[Maltodextrin] Mud Fight

July 14, 2014 · 24 comments

So, it happened.

I engaged in something I swore I would never do:

I got into a knock-down brawl on social media.

As anyone who frequents social media — Facebook, Twitter, etc — knows, there is a whole universe of people out there with enormous amounts of time on their hands, and who run the gamut from your average textbook bully (often known as trolls, and generally too cowardly or insecure to crawl out from behind the anonymity that digitalia affords) to the know-it-all blowhard (who has anointed himself expert in all things) to the meme-loving-wrist-slapper (who pointedly posts soft-religious/quasi-Buddhist quotations not necessarily because they themselves believe or adhere to them — usually it’s the polar opposite — but as a way to not-so-subtly stick it to someone they’re trying to call out in public. Generally speaking, it winds up backfiring). There are the political banterers, the over-sharers, the wingnuts (both left and right), and the folks who, never before having had a public soapbox, shout their opinions for everyone to hear. That’s human nature, of course. (The opinion part, anyway. Guilty as charged.) Finally, there are the people who almost gleefully post incendiary articles guaranteed to raise the hackles of their community; either they honestly want to have a genuine discussion/debate with the hope to come out of it enlightened, or, like Julius Caesar having a tuna sandwich at the Forum, they simply enjoy watching others have at it, as subjective discussion turns to argument, and argument devolves into a cortisol-fueled, gladiatorial blood-letting.

On the other side of the aisle, of course, are those who actively engage in social media and manage to sidestep any of the steaming street poo. They tiptoe through the tulips. They smile and say whatever. No one attempts to pick arguments with them because it is widely understood that they simply will not engage. Will Not. Engage. (This is a sign of either a lot of therapy or just a sane disinclination to get into debates with people they don’t even know. Obviously, these people are not Jewish girls from Queens whose childhood dinnertime conversation regularly included serious fights over the fact that grandpa only wanted one piece of gefilte fish on Shabbos, and not two. [I’m giving you two, my grandmother shouted. I only want one. You’ll eat two. I only want one. Did you have pastrami for lunch again? What is it to you if I eat pastrami for lunch? I’m giving you two. I ONLY WANT ONE. YOU’LL EAT TWO. ONE! SO YOU DID HAVE PASTRAMI—WAS IT WITH THAT NUN?….WHAT DOES SHE TAKE ON IT- MUSTARD OR MAYO?])


Anyway. I was involved in a heated discussion the other day when one of my friends innocuously posted, on her Facebook wall, an article about Noma versus Chez Panisse. (Or at least that’s what Slate.com’s SEO-sticky reprint of the article was called; originally published in The Breakthrough, it was titled something rather more pointed: Beyond Food and Evil: Nature and Haute Cuisine After the Chez Panisse Revolution. The “evil” to which Emma Marris, the author, refers, is open to interpretation. It might be the ubiquitous Monsanto. Or GMOs. Or the so-called didactic hegemony of Alice Waters, to which the palpably irritated Marris refers repeatedly, both directly and not.)

Centrifuge rotor

In the piece, Marris argues that Noma‘s Rene Redzepi and Coi’s Daniel Patterson are among the “new generation of chefs” producing futuristic “techno-cuisine” by marrying wild and hyper-foraged ingredients to technology, thus creating food that is modern, local, and a natural response to forty three years of the aforementioned “didacticism of Chez Panisse and its ilk.” The result, then, is a sort of toppling of the Chez Panisse “revolution” (which Marris attributes without attribution or reason more to Jeremiah Tower than Waters) and along with it, Waters mythic culinary ethos, as Marris sees it. The author’s bottom-line argument? The rhapsodic, over-simplified, hyper-elite, farm-to-table gastro-political aesthetic of Chez Panisse is buckling beneath the weight of the modernist fantabulism that comes out of kitchens like those of Noma, and Coi.


Ultimately, the article was laden with everything from contradiction to inaccuracy to an obvious personal disdain for Waters, to downright swooning over the handsome “bro-horts” who populate the world of modernist chef-dom:  “[Alice Waters] cooks peasant food, but only rich people can afford it,” Marris says, two paragraphs after she describes the “stratospheric price” of dining at Noma and Coi. She catches herself by claiming that “The conceit that farm-to-table cuisine comes straight to the diner unmediated by the kitchen obscures the enormous cost and expense associated with producing such food in the field and pasture. If nothing else, places like Coi and Noma do us a service by making those costs more apparent.” [My emphasis.]

