a restaurant is like a composer and conductor all combined (this was fairly standard in classical music as well, back in the day).  The cooks are the orchestra.  I am not sure why we assume that playing in an orchestra demands talent and cooking in a restaurant kitchen doesn't.  I find it interesting that most of us in the "creative arts" readily assume that four-star-caliber cooking requires talent in addition to expertise and experience.  Most likely this is because it is readily apparent to us in our daily work that expertise and experience only aren't good enough to reach the highest level.  I would never suppose I could execute a Charlie Trotter dish as well as a cook on his staff.  In fact, I would never suppose I could execute my own Thanksgiving dinner as well as a cook on Charlie Trotter's staff.  A lot of this is experience, of course -- that Charlie Trotter's guy has cooked thousands more high-level dishes than I.  But I also have to consider the fact that, even if I had cooked the same number of high-level dishes, there's a good chance that the Charlie Trotter's guy is simply a more talented cook than I.  This, also, is a barrier to cooking "four star" food in my home kitchen. 

Unless we suppose that "most anyone" can execute music on a level with a Metropolitan Opera Orchestra violinist with enough training and experience, why should we suppose the same thing is true with respect to a four star restaurant cook?  For someont to say that they "don't believe that the line cooks at The French Laundry have much of anything that a talented and experienced home cook does not" is just like saying "I don't believe the violinists in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra have much of anything that a talented and experienced amateur violin player does not."  Even that ignores the fact that the cooks at the French Laundry and the violinists at in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra have infinitely more experience than their amateur counterparts.

I think we both agree with the basic mechanics of talent, what we seem to disagree is just exactly how hard and rare it is to get it "right". I contend that, even at a 4 star level, the making of the food is easy enough for the top 1% of the population of cooks to be indistinguishable since every one of them can make it perfectly at least as often as they don't. On the other hand, you contend that nobody or a very few people can ever make it perfectly and it is possible to distinguish and rake each individual chef.

French Laundry Menu

Nobu Menu

Grammercy Tavern Menu

Restaurant Gordan Ramsay

All, I think are safe to say are solidly four star.

I wouldn't be crazy enough to attempt a full french laundry menu in a home kitchen simply because it's very much geared to be a restuarant menu and not a home one. But, looking through it, I don't see any that would be any that would not the theoretically unachiveable by a skilled home cook due to lack of technique. Maybe some due to lack of equipment and some due to lack of manpower, but all the food there seems to be using the same skills any halfway competant chef already knows how to do well; boiling, poaching, frying, sauteing, steaming etc.

I admit there are certain professions within cooking which technique is highly praised and hard to earn, sushi making, pastry work, decorative vegtable carving just off the top of my head. And to be sure, there are entire menus which are very technique driven like the menu at El Bullii. But I think the very fact that these can be singled out indicates to a greater or lesser extent that most other forms of cooking don't have this unique form of apprentice/journeyman/master type skill curve. In addition, I think a lot of a chef's training goes not so much into the quality of their food preperation so much as their speed and efficiency. A 10 cook restaraunt serving 200 covers a night int 4 hours equals only about 12 minutes worth of attention to any single diner. Add in the fact that the kitchen inevitably suffers peaks and lulls and you might not expect more than 5 minutes of actual personal contact with your food. Certainly, when you add that sort of time pressure, then skill becomes important and it's possible to seperate the wheat from the chaff.

Looking at some of the 4 star menus, I can see several examples of dishes that are accessible even to me. Take cerviche from the Nobo menu, it's just fish and a marinade, given equal access to ingredients and equipment as well as a little bit of training at Nobu, I'm convinced that I could make a Nobu cerviche indinstinguishable in a double blind test from one made by any Nobu cook. Or take any of the mains at Grammercy Tavern. Slightly more difficult to be sure, but a roast is a roast and the ideal roast isn't all that difficult technically to achieve. With a temperature probe, it's practically trivial.

So while I admit that a talent home cook probably couldn't do a slavish copy of the el bulli or french laundry menus, it doesn't mean they can't do 4 star full stop. By choosing a menu that plays to their strengths, I think it can be done by a determined enough home cook.

PS: I am a guy.

