I first went to Mexico as a backpacker over winter break in 2007. My total budget for three weeks and 5,000 kilometers was $500, which ended up covering transportation, lodging, food, drinks, and a healthy dose of souvenirs and presents. Swiss friends drove down from Mississippi, picked me up in Louisiana, and drove on down to the border. We left the car in Laredo, Mexico (a long story onto itself), and hoped on a bus to Mexico City. We lounged on the beach in Puerto Angel and visited Indian villages around San Cristobal de la Casas. We played cards on the zocalos of Oaxaca and Palenque. We spent many nights in buses, since they both got us from one place to the next and saved us the cost of a hotel night. I remember arriving in Acapulco around 4 one morning and exhaustedly drinking vodka and coffee outside a small café where only a thin tarp protected us from the pouring rain until it was late enough to go to a hotel that wouldn’t charge us for that day. Or taking 12 hours to drive 200 kilometers on dirt roads in the mountains, once again so exhausted that we slept on the floor of the bus between seats. Or eating blue corn tacos made by an old woman crouching against a wall in Mexico City, before heading on the subway to go to the acclaimed anthropology museum, and feeling absolutely content. It was a trip of countless adventures, discoveries, and encounters, the kind of which are only possible when backpacking and having all the time in the world, even if it’s never enough. It was a trip that made me fall in love with Mexico.
We were broke college students, and fine dining had no room in our plans. We didn’t try to eat exclusively Mexican food, but our budget forced us to and we followed the recommendations of Let’s Go Mexico for the best cheap places in each city we visited. I knew nothing about Mexican food then (we occasionally made tacos with high school friends in Switzerland, with Old El Paso taco shells and seasonings, feeling worldly, and what I ate in Louisiana was really Tex-Mex), so every bite opened me up to new flavors. I would eat the salsas on our tables by the spoonful to unpack their different taste layers—once even getting a real high from the heat of the chiles, something I’ve (thankfully?) never experienced again. I fell in love with tacos al pastor, that perfect combination of pork, chiles, and pineapple, which today remain one of my favorite foods. I was constantly looking for the next dish I hadn’t tried yet, to a point that became almost ridiculous, especially since then my career aspirations were to become a war reporter for the Associated Press, not work in food. It was, in retrospect, an unconscious behavior, just another materialization of a love of food that didn’t become intentional until I graduated college and looked for my first real job.
I dreamed of going back to Mexico ever since then, but it took me until May 2013 to make it happen, when attending Mesamerica in Mexico City. Then I went to Acapulco in October for the first Foro Mundial de la Gastronomía Mexicana. And back to Mexico City in November, to research a profile of Enrique Olvera of Pujol and another piece on the next generation of Mexican chefs. Those came out in the March issue of Food Arts, and appeared online the day after I came back from yet another visit, this time to Merida in the Yucatan, to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I’ll be back in May. I am lucky.
Those trips have been different. I’ve eaten world-class tasting menus in the best restaurants in Mexico City and traditional dishes prepared by village cooks over a wood fire, alongside experts who could explain and contextualize it all. They have offered the same contentedness and joy, however, and have rekindled a love that I hope never becomes dormant again.
On Saturday, May 4 at 1 p.m., I am speaking on a panel titled Cookbook + Art at the Food Book Fair at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn. Use the code FRIENDSANDFAMILY for a 20 percent discount on registration for the panel. If you want to purchase full-day and three-day passes, use FBF2013, and ILOVEFBF for 50 percent off Foodieodicals.
COOKBOOKS + ART
Saturday, May 4, 1:00PM – 2:00PM
Wythe Hotel, Screening Room
Are cookbooks meant for beauty, function or both? Our kitchen reading might provide inspiration, though it doesn’t always lead us to traditional forms of cooking. In a time where many of us are turning to online resources for our daily meals, are cookbooks becoming more art than instruction? Whether or not our books are intended as user guides or for the coffee table, cookbooks seem to be taking a different and intriguing form. They are filled with interesting content, rich storytelling and are inspiring us inside and outside of the kitchen. Join a panel of writers, editors and cooks as they discuss the evolving nature of reading in the kitchen.
The 11th edition of Madrid Fusión, which took place January 21-23, focused less on dazzling with technique and more on expressing sensitivity to one’s physical and cultural environment. It can be safely assumed that immersion circulators, rotary evaporators, and other modern technologies are very much part of the everyday repertoire of the chefs featured, and that for most of them, “creativity continues”—this year’s theme—beyond technology, especially in times that call for responsible economic and sustainable decision-making.
