You know I have occasionally heard this statement, or at least felt that it was implied: “Don’t get so wrapped up in it – it’s only food.” Well, I am here to state unequivocally that this just isn’t so. Of course, there are restaurants and home cooks who seem to view it as such – sustenance, a way to fill an empty stomach, and there are loads of people – both preparers and recipients who are content to define it that way, but their perception is shallow. “It’s only food” discounts all that goes into the understanding of a dish, a process, an ingredient, and the numerous people and systems that sit behind the steps in bringing that food to a plate.
A plate of food is a culmination of so many factors: the farmer and the soil that nurtured a crop, maybe a crop that originated in a country far from our borders and was brought to America during those early days of exploration and expansion; a crop that had been historically integrated into family pantries as a staple in home food preparation, or maybe appeared in those early European taverns as a comfort food for vagabond travelers and then eventually worked it’s way into a traditional preparation that became a signature item defining a culture. Maybe that signature item found its way to the New World and with the addition of some indigenous ingredients in America it morphed into something different and was adopted by those early settlers as something new, but something familiar. Quite possibly this comfort food found its way onto American restaurant menus as a familiar dish that was prepared well and reminded people of their family heritage. As the profession of cooking was raised to a new level – that same dish evolved into something more refined and elegant, paired with great wine and served on fine china, presented with finesse and revealed as something new and fresh.
The chef and the cook who prepared that dish is now representing the farmer who grew the crop, the rancher who raised the animal, the fisherman who spent treacherous hours out at sea trying to bring home a reasonable catch, the history and traditions that went back to those early days in a peasant European home and brought to America for a few generations of transition, and the respect that the chef or cook has for all other cooks who took part in the evolution of that dish. It’s not just food – it is all of this and more.
The cook or chef who stands tall in front of a range, proud in a uniform that draws its energy from hundreds of years of hard work and tradition; the cook or chef who has spent years developing those unique skills that allow he or she to wield a knife with precision, multi-task while keeping the five senses tuned in to a variety of preparations and timings, exercises that database of preparation techniques that result in consistently delicious food, and works in a highly stressful environment that relies of teamwork to bring everything together at the right moment – can’t accept that “it’s just food”.
Think about it for a moment: that bowl of pasta that graces your place setting in a restaurant came about from ancient preparations in Asia that date back thousands of years ago and even though many believe that it was Marco Polo during his world travels who brought noodles from China to Italy, that can be disputed through historical references that show the combination of flour, egg, water, and salt to make pasta was present in Italy before Marco Polo undertook his travels. Noodles, in some form, are present in almost every culture and with its preparation promote tradition and loads of stories to support its importance to a population. In Poland we find pierogi, Germany promotes spaetzle, Orzo in Greece, Dumplings in Vietnam, Wontons in China, and pasta in all its forms is by far one of the most important comfort foods in Italy and the U.S. So, that simple plate of pasta that is rolled and mounted on your restaurant plate is quite historical and as simple as the ingredients are, the perfect preparation through technique and understanding can be quite difficult. It takes skill to make great pasta and it takes understanding to build it into a memorable dish. It is, after all, not just food.
That professional cook or chef is much more than a preparer of food, far more significant than someone who deals with “just food”, he or she is:
- A HISTORIAN who has an opportunity to protect and promote the background of a dish or an ingredient
- AN AMBASSADOR for the cultural influences that brought a dish to the public
- AN ADVOCATE for the farmer, the rancher, the fisherman, and the producer who provides the ingredients that allow a dish to come together
- AN ARTIST who views the ingredients and the history behind them as paints to create a feeling or portray that history on the plate – the chef’s canvas
- A PROTECTOR of time tested methods that took a simple dish to a new level of excellence
- A SCIENTIST who understands the methods used in cooking that extract or change the flavor of an ingredient through the application of chemistry
- A CONDUCTOR who orchestrates the symphony of collaboration that takes place on a kitchen line as all of the above factors come together to replicate what a dish means – time and again.
It’s not just food to many and as long as this is true there will be restaurants, there will be chefs and cooks bringing a dish to life, there will be a connection between the consumer and all of those stakeholders in the process, and history and tradition will continue to flourish through the hands of those who know just how important food is and how significant the process of cooking can be.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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