More apparent, how? In the transferred costs of technology and the operation and maintenance of mechanical equipment—the rumbling centrifuges and Pacojets (the latter being what Forbes Magazine called a glorified, $4000 ice cream maker), the commercial foamers and the food dehydrators and the Thermomixes that Redzepi and Patterson require in order to produce their food, and which are unavailable to the home cook?  Call me crazy: I’d rather transfer my money to the small growers, ranchers, and farmers who supply Chez Panisse with their ingredients. And at home, I would rather spend $1000 a year on my local CSA then in a one-shot purchase of a centrifuge or a $4000 Pacojet, the way Ben Affleck and Matt Damon apparently did a few years back, when they supposedly exchanged them as gifts.

“Sensitive to the charge that hers was a cuisine for the rich,” Marris adds derogatorily, ” Water [sic] launched programs to bring organic gardens to schools serving underprivileged youth.” Nowhere does she mention that Waters’ well-documented “interest” in education comes directly out of her background as a Montessori teacher. Today, according to the Wall Street Journal, there are more than 2,000 Edible Schoolyards spanning 50 states and in 29 countries. So, love her or not, it can be argued that without Alice Waters fighting for how schoolchildren learn about food, not to mention what they eat every day, and without her relentless, singleminded dedication to local food, organics, and farming, farmer’s markets would likely not dot virtually every city and community in this country. And no one would question the poisonous dreck that crop dusters spew from their bellies and onto our dinner tables, the way they have for more than sixty years.

Personally, I prefer simple food; I’ve had ground-moving meals at Chez Panisse and others that weren’t quite as good, but that’s true of virtually every restaurant I’ve ever dined in. But I also unequivocally and loudly applaud the restaurant artistry of Redzepi and Patterson, along with every modernist chef out there who moves the creative ball forward. But why is it apparently so impossible to do this without simultaneously disparaging those who have gone before? Especially if, as Marris says, Patterson and Redzepi’s food as presented in their recent “cookbooks” is “uncookable,” while the books that have spilled out of the Chez Panisse kitchens for nearly 30 years sit stained, torn, splattered, and dog-earred in virtually every serious home kitchen I know (including my own). Sometimes the recipes work and sometimes they’re a bit dodgy — as with every cookbook — but they always provide inspiration and history and context. And never the conceit that the home cook would be “crazy” to cook from them, as Daniel Patterson is quoted in Marris’s article as saying about his recipe for Prather Ranch Beef Encrusted in Lichen, appearing in his new cookbook:

“If, for some crazy reason, you decide to make this dish, then we’ll need to have a talk about the lichen powder.”

That’s nice, Daniel; I won’t go to the trouble. I’d rather come to Coi and have you make it for me. You big, handsome fella, you.

I don’t recall Richard Olney, in his famous instructions for boning a chicken (page 296, The French Menu Cookbook, 1970) suggesting that readers might be crazy if they attempted it. Instead, he utters one of the most famous lines ever written in a recipe, before or since: “The chicken, at this point, is turned completely inside out.”

All of this said, I did not have my little social media spat with the author of this article; I had it with a gentleman who described himself as a player on the international dining community scene, who flatly claimed that a modernist-cooked (centrifuged? foamed?) potato would be more potato-y than a freshly dug potato steamed in its own skin, maybe sprinkled with a little sea salt and drizzled with a drop of olive oil Why?

Because it just would, he said. It would be better.

Better how? I asked.

Just better, he said.

Define better, I asked.

He couldn’t. Round and round we went, ultimately landing on the spot where he said that because I was not a player on the international dining community scene, I clearly didn’t know what “better” meant.