I lived in Louisiana for three and a half years and ate my share of pecan pies while there. I’ve made quite a few of them too, from plain ones to chocolate and Bourbon variations—nut and caramel flavors go well with dessert wines. But no matter how good the pie, all these baking and eating efforts never replaced the walnut torte I grew up on in Switzerland. Tarte aux noix des Grisons (Graubünder Nusstorte/walnut torte) is a specialty of the Grisons (Graubünden), the canton in eastern Switzerland where our fourth language, Romansh, is spoken, but it is found throughout the country. It features a shortbread-like dough and a caramely walnut filling sweetened—and flavored—with honey. No corn syrup here, which gives the torte a smoother, creamier filling than its pecan cousin. The tartelette version is open faced, the family-size topped with more dough, which completely encases the filling. Something a very thin layer of chocolate is brushed over the top. It’s the type of tart we buy in pastry and gourmet shops, not so much something we make at home, at least not in my region. Because it is so rich and dense, we cut it in small slivers, to enjoy as dessert or with coffee or tea in the afternoon. It gets better after a day or two, as the flavors mellow together.
Unfortunately it’s not something I can find commercially here, even in the best New York pastry shops. And I’ve grown tired of pecan pies, which are too often much too sweet. So in recent years, I’ve started making my own tarte aux noix, trying each time to perfect it a little more. I don’t like very sweet desserts but yet I want the honey in the torte to come through, so I use a one with a strong flavor, and not too much of it. A local wildflower honey made at the height of the summer is perfect. Something like buckwheat is a bit too strong and doesn’t taste very “Swiss.” Clover is too mild. I make both open and closed tortes—the open-faced version gives me quicker access to the filling, so I don’t always bother eating even the bottom crust. That’s the craving version. The ratio of dough to filling can easily be off in a closed torte, since the typical dough can be thick, so make sure to roll it thinly enough. An open-faced torte will not have that problem but I like the aesthetic of a closed one; it’s also easier to transport.
Nearly all my Swiss baking books have a recipe, and I’ve tinkered with them all. But when American friends ask me for a recipe, I point them to Nick Malgieri’s. It’s adapted for U.S. ingredients and kitchens, so easy to follow, especially if you’ve never made it before. It also tastes very much like the tartes aux noix I eat when I go home—essential taste tests to keep my palate well informed of all the nuances of this truly special dessert.
In a panel I moderated recently on What’s to Know About Modernist Cuisine, the subject of manipulation came up. Food scientist Cesar Vega was the first to mention it, which made sense given his background and the fact that he is the editor in chief of a book called The Kitchen as Laboratory. Chefs Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa of Ideas in Food then stated that all cooking is manipulation—not something with which I can argue. However, I keep going back to that conversation. And I think it goes beyond the idea that all cooking requires manipulation. I don’t subscribe to the idea that cooking is art so it’s not out of romanticism that I stumble on the word. I work with scientists and appreciate what a scientific approach gives to food enough that I don’t object to the idea that the laboratory can be a kitchen, and vice versa. Stainless steel doesn’t scare me out of the kitchen. Manipulation, though… manipulation seems so clinical. So devoid of rawness, of fleshiness, of glistening fat, of luscious ripeness. Manipulation is “mano”—hand—but it doesn’t evoke the touch, the contact between human skin and food, the reactions that such contact can send to every nerve ending, the physical, simple pleasure of cooking. Intellectual pleasure, certainly—and all of us around that table that day seek that stimulation as much as we do the physical one, I dare say.
Happiness, love, and passion are essential to even the most technologically advanced approaches to cooking, all the panelists emphasized then. But the term manipulation doesn’t express passion. Passion can include control, and doesn’t have to be heady or loud or unbounded. But it does imply at least an element of complete, unbridled, full, impossible-to-contain immersion. Passion is about your whole body, and your whole mind, and the lack of choice that comes with being so fully engaged in something. Passion means you have no other choice but to cook, to eat, to build, to paint, to sing, to argue in court, and, of course, to record in a lab notebook. Manipulation—well, it doesn’t sound like that.
From a purely technical perspective, one could argue that the manipulation is also a change in chemical structure. Heating a food is manipulating it. Freezing it is manipulation. Shearing its cells is manipulation. That’s cooking. But is it detrimental to cooking to think of it as manipulation? And if yes, is there a difference between experimental cooking and manipulation, then, when thinking about cooking in those terms? Is challenging notions of what food is and should be different from manipulating it? It’s intellectual and emotional manipulation, if anything. Why is that completely ok to me, to think about my brain being manipulated, but wanting to find a more poetic way to talk about what is done to my food? Is it all about semantics?
One of the definitions of the word refers to “manage or utilize skillfully.” It has a positive meaning and doesn’t complicate things by making reference to using hands or mechanical means or to do something with the intent to deceive. Managing and utilizing food skillfully could serve as a precise definition of cooking that is devoid of the complications of both science and art. It is objective—a matter of skills. One knows or doesn’t know how to do something. One has objectively appreciable skills.
