Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Random mutterings of an unkempt mind....

A form of perfection. A curiously zen sense of food.

Linked from the blog of Michael Ruhlman. Must check out his book, Charcuterie. Any recommendations pro or con are entirely welcome. See edit. Below. I get to look like a complete moron, and kinda cool at the same time.

Still aspiring to be a simple craftsman here, I gotta admit. And it's a noble ambition.

Speaking of which, as my cooking continues, and I become more at ease with what I do, my food becomes increasingly characterised by simplicity. Reading recently about sushi chefs, and Japanese knives has inspired me to investigate another aspect of that simplicity.

It strikes me that simplicity is a function of excellence. The more unashamed one is of ones ingredients, and the deeper ones knowledge is of the marriage of suitable tastes and textures, the greater one revels in the simplicity of excellence. This is not, of course, the only way. I once read that French food, as inspired by the Escoffier school of cuisine, was so complex, ornate, and heavily flavoured out of fear of the base ingredient. French cuisine is in part inspired by a desire to camouflage the base tastes, and hide their essential inadequacy from the eater.

The flipside of this is, in part, that French food is almost unparalleled in its ability to render the often, in other traditions, assumedly unpalatable, quintessentially delicious. In part, a function of necessity. French peasant cuisine was predicated, for a few hundred years, on consuming the entire beast, entrails and all, from the necessity of poverty. Trust French style to make such a delicious virtue of such a necessary vice.

The soul of contemporary Italian cuisine is quite (though not universally) different. Predicated on ingredients, where, often, simplicity and knowledge, and care are the cardinal virtues. It's often a cuisine of enhancement, where the base ingredient is highlighted, its defining tastes enhanced, contrasted, and elevated to be the central tenet of each dish.

In Italian cuisine the ingredient is supreme. In French cooking, the ingredient is often the beginning, the tabula rasa, the chef is the thing. The ingredient the stage for their skill.

I need to deepen my experience and knowledge of both.

But Japanese cuisine is beginning to intrigue me. Its increasingly becoming apparent to me that I entirely do not understand it. Hearing, and watching, Rick Stein (Rick Stein and the Japanese Ambassador, BBC, to Guardian article) working with....well, watching really....a sushi chef work, it struck me how utterly ruthless high Japanese food is in its dedication to perfection. Stein was utterly awed by - and quite frank in his sense of inadequacy to replicate - the expertise so carefully displayed. We often speak of effortless expertise. But for this sushi chef, no such thing was possible. Concentration, precision, poise, balance, and an essential centredness were etched into the arch of his body, the swift soft cut, how he held himself, and remained utterly in the moment and of the place that he had to be.

Everything about him was utterly dedicated to one thing. Perfection. The design of the knives,with one cutting edge only, to minimise damage to the fish. The precision, the delicacy, the unbelievable quick and spectacularly detailed knife work. I saw him cross hatch a piece of tuna into diagonal centimetre cubes, and remake the fillet as one piece on a wooden board, intact.

Sushi simplicity seems to be of another order. Ruthless dedication to perfect ingredients. Effortful expertise. Concentration, thought, and precision. Simplicity achieved through force of will, through purposeful, consuming, concentration. Simplicity that it can take years to achieve.

Be here now.

Hell. These are the ramblings of an enthusiastic amateur, the rumbling sound of my slowing down mind thinking out loud.

PS. Link - Chef Masa assesing ten expensive knives.

Link - A brief rundown on single bevel knives, and knife types.

Edit: Being the complete moron that I occasionally am, and with a tendency to bash out late night screeds when I'm way past making any kind of sense, I got the name wrong. Michael Ruhlman. Michael. Not Mark. As pointed out to me in a recent mail. From one Michael Ruhlman. Who recommends buying the book.

And he's right.

3 comments: said...

Hi there. I just stumbled across your blog - and when I read your post about the Rick Stein/ Japanese Chef post, I just had to comment!

I watched the same programme & being a Japanese myself, I was just sooo happy that Stein had highlighted the beauty of Japanese cuisine. Felt sooo proud. And like you say, Stein was honest to say he was awed by the chef.

Japanese food has come a long way in UK, I've been living in this country for 25 yrs now, and it was the first to see a programme like that on our telly, showcasing the real complex beauty, not the Antony Worrall Thompson's (sorry AWT) fusion version of teriyaki with lemongrass...

Anyway, sorry for the long post...!

Abulafia said...

No apology necessary. Good luck with the chocolate and pastry shop, if you follow up on it. I'm not UK based - I'm in Dublin, and here, authentic Japanese cuisine is, I think, near impossible to find here.

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