Still, this man’s qualifying modernist cuisine as better was food for thought: why is it that so many of us find honest food, unadorned by frippery or industrial technology — and the people who farm it, grow it, and raise it despite environmental problems, financial struggles, and the vagaries of fashion —  better? Why are we blind to the letters that writers like Marris love to paint on Alice Waters? Because I, and dare I say we, tend to have a fundamental, basic belief in the integrity and honesty of good ingredients, from the ground up, and I would challenge Marris to say that Redzepi or Patterson disagree. We believe in what Lynn Stegner in The Geography of Hope called “diligence and understatement” and the resistance of “sleights of hand, fabulous optimism, short cuts, and language for its own aggrandizement.” In honoring her father-in-law and his dedication to the environment, Stegner refers to his belief in “that which renders humanity a more humane species.” Similarly, honesty in food, connection to the earth and the seasons and the farmers and the foragers, both feeds us and preserves the land; it connects us to it, and in doing so renders us more human.

And that’s what makes honest food what it is: better.


{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Charlotte July 14, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Oy. Flashbacks to the po-mo wars of my graduate school years.

2 Carol July 14, 2014 at 3:49 pm

Just wanted to say – great post and I wholeheartedly agree with you.

3 Vanessa July 14, 2014 at 4:00 pm

I read the article from Slate. As a scientist a centrifuge and food just are not meant to go together. It would be like using a carburator in the kitchen. But that wasn’t my biggest concern. Rene Redzepi and Daniel Patterson’s use of non-sustainable ingredients is. Organisms like lichen are not farmed but taken from the environment. And harvested at rates that are not replaceable. There was a similar review of a restaurant in Amsterdam (I believe) that also used scavenged ingredients. That sort of unseen, unacknowledged, damage to the environment is what concerns me. The additional usage of technology to then make these ingredients edible and possibly palatable is overkill.

4 heidi defaut July 14, 2014 at 4:21 pm

you are so right. in any case, i would much rather eat the simple, delicious food from a farm or garden than any of the other. i admire people who try things differently but at the end of the day, my heart belongs to the farmers and gardeners [myself included] who work hard to see that there is good, healthy food available.

5 Chef Kurt Michael Friese July 14, 2014 at 5:56 pm

I have said for years, likely directly to you, Elissa: Cooking is not a chore, and a recipe is not a formula to be assembled in a laboratory. Cooking is elemental, it is spiritual. It is what dieffentiates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. It is what connects us directly to the land and sea and air around us, and it is the single most tangible way we demonstrate our love to our family and friends. What we prepare, and, I would argue, HOW we prepare it, literally *becomes* our families, our children. Minimal manipulation is one way that I am able to serve dishes that are closer to their sources, closer to their true selves. I simply prefer food that is less pretentious, less fooled-around-with, and not as too-prescious-by-half as the work of the Redzepis and Pattersons and Adrias of the world. I am a Curnonsky-ist and always will be.

To answer your question more directly, I honestly don’t know if that makes me “more humane,” but I do *believe* that it does, and for such a subjective issue, I think that’s more important.

PS: Thanks for the gefilte fish schtick. The accents were dripping out of my monitor.

6 Elissa July 14, 2014 at 6:18 pm

VAT ACCENTS Kurt? Vee haff no accents here.

7 Deborah Madison July 14, 2014 at 6:31 pm

I heard them, Elissa, those accents!! I did, I did. Kuirt’s right!
I read the article too, and I had two major responses: one was alarm that D. Patterson was scraping lichen off of trees with (I suspect) no knowledge of why the lichen was there in the first place, it’s relationship to the tree or to anything else and why one might not want to take it off the tree and go through all those steps to eat it when there’s something else perfectly good to eat close at hand. Just because one can?
The other was this: I’ve had many meals at Chez Panisse – some better than others which, as you say, is true of any restaurant. But the flavor of the food has been consistently amazingly delicious. It’s just that good and you have to marvel at it because it’s so straight forward and “simple”.
But tender chard leaves from my garden, or a freshly dug potato, or a salad with big golden purslane leaves and cucumbers are that good too. There’s a great deal to be said for growing food, for being close to others who grow it, and cooking what is true and fresh and making that experience real for others, be they children or adults. This is something that’s truly accessible: no big $$ machines needed.

8 Linda July 14, 2014 at 7:10 pm

Brava, Elissa, and bravo, Chef Friese. I’ve never had the opportunity to eat at Chez Panisse, but Alice Waters is a culinary hero. I doubt if Redzepi and Patterson’s glory days will be as long lasting. Theirs is the schtick. Gimmicky food will never be as satisfying as the real thing.

