January 2004

Tom Bernard


a la carte

Some people say love is the universal language. Others hold that art, or music, or highly specialized applications of complex mathematics makes the world go round. Each position has its merits. A life devoid of love, or art or music can feel empty indeed. Similarly, without all that math, we wouldn’t have construction, or industry, or airline travel or the digital media through which you enjoy the writing on this site, blow the mortgage payment playing blackjack, or receive innumerable invitations to experience the innovative depravity of online pornography. While all these things arguably feed the mind, the spirit and the soul, only food truly nourishes the body. All right, you can get all Deepak Chopra on my ass and start in on the mind-body connection and all the ways a spirit nourished by music and art can help heal the body, but when your blood sugar takes a nosedive, I guarantee a bacon cheeseburger will do more to fill the void than Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or Water Lilies. Bottom line, it doesn’t get more universal than the need for calories to burn. Filling our individual and collective pie holes represents the absolute basics of culinary conversation, the A-B-Cs of food, if you will. Two recent books present more nuanced views of what the language of food can articulate. The first, noted chef Daniel Boulud’s Letters to a Young Chef, provides an overview of how to first reach and later navigate the heights of professional chefdom, while Are You Really Going to Eat That? recounts writer Robb Walsh’s adventures as a globe-trotting food writer. Each uses the same basic ingredients – food and the language of food – to prepare wildly different textual dishes for the reader. Daniel Boulud is to the world of restaurants what Donna Karan is to fashion, or the lovely and talented Ms. Jennifer Convertible is to mid-priced home furniture -- a name that is a brand unto itself. His restaurant empire encompasses Daniel, Café Boulud and DB Bistro Moderne, meaning he had not only made his mark on the culinary landscape, but did so by making his name synonymous with fine dining. Because of this, it’s surprising the book begins so abruptly. Boulud jumps right in with no introduction, no explanation, nothing to set the tone or provide context for what is to follow. To put this in culinary terms, it’s like walking into a restaurant, being seated at a table already set with a gourmet meal and being told to tuck in. The dining experience that follows may well be wonderful, but the presentation is unsettling. For a chef who understands that fine dining is as much about the presentation as the food, such lackluster service, without even the possibility of a comped dessert for my trouble, borders on the unforgivable. This precipitous start makes it unclear whether these letters represent Boulud’s side of an actual epistolary conversation with an actual young chef (possibly Alex Lee, to whom Boulud dedicates the book?) or whether he intends it as an idealized discourse with young chefs who have yet to begin their culinary odysseys. Is the book a correspondence or the chef’s testament to posterity? It’s hard to say. The book recounts his journey from his family kitchen to the very heights of the culinary food chain, his stops along the way, what he learned on his journey and what these experiences imply for aspiring chefs who dream of following in his footsteps. While the world of kitchens and restaurants is Boulud’s natural domain, much of his advice about how, where and what to learn, the path to mastery and the need to understand all aspects of one’s chosen profession resonate with other fields as well. Divorced from the demands of broiling, braising and sautéing, his observations on the dedication, passion and pure sweat equity that goes into building a successful career is received wisdom worthy of any mentor worth his salt. Cynically, the book also feels like a rush job. Everything from the trim profile to the large photo of Boulud smiling out at the reader from the cover to the $22.50 cover price -- rather a lot for such a thin manual of insight (even when you factor in the chapter full of recipes the chef tacks on to the end of the book), but a pittance at a restaurant where the wine bill alone can run an order of magnitude higher – makes the book a perfect impulse buy for tourist/diners looking to commemorate their meal. I’m not opposed to anyone exploiting their reputation -- indeed, I already have a Grand Unifed Theory of Selling Out formulated against the day I have a reputation to exploit -- but Boulud’s own accounts of his business acumen make it clear he considered these factors for himself. For all that fine dining is a luxury, a performance and even an exercise in pure extravagance, it is based on a peculiar and paradoxical frugality. While Boulud uses the finest (which frequently translates to the most expensive) ingredients available, the demands of controlling his food costs makes him absolutely obsessive about waste. Thus, a world of $1400 a pound truffles, foie gras and wine cellars of unparalleled breadth and price exists hand in glove with one where cooks find a way to extract the last full measure of use from every leek and carrot. If the view from Boulud’s kitchen is one where excess is the mother of invention, then Robb Walsh’s culinary journeys represent the triumph of pure excess. Are You Really Going to Eat That?, a collection of previously published stories, presents Walsh’s accounts of travels ranging from his own back yard to the ends of the earth in search of epicurean greatness. Achieving this goal required Walsh to eat. And eat. And eat. Whether chasing the ultimate cabrito experience through Monterrey, Mexico, investigating the diverse glories of sauerkraut across the Alsace region of France or meditating in the artery-clogging glory of a Texas roadhouse bacon cheeseburger, his adventures represent an immoderate desire to satisfy both his physical and intellectual appetites. In addition to the undeniable lip-smacking passion for his work that comes through despite his occasionally uneven writing, Walsh approaches his chosen subjects with a sociologist’s eye. When he writes about Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee or lake-grown wild rice from Minnesota, he doesn’t merely discuss the brewing or cooking processes, or taste, texture and body. He prepares and delivers a short lesson in the historical, economic, legal and cultural contexts that surround these crops and products. This dedication to context works best when Walsh looks at the historical or anthropological aspects of food, and less well when it leads to excesses of pretension, as when he builds a piece about fresh Chilean seafood around a Pablo Neruda poem in praise of same. Intending no disrespect to Il Postino, whose work is certainly contextually relevant, but the inclusion of the poem says more about establishing Walsh’s street cred among the literary demimonde than it does about underscoring his own writing. In the end, of course, elements of digression, non sequitur and tangential relevance figure into many conversations, regardless of the particular patois of the discussion. While both these writers indulge their own particular stylistic tics and quirks, their obvious enthusiasm for their work -- and for the syntax and construction of their shared subject matter -- comes through loud and clear. Letters to a Young Chef by Daniel Boulud Basic Books ISBN: 046500735X Are you Really Going to Eat That? Reflections of a Culinary Thrill-Seeker by Robb Walsh Counterpoint ISBN: 1582432783