May 2012

Charlotte Freeman


The Inevitable Triumph of the Looky Loos?

Is food is the new music? Are all the cool kids starting restaurants these days instead of bands? It would make sense -- great new restaurants share the same sort of energy as cool new bands -- they're places where people are really interested in what's going on, where they come together, form a scene. People are talking, and engaging, both with one another and with the food -- and through the food they're interacting with farmers and ranchers. They're going out and discovering the flavors and traditions and techniques of other cultures. It's very rich. It's cross-pollination at its best. It's creative and a little funky. Some nights it doesn't come off at all, while on other nights, when the place is rocking, when everything's going right, when the kitchen is slammed but everyone stays out of the weeds, when the people are happy, and when, at the end of the night, you've got three or four people you love still at the bar, having one last drink, well, that's the dream.

So what comes next? That's always the question, whether it's art or music or food. Do you get big? Do you stay where you are? What happens when your organic scene that you built with your friends and your people suddenly gets bigger than you are? What happens when the looky loos arrive? It's Dave Hickey's term, but you know who they are; they're the spectators, the ones who troop in in a group, drape themselves across the big table in the corner, settle in not to be a part of the scene, but to watch the scene. They're tourists, but they come bearing money and acclaim and the most addictive drug of the twenty-first century, exposure.

And then comes the cookbook deal. You've made a name for yourself. People love your food, they love your thing, they love what you're doing. They come bearing money and photographers and ghostwriters who they assure you will just massage the text, will just help you frame your narrative. It all sounds great. You'll get your name out there. You'll make some money. You'll get to share your thing with people who like to cook, but who don't live in your city. You'll get to propagate your ideas, which as Hickey notes, is one of the crucial things that separates the participants from the spectators. Participants have a point of view, and they don't just have one, they believe with all their hearts that they have the right one. They want to prevail. How better to continue that than by putting it all in a cookbook, your cookbook, with your name and your picture right there on the cover?

But the problem is that by trying to get it all down, by trying to capture the real-time energy and creativity that makes a great restaurant great, you invariably have to kill it. It's why cheffy cookbooks make me so unbearably sad. Doorstop chef cookbooks are the tombstones for the dream. I mean, what's the point of these books? To capture that thrummy energy that fuels real restaurants, the ones you want to go back to again and again, to freeze that between covers and then sell it like a product? That can't help betraying the thing itself. But, I can hear the indignant sputtering voices of the industry objecting, the doorstop cookbook is how you brand yourself. Branding is supposed to be good, right? That's how people know you, know your thing, can identify you. Really? Where I live branding is what we do to squalling steer calves, and believe me, it's the beginning of the end for them. So you've branded yourself with a celebrity cookbook. What's next? Orange clogs? A line of frozen foods? A cooking show?

The saddest part of this process to me is that the contradiction is inherent to the project. No one wants to make a tombstone. You've got two great cooks like April Bloomfield and Zak Pelaccio, energetic, driven, focused people with a lot of great energy who are doing something terrific. Since the thing they do is cook, and since we have this established conduit for communicating how to make food -- the recipe -- it seems only common sense that a cookbook is how they'd share that thing they do. Then anyone out there in the provinces or the well-heeled precincts of the city will be able to follow them around the kitchen, capture the measurements, and do what Bloomfield or Pelaccio do, at home, in their own kitchens.

But you can't do it at home. For one thing, what they're doing in that restaurant is categorically different from what you do at home, unless that is, you run a restaurant out of your house. Yes, you can produce a recipe at home, but what you can't reproduce is the performance aspect of restaurant life. It's a category error on par with thinking that the high school band I heard at last week's small-town basketball game playing "Blister in the Sun" at half time, has anything but notes in common with the Violent Femmes (and make me feel old -- there's sheet music for the Violent Femmes now? for high school bands?). Recipes are not participation, they're sanction. Recipes are authority. Recipes are, by their very nature, something one follows, and while by following recipes you can learn crucial skills of technique and flavor combination, following a recipe is, in the end, the very opposite of creative. Following a recipe is stepping into someone else's shoes. And while there is much to be learned from that kind of mimicry, what you are not going to learn is the kind of creative drive and energy and will to experiment that drives the best cooks and the best restaurants. The most you're going to wind up with is a simulacrum of one of April Bloomfield's or Zak Pelaccio's restaurant dishes.

And yet, despite the fact that these cookbooks, to paraphrase Robert Hass, are elegies to what they signify, they are both very good examples of their type. A Girl and Her Pig is charming. Bloomfield's voice comes clearly through in the prose, and the book puts forth both her personality and how that personality informs her cooking. She admits to being something of a tyrant, to driving her staff a little crazy because she wants her food to taste and appear exactly the way she envisions it. Like most people working at the top of their game in a creative industry, Bloomfield remains fascinated by the process. "Even after all this time in the kitchen," Bloomfield writes, "I still love watching garlic go nutty in hot fat" and she holds strong opinions about her craft, arguing for example, that veggies should be cut into oblique chunks "so that when they cook, little bits will tumble off into the sauce or soup."