9 Elissa July 14, 2014 at 7:16 pm

Thanks Linda, but I must disagree: I think that Redzepi and Patterson’s style of cooking won’t be long lasting simply because it will evolve. We may not like it, or understand it, or even agree with the processes, but I’m fairly certain that they cook the way they do out of a particularly modernist passion. To me, a gimmick is a cronut, or a Pet Rock. Anything that makes people think HARD about food — what they like, what they don’t, what they’re inspired by, etc — is okay with me, even if I personally would rather eat another way. I had breakfast yesterday with a great chef — his food is warm and comforting and fresh and delicious, all at once. And when I mentioned modernist cuisine to him, his eyes lit up: some people totally geek out on the process, and they’re almost always chefs. I understand that. But as the eater (and as a home cook), it’s not for me.

10 Cindy G July 14, 2014 at 8:08 pm

Wonderful article – so many of my own disjointed thoughts so well expressed. And, btw, feel free to send the “gentleman” to me in several weeks to help dig real potatoes from the real earth – perhaps he will change his mind – unless of course, the honesty of _real_ earth is more than he can handle.

11 Chef David Mahler July 14, 2014 at 8:16 pm

Good for you! The cookbooks that I DO use are indeed splattered, dog-eared and worn. The coffee table books sit, not on the coffee table, but on the bottom shelf of the bookshelf in my office which is the only place they fit.
I dug the first potatoes of the summer from my garden last week, small to medium sized Yukon Golds. I dotted them with olive oil and sea salt, wrapped them in foil and cooked them over the grill alongside some sausages. Kathy and i agreed they were one of the best things we had eaten this summer. They just tasted BETTER!

12 Rachel July 14, 2014 at 8:33 pm

I am with you. I am miffed at modernists though. How hard have we all worked in the last 30 years to move the ball forward toward honest food, clean food, to educate consumers so they have voted with their wallets to such an extent that there is are CSAs and Whole Foods and organic everything available everywhere…only to have the likes of Grant Achitz and David Chang talk about how they love using MSG on their food and have no problem with a neuro-toxic flavor enhancer on their pricey prix fixes. I’m confused. I don’t get the trashing the old to make way for the new either…

13 Elissa July 14, 2014 at 8:49 pm

Rachel, I think you hit the nail on the head: having come up in food in the 80s, I understand the contrarian, bad-boy thing. And I’ve also eaten David Chang’s food and I LOVE it (and one must note: he takes the time to mention the source of his ingredients on the blackboard at his Momofuku, so I knew exactly where the pig tails I ate came from). BUT, I don’t get the trashing of the old. I just don’t.

14 Elissa July 14, 2014 at 8:49 pm

Thanks David! Our potatoes are coming in as we speak!

15 Abe Opincar July 15, 2014 at 2:48 am

YEA AND VERILY, Ms Altman, immediately get thee down on thine hands and knees, and offer up fulsome thanks to the Lord, thy G-d, for His having delivered unto thee, free of charge, a phrase of such splendidly 100% organic, locally sourced, farm-to-table piss elegance as “a player on the international dining community scene,” the likes of which hasn’t been heard since Gene Tierney was last seen tucking into a “deluxe jumbo-shrimp cocktail” at Toots Shor’s, and Jacqueline Susann and her husband Irving were spotted picking gingerly at a plate of dubious “Escargots Vol-au-Vent” at Maxwell’s Plum.
I miss “fine dining” somethin’ awful. For all the scenery-chewing pretension at Grenouille or Caravelle or Côte Basque, theirs was an innocent provincial snobbery, and so had a sincere, if misplaced, since of genuine excitement. There was no mind-numbing table talk about the superiority of “sous vide” preparations for piglet genitalia, or recipes for liquid-nitrogen-based “krill marinades” for “re-purposed” perimenopausal badger.
“[A] player on the international dining community scene” is all yours, babe. Solid comedy gold. Use it or lose it.

16 Elissa July 15, 2014 at 7:41 am

I thought I was the only one who remembered Maxwell’s Plum. I love you, Abe Opincar.

17 Jessica July 15, 2014 at 10:35 am

The one doesn’t necessarily negate the other. There’s always an ongoing re-invention of the wheel when it comes to restaurant food and cooking. Trends are always cyclical.

