A few months ago, in Vegas with Anthony Bourdain and the Parts Unknown crew, I had uncommonly sweet digs and a lot of downtime. Tony probably speaks with more chefs around the world than any other person living. So in between his facial and his pedicure, I talked to him:
M.R.: What issues do you see facing chefs today?
I think a number of chefs are trying to figure out how to be good citizens of the world, and also serve the one percent. Trying to find a balance when their whole business model is built up around expensive markup of bottles of wine, only the very best parts of the fish, the rest has to be disposed of one way or another.
A lot of chefs are trying to reconcile that. Chefs generally are good-hearted people. People like Eric [Ripert], he works closely with hunger relief and they try to do the best they can and try to do the best they can for the best directly as well as give food to City Harvest and places like that.
We're seeing a lot of chefs go local for a lot of reasons, because it's the good thing to do to try to keep the money in the area, because it's hip, because it adds value, people like seeing it on a menu.
It's better to give your money to an independently operating person in your area than to be giving your money to air freight and someone far away from your area and not feeding money back into it, that's preferable. I have no problem with people who get the best ingredients they can from all over the world, but I also admire people like Sean Brock, who are in a very real way trying to not just use local, but bring stuff that disappeared locally back, and to restore traditional foodways of the area that fell by the wayside as we entered the land of the tomato that was bred to travel.
You’ve been talking a lot about authenticity. What’s important to you here?
Who owns the food, who owns the recipe? Not intellectual property right. I mean, is it OK for a white guy to cook traditional northern Thai food and make money off it? There is some confusion. Is it OK for Paula Deen to make money off of traditional African American recipes? There's a discomfort level that's being discussed now. And I think on both these issues Roy Choi is at the center. As a chef, what are your responsibilities to your family heritage? Do you have a responsibility to preserve the integrity of Grandma’s Korean recipes even if you didn't grow up in South Korea? You may have grown up next to that food but you may have grown up next to Mexican food or Salvadoran food. To what extent do we need to respect the past, and restore it? Do chefs have any obligation at all to honor the classics?
I’ve always known your love of French classics, a love I share.
There's a lot to be said for respecting the classics, that maybe you should know how to make a coq au vin the right way, the way by consensus it should generally be made, before you deconstruct it or riff on it. But then again, food has always been in flux, you know? The story of food is the story of invasion, and migration, and oppression. The tomato in curry sauce was not really indigenous to India. Tempura is not indigenous to Japan. It's always changing. So that’s something people are talking about: What is authentic and do I owe anything to this notion of authenticity at all? People ask David Chang how does he describe his food, he says “tasty food.”
As a sentimental guy, and I think a lot of chefs are sentimental, people feel a certain respect and obligation to do it “the right way,” or at least recognizing the people who came before you and did it for years. I’d hate to see that get lost. No matter how tasty the new stuff is, I’d hate to see the old stuff go. French food, Italian food, Thai food.
I’m fine with any kind of riff, as long as it’s respectful, but even there, is there something wrong with Guy Fieri putting any two ingredients together and giving it a douchey name, and people like it? Probably not. I may find it distasteful, but is it immoral? It may feel immoral to me but I’m probably just being a snob about it.
We see this reverse snobbery now, in order to get the real stuff, you gotta go to some little strip mall on the outer fringes of Los Angeles, some tiny little place where the menus aren’t in English. That’s great but when you look at all the people who are sort of driving American cuisine right now, they’re all Korean American. And they don’t care. They may know what straight-up Korean food is but they sure aren’t cooking it.
And they’re pushing everything forward and they’re having an effect on the non Korean Americans. Eric Ripert is messing around with kimchi—how can that not be good?
Do you see any particularly knuckle-headed trends affecting American chefs?
I’m pretty positive about the way things are going. Even when you see people doing silly food—I overuse the Jimi Hendrix metaphor, but when he became really popular, a lot of people started to play like him, and a lot of them were unsuccessful at it, but it opened them up and they found their own thing. I think a lot of young chefs are making a lot of mistakes and doing a lot of food that they shouldn’t do, particularly in the Modernist cooking area, a lot of people are overreaching. But at the end of the day, when they settle down, they will probably have absorbed a lot of ideas and will apply them in a way that makes their food better. Just because you like Ferran Adrià doesn’t mean you should cook like him, but by the same token, it doesn’t mean a lot of those techniques won't be standard practice twenty years from now. A lot of them already are. A lot of them will fall by the wayside, but a lot won’t, and we wont think twice about meat glue or agar or spuma.
In Copenhagen, you see all these seafood bars, straight-ahead restaurants, casual eateries, but they’re using the ingredients and techniques they learned at Noma, in sensible ways that make things more delicious.
When you choose to be a chef, what are your obligations, if any?
Increasingly there are obligations. In my generation I don’t think there were, we didn’t think about any obligation. We were in the pleasure business, that was it. Your only obligation was to give your customers a good time at a price point they found reasonable. And you didn’t care where the tomato came from as long as it was a pleasure-giving tomato.
That dynamic has changed. Chefs think about that stuff now. Because the issues are raised and discussed within the community. Because chefs are either being pushed to be citizens of the world or are just naturally thinking about these things from the get-go. These were not issues we thought about back then.
What does sustainability mean to you and is it a real issue for chefs?
It means I’m enjoying serving this now and I’d like to be able to serve it in 25 years. I think even hardcore sushi chefs in Japan are saying, “Look, we have to cut back or there’s going to be no more of this.”
You have to think about that. It is an issue, and it should be an issue that chefs discuss. The extent to which you get on board is up to each individual chef, but again, without making it a mania. There’s always going to be a lot of hypocrisy and silliness, it’s easy to point a finger and say OK, they’re buying local but their refrigeration system alone is blowing a hole in the ozone layer the size of Michigan. They’re doing the best they can, on balance. People who are serious about food, spend a lot of time thinking about food, cooking it, serving it, writing about it, talking about it, they probably know more about the food and where it comes from and the footprint it leaves than they did ten years ago. The more you know about your meal as a chef and an eater, arguably the better. You can’t argue against it, even when it’s silly. Even when it's awkward or an affectation it's still on balance arguably good for the world.
Is it time for your pedicure?
It’s time for me to take your money on the pool table, Ruhlman.
Other links you may like:
- A few of my recent posts: Vegetable Porn and Dreaming of Gascony.
- Bourdain’s guest post: So You Wanna Be a Chef.
- Chef profiles on Melissa Kelly, Grant Achatz, and Rene Redzepi.
© 2014 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2014 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.