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Cook Dirty for Me: Perversion and the Art of Haute Cuisine

Michael Thomsen

28.11.12

Gastronomy is the root of human perversion. Primatologist Richard Wrangham has argued the emergence of cooking was central in helping homo sapiens evolve from their smaller-brained ancestors by allowing humans to absorb more calories and nutrients from their food, fueling larger brains and more advanced cognition. Wrangham imagines the hypothetical scenario of distant homo erectus prowling a charred plain, burned after a lighting-strike fire swept across it, roasting the tubers still buried in the ground, which seem like a revelation when pulled from the earth for the first time, softened and fragrant. A recent discovery by a team of archaeologists found ashes in a cave in Southern Africa, which contains charred plant matter and burned bones in what they suggest was an early fireplace used for cooking, that dates back approximately 1 million years.

As is often the case in human history, an accidental discovery became a necessary accelerant, and soon the very cognitive qualities it had nourished were turned against it, transforming sustenance into a froth of signification and extravagance. In the last 20 years, gastronomical art has transformed the peculiar interests of the aristocratic into a celebrity diversion that has brought the bohemian delights of connoisseurship into the realm of simply remaining alive. In a distinctly human turn of events, many are beginning to see the value of food as art, transforming one of the few things we cannot do without into an object of pure inutility.

After feeding on the polite indulgences of Julia Child and Jacques Pépin, the gorgeous fiend of Marco Pierre White appeared in the mid-1980s and made an irrefutable example of a person’s identity fused with the pathos of his or her cuisine. Where Child teased her audience about an extra slug of brandy in her Steak au Poivre, White chain-smoked and ate his mashed potatoes in fistfuls. He was not a hedonistic savage, but a gaunt maestro who had refurbished the dark arts of antiquarian French cuisine for the 1980s. His wounded eyes, unmanageable hair, and graying skin made it seem like he was dying at a slightly faster pace than most. He spoke in a contradictory vortex of fragments, simultaneously vulgar, poetic, and without a trace of self-doubt. References to his lost childhood in Italy, growing up poor beside the apron strings of his mother who died when he was 6, were always close at hand.

“I swear it’s the job that has carved my face,” he wrote in his first cookbook White Heat. “It’s the hours, the stress, and the pressure. It’s not me trying to look like this.” White Heat was a small landmark that transformed the prospective artistry of earlier years, when the delicacy of technique, balance of flavors, and history of ingredients were taken up by an unnervingly seductive lost child, ready to lead them from the baby blues of Julia Child into the wild furnaces of hell. The book was less about food and tradition, but the ways White used cuisine to catalyze his anguished need for perfection. And in his precision one heard the howl of an inconsolable mourner, a restless sleeper, a perfectionist whose belief in purity only ensures he will repeat some distant loss over and over again, normalizing the motherless child’s feeling of always being slightly less than whole no matter where in the world he goes.

White claimed to have invented only one original dish in his career, Tagliatelle of Oysters with Caviar, a classically balanced but extravagant recipe with small spools of pasta seated on half-shells, crowned with an oyster, and garnished with julienned cucumbers, caviar, and butter sauce. The dish seems almost prudish by today’s standards of molecular gastronomy and deconstructionism.

“Anyone who says they have invented a new dish is just bullshitting,” he wrote. “You’d have to invent new ingredients before you could invent new dishes.” What one discovers in White’s early cuisine is a deep respect for the traditions of French, Italian, and English cooking, which merges with a manic intimacy, transforming familiar dishes into microscopic variations projected onto a plate as edible quanta.

“I’ve got money now, but I’m not happier,” White admitted. “It’s not material things that bring me happiness. Perhaps that’s why I work with food, with growing things. I can’t make a carrot, and nor can you. It’s natural, without food there’s no life. My respect and admiration for life has come from food, through food.”

White was not indifferent to the atomization of modern extravagance, and many of his early dishes  are indeed antecedents of the fragmentary morsels we have come to associate with haute cuisine. His ratatouille, traditionally a thick stew of eggplant, zucchini, and peppers, is split into essential pieces, a few cubes of vegetable orbiting the plate atop a thin pool of essence of red pepper sauce.

Nine years later, White made a curious career choice, returning his three Michelin stars and formerly retiring from the cooking. His passion for food had gradually become antithetical to the art of cooking, which demanded staying in “one room, 20 hours a day, 52 weeks a year.” White took part ownership of a small countryside pub to serve simple, traditional country food, and, as so many young artists who suddenly realize they have rushed into the lonely vacuum of peerlessness, he cashed out his artistic reputation for a few product endorsements, becoming a spokesperson for Knorr, designing a menu for P&O Cruise lines, and stepping in to host BBC’s Hell’s Kitchen after his former protege Gordon Ramsay had departed for new levels of remuneration in America.