I’ve dined at Noma, I don’t live that far away so I can’t say we went out of our way to get there. I was certainly dubious at the beginning of the meal. It was fun, I certainly won’t look at lichen the way I used to ever again.
Will I ever cook Noma-style food at home? No.
Sooner or later, Noma will, in some way or another, become that of yesterday and be replaced by something else.

18 Becky Selengut July 15, 2014 at 11:24 am

Elissa — some of your finest writing at work here. Bravo! I agree, the accents leaned out of my computer, grabbed me by my cheeks and whipped my head around to watch the tennis match of PASTRAMI VS. GEFILTE FISH. Naturally Gefilte Fish won, because she who cooks for you wins every time, especially if the she is a Jewish grandmother. (As an aside, I completely love that there was a random nun mentioned in this snippet. Comedy gold, indeed.) On another note, I – at first – could not understand the fancy birth control pill contraption that you had included a picture of, but then I soon realized it was a lichen centrifuge and everything made much more sense.

But on a more serious note — as a chef who has spent most of my career to this point focused on organics, sustainability, and teaching the home cook to replicate the exact recipe I write, I must admit that I have dabbled in modernist cuisine to the point where I can admit that some techniques are not only fun, playful, creative and mind-blowing, but they actually make the ingredients shine in a completely new and exciting way. I think Elissa, that you are not modernist shaming here — I think you are saying there is a place for both ways of cooking (and sooner or later, they will merge as they have in my own cooking) and that we should not forget what our grandmothers taught us. One flows from the other. There would not be a birth control pill contraption in modernist kitchens without a sincere appreciation for the flavor of a perfect pea grown from the earth with care and love. I salute those who think they can make that pea more interesting, coaxing out its pea-ness (snicker) better than the next guy. Though it might not be my regular lifestyle, I’m willing to try from time to time.

19 Elissa July 15, 2014 at 11:31 am

Brava to you for your response, Becky. And yes, you’re right: I’m NOT modernist shaming….I do believe there is a place for both ways of cooking, and that one style flows from the other. All of this said, you are a chef, and like many chefs I know, modernist technique excites you from a creative point of view because of its inherent possibility, and I totally appreciate that.

20 Andrew Wilder July 15, 2014 at 12:52 pm

I’ve not yet had the joy of eating at Chez Panisse, but coincidentally I have reservations for next week — two nights in a row, at that! I’m now even more excited to go. Thanks, Elissa.

21 Jacqueline July 15, 2014 at 1:16 pm

[I wonder if your “player on the international dining scene” is related to my “catch that deserves only the best, a 6′ tall Jewish runway model”? They deserve each other.]

Thank you for calling out the false dichotomies that we see so much of these days. Is it what the search for clicks has wrought? Anything to provoke? Clickbait writing and underlying sexism at play in that original post, I think.

I think the “Bro-hort” fawning is what really gets me. Why the reflexive love for boys and toys? And why must it be either/or and accompany an ill-formed dig at Alice? Can’t we agree there’s room at the table for all — even a nun who might, God forbid, use mayo on Pastrami?

22 Kathy Cornell July 19, 2014 at 12:54 pm

As a nearly 62 aged woman,& an organic gardener for the last 43 years, I applaud you! I fed my family out of my garden for all those years. Simple food, simple recipes, simple methods of preservation.
My question is: when did you come to this conclusion,& how long did it take?
And what caused the metamorphosis?
My partner is a chef,w/many years of San Francisco in his back pocket. He knew Alice Waters, worked w/one of her ex-chefs @ a different locale, & in the last 3 years has come to understand the hard work & dedication it takes to grow food naturally. It has been amazing to watch. Hence, my questions!!

23 Elissa July 19, 2014 at 6:23 pm

Kathy, thanks for your note! In fact, I came to this conclusion a long, long time ago. I’m just mystified by “molecular” cuisine…..

24 Mercedes August 19, 2014 at 2:30 pm

I am so with you on the simple food. Also, thank you for saving me from the fate of the comments section. I was about to leave a mildly snarky/lecturing comment in response to an error-laden article on Moroccan cooking, but then I thought of this piece and made myself bite my tongue! Unfortunately, I think a lot of people out there just aren’t interested in listening or learning from others.

Case in point: http://theconcourse.deadspin.com/rainbow-cake-recipe-inspires-comment-apocalypse-1592575661

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