Scholarship versus Seduction
I confess that I share most authors’ secret vice. Every once in a while I go on Amazon to see what readers are saying about my books. There is one particular cookbook reviewer who fancies himself an expert. In an often ostentatious display of being in the know, he compares other cookbooks to the book he is supposed to be reviewing. Sometimes this comparison is relevant. And sometimes it is just showing off. He has his favorite authors whose work he uses as a benchmark. But often he misses the point or rationale behind the book on hand. Anyway, I was reading his review of my first cookbook, The Mediterranean Kitchen, a classic since 1989. These recipes were top sellers at my Square One Restaurant and the most requested by guests. He said the book was not as scholarly as Claudia Roden or Paula Wolfert, but conceded that that the recipes were written with clear and practical cooking instructions because I was a chef. Paula and Claudia are friends of mine and we occasionally have traveled together. We cook many of the same classic Mediterranean recipes, but as a restaurateur I have another challenge besides historical or cultural accuracy. I have to sell the food! It has to be sufficiently full flavored and dynamic for guests to remember the dish and to ask for it again. Often a classic recipe when cooked correctly may be memorable in the cultural sense, but not in the mouth. As a chef I will take a few liberties to punch up the flavors, and will pair the item with the right (but maybe not traditional) sides to sell it. Instead of being scholarly, I have to seduce.
The same holds for wine and food pairing. There is a danger in being too cerebral.
Reading this review on Amazon brought to mind a similar situation. At an industry food and wine pairing seminar I attended, the sommelier and the chef outdid each other in offering obscurities. For example, by serving a fish caught off one tiny Pacific island and in season only three weeks of the year, and imported just for them. Paired with a wine of which there were only a few bottles available, just for them. Already the audience was behind the eight ball. They could not get either the fish or the wines. There was no way for the attendees to apply the information to the reality that was their life in the restaurant business.
Coming from their rather rarified background, the chef and sommelier made these choices to impress, to show how special their place of business was, and to justify the cost of their dinners and their reputation. But for most in attendance (except for a few groupies muttering “brilliant, brilliant”) it was an exercise in futility. The audience gamely soldiered on and to make the best of their time in the seminar, asked questions about balancing the wines with the food. How did they adjust a sauce to fit a wine selected by the guest? Now, I pride myself on having a well stocked pantry and a good assortment of culinary tricks up my sleeve, but their solutions were rather esoteric and really amusing. Who has pork puree or parsnip puree always at the ready in the kitchen to be whipped into a sauce at a moments notice for balancing with the wine? Olive oil and butter or cream, yes; pork puree, less likely. Flour, arrowroot, beurre manie, mashed potatoes, yes; parsnip puree, not likely. I can imagine them thinking hard about these obscure solutions and saying they’ll never guess how we did it. Really!
When people pay to attend a conference, they hope to be able to bring home some information or experience they can use when they return to their every day life. Here was a situation where chefs, cooks and sommeliers came expecting a lesson in the perfect pairing of wine and food and got intellectual stimulation and a display of culinary machismo instead. What knowledge could they take back to their own restaurants? They had to make do with fish available from their local fish monger, and wines that they could sell. And they had to make the diner’s experience sensually pleasing as well as affordable. Could genius have stooped to conquer and have offered a pairing that the attendees could come close to replicating at home? Intellectual stimulation is wonderful in cooking and food and wine pairing but for the whole package to be a success it needs to be accompanied by sensual delight and a dose of reality. .