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Grammercy Tavern? :huh:

"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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Looking at some of the 4 star menus, I can see several examples of dishes that are accessible even to me. Take cerviche from the Nobo menu, it's just fish and a marinade, given equal access to ingredients and equipment as well as a little bit of training at Nobu, I'm convinced that I could make a Nobu cerviche indinstinguishable in a double blind test from one made by any Nobu cook. Or take any of the mains at Grammercy Tavern. Slightly more difficult to be sure, but a roast is a roast and the ideal roast isn't all that difficult technically to achieve. With a temperature probe, it's practically trivial.

I think you're fooling yourself. There are few things in life more delicate than the "simple" task of perfectly preparing a piece of fish -- roasting, sauteeing or marinating. Or roasting a chicken. Or preparing the perfect vinaigrette for a lobster salad (had one at the old Bouley years ago; it was a $24 lesson in the difference between you or I in the kitchen and David [now, 3-star] Bouley).

And remember, if you get one right, there's still the sauce, and the garnish, and ther five courses and the cheeses you allowed to ripen to the point of perfection and the wines you selected and the service and the plus fours. All of them, perfect on the same night.

It ain't going to happen unless you use one of your three wishes to get it done.

I'm happy to be a subject for the taste test, though. :raz:

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Or preparing the perfect vinaigrette for a lobster salad (had one at the old Bouley years ago; it was a $24 lesson in the difference between you or I in the kitchen and David [now, 3-star] Bouley). 

Now, this is what I don't understand. Given a recipe and the same ingredients, how can David produce a "better" vinagrette than you? A vinegrette is essentially tossing a bunch of ingredients into a vessel and whisking until an emulsion is formed. I don't see where anything but pure mechanical action comes into this. Okay, sure, sometimes herbs and the like vary subtly in intensity and it's concievable that you might have to add a pinch more salt at the end of a recipe or something, but it's not like a vinagrette goes from bland to wow back to bland with tiny difference in an ingredient. When I make a vinagrette, I can generally taste which element needs a boost and I can taste when balance is reached.

I'm guessing that the main reason his vinagrette was better was simply a matter of ingredients, sea salt, aged balsamic, good olive oil, etc. Not a matter of technique.

PS: I am a guy.

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I think this is where we need to take a look at the experiences and knowledge base that we use to make our determinations about what is and is not 4 (NYT) and 3 (Michelin) star cuisine.

It's as with miso shiru, one of the simplest soups in the world to make. It takes cooks I train around a hundred attempts before they produce something I would eat let alone serve.

"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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Or preparing the perfect vinaigrette for a lobster salad (had one at the old Bouley years ago; it was a $24 lesson in the difference between you or I in the kitchen and David [now, 3-star] Bouley). 

Now, this is what I don't understand. Given a recipe and the same ingredients, how can David produce a "better" vinagrette than you? A vinegrette is essentially tossing a bunch of ingredients into a vessel and whisking until an emulsion is formed.

The fact that it was so good was the amazing thing.

I don't see where anything but pure mechanical action comes into this. Okay, sure, sometimes herbs and the like vary subtly in intensity and it's concievable that you might have to add a pinch more salt at the end of a recipe or something, but it's not like a vinagrette goes from bland to wow back to bland with tiny difference in an ingredient.

No, but it goes from 3-star to 4-star.

When I make a vinagrette, I can generally taste which element needs a boost and I can taste when balance is reached.

But can you poach the lobster utterly perfectly every time? How fine is your hand as you adjust spicing? How sensitive is your palate and how many times have you tasted that recipe so that you can make it just exactly right, making the tiny incremental adjustments that lift something from wonderful to etherial?

I'm guessing that the main reason his vinagrette was better was simply a matter of ingredients, sea salt, aged balsamic, good olive oil, etc. Not a matter of technique.

I'm guessing it was talent and practice. Remeber, 4-star is the product of the best 200 or so chefs in the world. They didn't just get there because of their sea salt.

Edited by Busboy (log)

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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I'm guessing it was talent and practice.  Remeber, 4-star is the product of the best 200 or so chefs in the world.  They didn't just get there because of their sea salt.

:laugh::laugh::laugh::laugh:

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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But can you poach the lobster utterly perfectly every time?

Sure, suspend it in a water bath at the exact temperature I want the lobster to be poached at and leave in there until the internals reach the same temp as the poaching liquid.

How fine is your hand as you adjust spicing?

I'm not sure what you mean but I can gently press my fingernail into a spice and then carefully dust what sticks into the vinagrette. Is that fine enough?