“When we cook things, we transform them. And any small acts of transformation are among the most human things we do. Whether it’s nudging dried leaves around a patch of cement, or salting a tomato, we feel, when we exert tiny bits of our human preference in the universe, more alive” writes Tamar Adler in The Everlasting Meal. Transformation seems, rightly or wrongly, to be more “manual”—more about embracing the carnal aspect of food, the voraciousness with which you can dig into something—pull an onion from the soil, bite into that salted tomato; it feels less clinical. But Tamar is definitely talking about cooking as being something that should not be reserved to professionals, and is encouraging everyone to transform, then. Does this keep us in that dichotomy of manipulation being the realm of chefs and scientists only, not of home cooks? And so, if not for home cooks, how can we stress the fact that more methodical approaches can make all of us better cooks?
“Manipulation is about control,” Cesar texted me a few days after that panel, continuing the discussion. So by manipulating food we control it—which is then not the same thing as transformation. That control, especially thinking about it from a scientific perspective, implies a controlled environment, a setting in which all variables are accounted for, measured, recorded. When we control we can track what was done, what went right, what went wrong. We can learn a lot about how we cook, when we control. When we transform, we might be more haphazard. Which is good too—but serves a different purpose and ends in different results. Haphazard and passionate and carnal feel like relatives of one another.
So it is perhaps by thinking about transformation and about control and the need for each that I can reconcile myself with the use of manipulation in relation to food, to cooking. We always transform—do we always manipulate? And why, even though I am fiercely in favor of scientific approaches to cooking and passionately studying professional cooking, do I still need to think of cooking as something sensual, without being able to think of manipulation as offering sensuality—even though it has mano, and what is more sensual than hands? Hands touching food, hands touching skin…how do I get rid of my undeniably romantic ideal of cooking that has little to do with my pragmatic perspective on it? And can I do that without having to dig back into Saussure?
These days, it’s rare that I get to read a book that will keep me up at night because I just can’t put it down, not because I need to finish it to construct an argument around it for a presentation or my dissertation. Jonathan Dixon’s Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America initially caught my attention because its topic relates to my research on the role that education plays in the professionalization of the chef—I was obligated to read it, of course. I was also wondering how it could differ from Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef, other than reflecting an America even more interested in the culinary world than it was when Ruhlman’s book came out in 1997. So it was a wonderful surprise to find Beaten, Seared, and Sauced so engrossing that it became a pure treat rather than something to add to my bibliography.
Dixon is 38 when he enrolls and knows that he wants to do something with his hands but is not sure where that’ll leave him once he graduates. He’s dabbled in a number of careers, including writing for Martha Stewart Living, but he’s not going to school to become a food writer. He’s rarely sure of why he is putting himself through a training that has more grueling than rewarding days, at least at first. The chef of his externship site finds him useless in the kitchen. He’s broke. There is no Hollywood ending, with our hero getting a job offer at Per Se or the likes because his talent is suddenly revealed. But the book is not pessimistic—to the contrary. He shares his shortcomings as a student with a refreshing and reflective attitude. Dixon doesn’t attempt to send out a larger message through it, I think; it’s his experience, that’s it. But because he paints such a clear picture of what he did and how he felt during his two-year program, his book will be useful to aspiring cooks. The tone and rhythm are dynamic and upbeat: Dixon can talk about his hesitations without being hesitant on the page.
In the end, it’s not a matter of choosing to read Ruhlman or Dixon. Ruhlman was a participant-observant; Dixon is decidedly a participant. Their books are complementary; they show an evolution in our collective interest for all things food, but also perhaps an evolution in the genre to which they both belong. The Making of a Chef is more contextualized than Beaten, Seared, and Sauced, and more sociological; it was one of the first books of its kind, launching Ruhlman’s very successful food writing career. Dixon arrives when our hunger for behind-the-scene material on chefs could not be higher, as evidenced by TV shows such as Top Chef, and when we already feel like we know a lot about that world, which might give him more narrative freedom. Ruhlman’s books have often kept me up because I just had to read one more page, because the story was so good that I couldn’t go to sleep without knowing just a bit more of it. Dixon’s has done the same thing.
Dixon will talk about his book at the Museum of the City of New York on May 19. See below for details and a special discount (I bought a ticket before receiving this notice and bought the book too, so this is not a sponsored post or one resulting from perks received!).
Thursday, May 19 at 6:30 pm
Beaten, Seared and Sauced: A New York Culinary Education
With a grueling combination of in-class training and externships at some of the city’s most famous restaurants, the Culinary Institute of America has graduated some of the most influential chefs and culinary celebrities on the New York City food scene. Jonathan Dixon, CIA graduate and author of Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America (Clarkson Potter, 2011), and Andrew Friedman, author of Knives at Dawn: America’s Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d’Or Competition (Free Press, 2009), offer a behind-the-scenes look at the cutthroat world of Michelin stars, maniacal chefs, and the chaotic kitchens of New York from the perspective of chefs in training.
Presented in conjunction with the exhibition Moveable Feast: Fresh Produce and the NYC Green Carts Program.
$6 museum members; $8 seniors and students; $12 non-members
$6 when you mention when you mention Pots and Plumes
Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street
New York, NY 10029