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No one stays the best chef in the world for long, but believing that there is a best has remained constant. While White’s artistry led him in the direction of deconstructionism, it was the Spanish chef Ferran Adrià who mastered it. Adrià worked as a cook in the Spanish army before finding work as a line cook at El Bulli, a Michelin-starred restaurant on a remote Catalonian beach run by French chef Jean-Louis Neichel and owned by a doting German couple. After learning classical French techniques, Adrià’s natural curiosity began to emerge and soon it would reform the identity of the restaurant, a play space of unusual textures and alien arrangements of familiar dishes. He told the New York Times he only wanted to “do new things with old concepts.” In contrast to White, Adrià was endearingly bashful, unwilling to identify his personal narrative with his cooking.  “All we were trying to do at that time was have a good restaurant,” he said. “I’m not even sure I knew I had a personal style until others said I did.”

One of his most recognizable dishes is what appears to be a simple green olive that, when bitten turns out to be a liquid-filled orb made from olive purée. It looks and tastes like an olive, and yet the experience of eating it is wholly alien to its flavor-base, a syrupy release of liquid one might expect from a bon bon. The dish is made by blending the flesh of green olives with the brine they have been preserved in, then dropping a spoonful of the runny mixture into an alginate bath. The calcium in the olives reacts with the alginates, a kind of gelatin extracted from seaweeds, to solidify the outside of the purée while leaving the insides liquid.

Adrià’s cooking reverses the logic in White’s observation about new ingredients being required for truly new recipes by using scientific principles to reform the ingredients themselves. He is perhaps most famous for his popularization of foams instead of sauces, whipping a single ingredient with air, the least nourishing of substances. Other inventions include raviolis made with a translucent film that makes the filling visible on the plate, and a reversal of logic in chicken curry, featuring a solid rectangle of sauce served alongside liquified chicken.

Adrià’s most recent work is not an encyclopedia of food split into unrecognizable pieces, but an earnest collection called The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià. The title is a reference to the staff meal shared among all a restaurant’s workers before the dinner rush begins. In place of foams and jellies, these staff meals are three courses: a starter, a main, and a dessert, each intending to form a complete and nourishing whole to keep the workers of El Bulli energized throughout their shift. Many of recipes are designed around the food that’s left behind after the atomization and rearrangement has taken place for the wealthy connoisseur in the front room. Produced in a heavy, hardbound edition by glossy art publisher Phaidon, the contrast between Adrià’s professional legacy and his lovingly meticulous tribute to the simplest dishes and cooking techniques is an implicit acknowledgement of the superfluity of his more famous menus. If art is that which can be done without, the most unnecessary of all expenditures of energy, thought, and materials, The Family Meal is a recantation of art culled from food.

Ironically, one of Adrià’s former staff members, a young man who’d made a pilgrimage to El Bulli to learn the sacred art of wasting the essentials of daily life, would inherit the title of “best” from his mentor. Since becoming chef of Noma in 2004, René Redzepi has turned the recantation of gastronomy into a gastronomical art in itself. His mission was to capture and refine the spirit of Nordic cuisine using local ingredients in dishes that didn’t retreat to the familiar and over-celebrated techniques of classical French cooking. Like El Bulli, reservations at Noma are booked months in advance, and a tasting menu with wine pairing can cost more than $500 per person and spans dozens of courses, each a few fleeting mouthfuls.

Redzepi’s cuisine uses Adrià’s destructured philosophy of ingredients and connects it with a pseudo-naturalism, surrounding an ingredient with the same elements that cause it to grow in the wild. “I simply can’t see the link to the natural environment of the raw material if it’s served up looking like a chessboard,” Redzepi argued in Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, another Phaidon-published testament to his most recognizable dishes. “We serve the food organically so it tastes of where it comes from and looks like what it is, as if there’s a connecting thread running from the natural product through to the way it’s prepared.”

