I made a tweet awhile back that said “anything that claims to be the best, isn’t,” to which a friend immediately replied “you’re the best”.
I’m not much for cooking shows or magazines, but I try to stay abreast of the foodie media. A couple of years ago, I thought I’d like to subscribe to a cooking magazine. Mostly, I wanted quick pretty pictures to give me new inspiration and ideas. I started with Saveur and was pleased with the depth of their articles. I enjoyed it much, but their pictures weren’t so inspiring, so I tried Food & Wine. I quickly learned with Food & Wine that they know what’s best. Every month they have the best chefs, wines, foods, foods you’re not eating, new chefs, old chefs, cocktails, healthy foods, new restaurants, old restaurants. Each and every issue of Food & Wine magazine came with bold print on the cover telling me they would reveal the “Best” of something. It made me feel bad for all of the losers, the ones who were not the best.
I feel more than a little uneasy that everything has to be the best, and every cooking show has to be a competition to see who’s best. I am often unwittingly drawn to the show Chopped. I can say it is interesting to learn what someone will cook in 20 minutes with duck kidneys, walnuts & candy corn, but I really don’t see how the show and it’s odd combinations of foods, limited time to prepare, and self sanctified judges has any bearing on cooking in the real world, or what cooking is all about. Iron Chef is no better. Sure when I’m behind in time and preparing food under the gun in my restaurant, I sometimes imagine Alton Brown narrating my work. I do love to see what crazy serving vessel Iron Chef Morimoto will create next, but I can tell just by watching the show that the food on Iron Chef seldom tastes as good as it looks, and it’s more so with Chopped. If Bobby Flay and his Food Network budget and his team of sous chefs and production assistants can’t win every single Throw Down with Bobby Flay, should Bobby just give it up?
Cooking is how we render raw food to its most palatable form and when we do this for others we do it to nurture them and we also hope to satisfy them. Eating is satisfying. Taste is subjective. Morimoto’s flying-fish roe wrapped in daikon with kiwi sucks if you don’t like fish — or fish roe. Grandma’s macaroni and cheese would win the taste category on Iron Chef every time, if I were the judge. I agree that It’s cool to see a chef on TV make sausage in ten minutes, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the stuff my favorite sausage maker takes two days to smoke cure. I would argue that anything ever made in one hour on Iron Chef, or 20 minutes on Chopped, would be better, by the same chef, made with more time and more love. Shows, magazines and media that focus cooking on winners and losers espouse the very opposite of what cooking and food truly are; they demean the concept of what a good cook is by disregarding the whole purpose of cooking. To be a good cook is not to be fast, not to be all knowing of all food, not to be skilled in techniques of a chemist or a physicist. To be a good cook is to be someone who loves to see others be satisfied by eating, and be willing and able to make food satisfying, regardless of time and ingredients.
Eating is the most daily satisfaction people get. Sex may be more satisfying than eating, accomplishing a major goal may be also, certainly drugs create an artificial sense of satisfaction. We all don’t accomplish major goals or have sex every day. We all don’t take drugs that would trigger satisfaction every day. We all do eat several times a day. The most truly physically satisfying event on our horizon is often our next meal. For most of us, the satisfaction we get from a meal is more connected to how much we enjoy it than simply fueling up. In our modern, often hectic world, it is always satisfying to be well fed.
Enjoyment from eating comes to us in more ways than taste alone. I may know that Morimoto’s fish roe concoction is esoterically correct, flavorful, and balanced (the man’s a genius) but it will never satisfy me like Grandma’s Mac & Cheese. It couldn’t because there is a whole process of cultural integrity, personal history, time, and anticipation that arises when Grandma is baking her Mac for 2 hours. During this time there could be two episodes of Iron Chef or Chopped and 32 tasting plates in Kitchen Stadium, but the love, wholesome ingredients, and the cultural integrity of Grandma’s Casserole would satisfy me more.
The great chefs of Kitchen Stadium desperately try to attach cultural integrity to their items, because as chefs they understand that the more connected we are to our food, the more satisfying it will be. When Morimoto wraps and serves his fried fish to the judges in a folded newspaper, just like they did in the good old days, he is introducing a cultural aspect. When the Chopped cooks play off of classic dishes with awkward food parings, for example, breading their fried chicken with crushed Rice Krispies, they are following a cultural food map in their minds and turning their dishes toward the most recognized places on that map. They are seeking to connect their dish to a more classic preparation which lends to cultural integrity because they hope this will satisfy the judges intellectually. It is an odd way to be “creative” but one most professional cooks use.
In truth, the contestants all fail every time because the judges are not there to eat or to be satisfied with the food. They are there to judge. The very fact that the food will be “judged” rather than eaten makes the entire meal a farce. By introducing a judge, the show is rigged to be superficial. If no one is there to truly eat, to be satisfied, to be fed, all of these cooking challenges become hollow attempts to define what makes a good cook and a good meal.
The foods created on these shows are at the same time soulless and glamorous culinary spectacles. Not much in Food & Wine magazine ever looks tasty to me, but everything looks beautiful. Though I am often amused by today’s food media, I am also a little saddened. Cooking is not just a skill. Cooking is a demonstration of love. It is a purposeful effort to offer nourishment and satisfaction to others. Anytime we cook for someone with love, we and our guests are the winners, there are no losers.