How sensitive is your palate

Well, I'm willing to wager my palate is almost certainly more sensitive than my diners and that a good home cook's palate might very well be more sensitive than mine. It doesn't matter if Daniel or whoever has a more sensitive palate than mine since as long as we are both more sensitive than the diners, we will produce results that are indistinguishable. In addition, I have the added advantage of actually knowing the diner personally. What might be perfectly seasoned for Daniel might be too bold or too wimpy for my diner and I can adjust for this while he cannot.

and how many times have you tasted that recipe so that you can make it just exactly right, making the tiny incremental adjustments that lift something from wonderful to etherial?

Heres, the thing, I don't believe a tiny pinch of sea-salt can make the difference from ordinary to ethereal. Good to slightly better maybe, very good to ethereal, but not in 1 step from bland to ethereal. the process of seasoning is in gradual refinement. Given the basic vinagrette; red wine vinegar, EVOO, salt, pepper, mustard, I can take a taste and instantly know which ingredients I need to tweak. I believe I can, given the limitations of my ingredients, make a vinagrette that is perfectly balanced for my application. Any addition or subtraction of material would deteriorate the quality of my vinagrette. And I also think that this is not a hard skill to learn. I fail to see, how given the same ingredients, Daniel could make an ethereal vinagrette while I could make merely a very good one.

Jinmyo: Thats very interesting, could you go into more detail? what is wrong with their previous 99 attempts? the salt? the miso? the temperature? How would you rate, say, their 1st, 10th, 50th and 100th effort against a skilled japanese housewife who learnt making miso shiru on their mothers knee?

PS: I am a guy.

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Jinmyo: Thats very interesting, could you go into more detail? what is wrong with their previous 99 attempts? the salt? the miso? the temperature? How would you rate, say, their 1st, 10th, 50th and 100th effort against a skilled japanese housewife who learnt making miso shiru on their mothers knee?

Balance, depth, roundness, fullness, subtlety.

The proportions will always vary because the ingredients always vary though they are always the best.

We hand-shave our own dried bonito, use the highest quality kombu, artisinal miso pastes, filtered or spring water, fresh silken tofu made that morning, huagu mushrooms and so on.

Most restaurant miso shiru would be the 1st attempt. The best housewife miso shiru I've had would be the 75th, most about the 20th. This partly has to do with the quality of the ingredients but mostly has to do with commitment.

I love miso shiru and each bowl served simply must present it at its best.

"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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A four-star meal is about more than the food, it's about being able to enjoy the food as well - I can't serve four-star food in my house, because I lack the staff to clean up the disaster my kitchen would be and I lack the staff to get all the food finished, plated and served fast enough for there not to be a long delay between courses. On a more basic level, I've made what I thought to be very good versions of a large number of dishes from the French Laundry cookbook, then had those same dishes at the restaurant shortly after and realized I'm at best a hack.

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A four-star meal is about more than the food, it's about being able to enjoy the food as well - I can't serve four-star food in my house, because I lack the staff to clean up the disaster my kitchen would be and I lack the staff to get all the food finished, plated and served fast enough for there not to be a long delay between courses.  On a more basic level, I've made what I thought to be very good versions of a large number of dishes from the French Laundry cookbook, then had those same dishes at the restaurant shortly after and realized I'm at best a hack.

But a dreamy hack.

"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 guess it's entirely possible to cook a four-star meal, in your home, just merely improbable. There are literally thousands, if not tens of thousands of restaurants around the world that aspire to "four star" (or 3) greatness.

And maybe 200, possibly 300 succeed. And the guys chopping mirepouix in those kitchens are without a doubt a better cook than I. Let's not even talk about the men and women that actually cook the food.

I bet Alain Ducasse has over 300 cooks who work for him, and all of them aspire to one day serve their own 3 Star (or four) food. And maybe 10 of them will.

In my kitchen, armed with the most pristine ingredients FedEx'd from around the world and a solid week making stocks, I'd still have no chance.

Unless, of course, if I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express the night before.

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Please explain the quip about Holiday Inn.

Current series of ads for Holiday Inn Express: some expert on a recondite topic (nuclear physics, brain surgery, four-star cooking) appears in a relevant situation. After they show off their brilliance, it turns out that they're really your typical slack-jawed yokel, but (and this is the punchline to each ad) "I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night."

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