This classic line by Stanley Tucci in the fabulous movie: “The Big Night”, has always struck a chord with me. It speaks well of simplicity and allowing ingredients to be themselves and shine. Whether it’s perfectly cooked pasta, a fresh garden salad, fresh fish, or a prime roast of pork, there is so much there to love without adding ingredients or seasoning that takes away from how perfect those ingredients are, on their own.
It’s interesting how our approach towards food, as chefs and cooks, changes over the years. I suppose it’s not too dissimilar to our approach towards music, art, and life in general. We may dip our toe into the unusual and the daring while young but then step back to strong foundations as we age. It may be exciting and even beneficial to test the waters with a more Avant Garde approach towards cooking when we are young chefs, we may find inspiration in highly detailed preparations and presentations, molecular gastronomy, or show quality perfection in incredibly intricate plate presentations, but at some point, we realize that great cooking is all about respecting ingredients, executing solid cooking technique, and finding ways to allow ingredients speak for themselves. It must be the same in those other professions that touch the realm of art. I can still relish Eric Clapton’s era of experimentation with improvisation and jazz interpretations of blues classics. As a member of the group “Cream” he amazed us all with his style and ability to push the envelope with structure in music, but in his later years he returned to his blues roots and produced melodic, thoughtful music that relied on tradition, foundations, and technique. Apparently, we all tend to find our way back.
Our growth as craftspeople or artists seeks to find the beat of our own drum. In the process we pick up little pointers along the way; nuances of style that may hide behind a more mature, seasoned approach, but with the ability to still occasionally surprise. This is what I find in my own approach towards cooking and what I find satisfying in others.
What I found exciting in my thirties and forties – the sizzle of plate presentations that were manipulated for that perfect photo shoot, the entrée with twelve or more components and multiple sauces, the highly manipulated dish that was designed to change a guest’s understanding of cooking and confuse others who were challenged to identify the original ingredients, no longer feels right to me. I still admire the skill of chefs who go “where no person has gone before”, the presentations that dazzle and leave me wondering, and the flavor profiles that work but make me wonder how, but most times I gravitate towards that perfectly grilled piece of fish, that mouth-watering braise, or a pile of perfectly cooked garden vegetables. The older I get, the more important it is to respect established execution and natural flavors that aren’t interrupted by a desire to pursue the unknown.
There is a lesson here, a lesson for all who enjoy the process of creating something with their hands, something that represents who they are, where they came from, and what they choose to do for a living. The foundations ground us, they are home base – a destination that sometimes takes starts and stops to get to. We learn along the way from our wins and our misfires, but always grow and evolve through the process. But, getting home is still the goal and when we pay our dues, experiment, and challenge, and try different ways to get from one base to another, we end up crossing the plate with our own approach towards the foundations – our personal signature. It might be how we embrace established methods, whether we prefer to cook with gas or wood, whether we use stainless, steel, or cast iron, when we salt, how we sear, or how long we temper or rest an ingredient before it winds up on a plate, but when we cross that plate, we have clearly defined the cook that we are, the one we were always meant to be.
What inspires me now? What do I love to eat and what do I long to cook? Open fire grilled bronzini or black bass that is scored, brushed with olive oil and a touch of lemon; wood-fire roasted loin of pork with pearl onions, apples and prunes and a lightly thickened jus lie; a loaf of artisan sour dough bread with crusty exterior and chewy interior filled with holes from long fermentation and gentle handing during the kneading process; a crisp salad with vine ripened tomatoes and a touch of vinaigrette, and a cup of rich French press coffee with warm milk. In my later years I find that home plate is in view and my style has finally drifted back to the foundations – a place that is warm and comforting. An ideal meal would be hand cut fettuccini with olive oil, garlic, fresh basil, grated parmigiana, cracked pepper and a splash of lemon, because sometimes the pasta likes to be by itself.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Never forget the foundations – they will serve you well
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