Scandinavian countries have vibrant agrarian cultures and a wealth of unique wild flora, but the severe winters gives an impression of barrenness. Redzepi subverts this impression using unusual local ingredients like wild garlic, bulrushes, green strawberries, whitebeam, Danish turbot, and hand-picked sea urchin from the North Sea. The presentation remains sparse and impressionistic, but each dish recalls natural environments rather than geometric abstractions. One wintry dish featuring razor clams is accompanies by a drizzle of powdery snow, made from a dried mixture of cornmeal, milk, buttermilk, and horseradish. The steak tartare recipe is a small square covered completely in wood sorrel leaves, giving it the appearance of a piece of sod cut directly out of the forest floor. His smoked quail egg is served on a bed of hay that has been burnt just before serving, its smoke trapped under the serving dishes lid, the removal of which  gives the impression of a new nest steaming in the early morning. His most absurd dish is simply called Vegetable Field, presenting a group of blanched baby vegetables on a bed of what appears to be dirt but is actually a mixture of hazelnut flour, malt flour, and plain flour that takes 2 days to prepare.

Redzepi’s approach to naturalism is an affect. At one point he laments the French custom of cooking Jerusalem artichokes in chicken stock because chickens have no natural relationship to artichokes and the stock overpowers them. And yet his own Jerusalem artichoke recipe served with toasted hay oil, yoghurt, and truffles calls for the artichokes to steamed in chicken stock. Likewise, simulating snow and dirt with ingredients that taste like neither is every bit as artificial as serving geometric shapes. Still, Redzepi often leads small groups of his staff on trips through Copenhagen’s parks and surrounding forests to gather wild ingredients, plants and berries that were thought of as weeds in years past. He also takes pride in the fact that the majority of his suppliers are “enthusiast hobby farmers” who either have a day job or are recent retirees.

It’s almost an acknowledgement of what a lark it is to feed people miniature foodscapes that tell a fairytale version of the relationships between a selected few ingredients in nature––the only way to be ethical about this sort of whimsy is to decouple it from industry and labor and instead found it on an informal league of obsessives who will not depend on the fancifulness to sustain them in a real way. After all, gastronomy does not keep us alive, it offers only structured illusions for our erratic brains, which dream of one day transcending the bile and blood that supports them.

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If cooking for art is a perversion, writing is worse because it has no substance of its own to defile. Writing is only ever art, the lovingly detailed plate on which there is not a thing to eat. It is a simulation of human intimacy, from the simple guidance of instruction manuals to the confessional ether dreams of a nice made-up story told at day’s end. It is a way of arranging the frame around non-existence, the fact that nothing in our lives is necessary, that all of it is an indulgence in probability. It is anti-living, withdrawing into little envelopes of time where experiences can be separated from their natural contexts and intensified into morsels that energize one’s palate, ensnare one’s imagination, and leave one armed with models of interpretation of yesterday’s dilemmas and little defense for all the ones yet to come.

It is strange that one can make a living from writing. It’s not work, and while it produces volumes, most are as unuseful and insubstantial as mushroom foam and essence of red peppers. When I began writing as a child I was propelled by curiosity and mimicry, the first few sentences I typed out on the gray-screened computer in my father’s office concretized the rhythmic language that shot through my brain and gave it an appearance that was indistinguishable from the monumental books on our living room bookshelves, which no one ever seemed to touch. Writing was a toy and a waste of time at a point in my life when toys and wasting time were nice things, not overburdened with politics and prejudices. Waste your time making useless objects, pervert the nothingness of being young and without a past into black line after black line, stacked on pages bound into irrefutable shapes, and left to rot on a shelf in a room no one visits.

Transforming this whimsy into a profession––an industry––is a trap. It is not the act of creating a gastronomical wonder that perverts itself, but the conditions under which the creative desire is asked to sell itself. “Any chef who says he does it for love is a liar,” White wrote at the height of his fame. “At the end of the day it’s all about money. I never thought I would ever think like that but I do now. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t enjoy having to kill myself six days a week to pay the bank. But if you don’t cut the mustard you’re finished. If you’ve got no money you can’t do anything, you’re a prisoner of society. At the end of the day it’s just another job. It’s all sweat and toil and dirt. It’s misery.”

One sells one’s histrionics, the supernatural contortions that love makes it possible to endure, served to an audience willing to use money as a method of accessing these extreme convictions, those for whom the idea of contorted struggle has become rhetorical, an idea that recalls a distant memory that sometimes still resonates in the margins of daily inconvenience in picking the kids up at school and balancing ski trips with conference calls. To agree to have a role in this relationship, to realize those first blushing moments of excitement behind the creative console of an artificial form can be traded for money, perverts the self finally, turning the inessential into the essential. Daydreams become facts, chickens become liquid, and dirt becomes a sweetened confection, perverting everything it is supposed to depict, returning the substance of reality to the disordered void from whence it came, as if this was a trick one couldn’t perform for oneself.

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Noma and The Family Meal are available from Phaidon, and White Heat is available from Amazon or Abe Books.

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