Bloomfield's book is clearly written for the home cook, and I admire the effort to translate the essential qualities that make her restaurant cooking so appealing. Bloomfield is famous for straightforward simple food, and there is something important that the amateur cook can learn from, say her description of the perfect porridge as made by her grandfather who would "spoon the porridge into a bowl and let it sit until it formed a little skin... Then... he'd pour milk into the space around the edges, the cool milk hitting the hot porridge and making it set like custard. Finally he'd sprinkle sugar over the middle. The hot porridge, the crunchy sugar, the moat of milk." Here's a person paying exquisite attention to the sensory experience before her. But the question remains, can sensibility be taught? If you're not already the sort of person for whom this description seems magical, are you going to learn it from a book?

Again, this is not to take away the good qualities of this specific cookbook. Bloomfield and her co-author want to convey how to think as Bloomfield does about everything from breakfast through desserts. She wants you to pay attention to your food. She'll show you how to properly dress greens, make a beautiful vegetable soup, and will even explain the mysteries of some very English desserts like Eton Mess and Rhubarb Fool (which I am very much looking forward to making in about two weeks when the rhubarb is up in my backyard). There are a few showy complicated recipes like the Beef and Bayley Hazen pie, a version of a classic English meat pie made with beef and a Vermont blue cheese, but there are fewer of them than there are recipes for a simple goat cheese soufflé, or a lamb curry that was delicious on a recent blustery damp spring night (it helps that we have fabulous local lamb here in Montana). Don't get me wrong; I like this cookbook very much. It's charming. The sensibility is enormously appealing. The recipes are beautifully rendered and tailored for the home cook.

Zak Pelaccio's Eat with Your Hands is also a terrific, engaging cookbook infused with Pelaccio's enthusiastic voice and deep, instinctive curiosity about food and flavors. Pelaccio wants the reader to "taste everything, everywhere you can" so that you can "figure out what you think is delicious." He urges the reader to slow down, to learn that "when something you eat is awesome" that you should "ask yourself why that particular combination of elements was so attractive to your mouth." Like Bloomfield, Pelaccio comes from the gastropub tradition of serving great food in unlikely-looking settings. Where Bloomfield is seeking out the perfect simplicity of the English country food of her childhood, Pelaccio is like a greedy child who has been to Asia. He wants to marry the funky, bright, acidic, and hot tastes of Malaysian cooking with the whole-beast ethos of modern Western cooking. This is what I tend to think of as boy food -- lots of pork, big platters of sizzling deliciousness slung down the center of a table from which noisy groups of friends reach in to serve themselves. Like the melting-pot that is the Malaysian food he loves, Pelaccio is taking the fusion spirit a couple of steps further, mixing it up with the Italian standards on which he was raised, flipping the usual equation of French technique used on Asian ingredients, serving French flavors cooked with Asian technique. I'm also predisposed to this book because Pelaccio shares my itchiness about recipes. He admits in the introduction that recipes "reduce cooking -- movement honed through repetition that's responsive to subtle sensory cues -- to words on a page... Recipes are form -- not food, not cooking."

Because of this, Eat with Your Hands seems like it might perhaps live on beyond the tombstone stage. It's more a book of techniques than it is of recipes, and if enough young punky cooks can scrape together the forty bucks, this might just live on as one of those seminal cookbooks that an entire generation of cooks mark time by. It's a book that encourages experimentation, substitution, and emphasizes methodology. Pelaccio, like Bloomfield, wants you to learn to pay attention to your food. He wants you to think about what you're eating, about what those flavors are, why you like them so much, what their essences are. If you pay attention in this book you might just figure out a way to be a participant in your own food story, not simply a spectator at his open kitchen.

It's Pelaccio who actually sums up the problem of the chef cookbook pretty well in his introduction: "until we harness the technology contemplated in the movie Brainstorm... which lets us tap into one another's mind... recipes are the best way I've got to share my taste memories and get my food on your dinner table." After that, I suppose it's up to the reader. Are you going to be a spectator, who buys whatever the hot chef cookbooks of the year are so you can arrange them in an artfully "curated" pile on your minimalist coffee table? Or are you going to participate? Are you going to go buy some actual belacan and stink up your kitchen dry toasting it for a dish? Are you going to fry the Curry Leaf Chicken and risk getting grease all over your stove? Are you going to find a place outside where you can barbecue a goat?

Or are you just going to show up and watch?