by John Ryan
Dressing Up The Same Old Thing
The Real Story on Inspiration
We've all seen those profiles of chefs. They're as predictable as oatmeal. First there's a picture of the chef holding a glass of wine in their $300,000 kitchen. Then he or she is shown shopping at an open-air market in some insufferably rustic village tucked away in an obscure corner of Provence or Tuscany. The caption invariably tells us how the cook loves these markets and lets ingredients inspire them. And the recipes that follow use all the exotic ingredients du jour such as leeks, wild squab and at least one wild mushroom like chanterelles.
While the whole thing looks and sounds utterly lovely, I usually want to slap someone silly.
First, I hate anyone with a kitchen that costs more than any house I could hope to own in this lifetime. Then I want to sock the editor for foisting this fairy tale on us yet again.
Because the whole thing is a fairy tale.
The first thing the stories aren't telling us is that chefs don't cook at home. They spend 8 days a week at their restaurant. The really successful superstar chefs may eventually get out of the kitchen, but these workaholic overachievers don't go home and relax: they syndicate cooking shows or develop a line of frozen pizzas. Then they spend 12 days a week running their frozen food empire. You can bet that when these chefs get a day off, they're not traipsing around farmer's markets.
Be that as it may, on the rare occasion a chef cooks at home, he or she probably makes very good food. And while I enjoy escaping into a mouthwatering fantasy once in a while, what I find missing—what I really want to read about—is what the chef makes when the market sucks, when the leeks are stumpy and have no white part or when the morels are wormy. You figure that it's gotta happen. What I want to know is what these great cooks do then? Eat soup out of a can? Go to McDonald's?
Maybe, but like all of us, they probably buy the best the local supermarket has to offer and call it a day.
(Though it's a little off the subject, I can't resist telling this story. For years my wife and I have talked about remodeling our kitchen and occasionally we stop into showrooms to get ideas. Well, last summer we read about a 'kitchen walk' in an expensive northern suburb. So on a perfectly beautiful spring day, we paid money to stroll from one fabulous kitchen to the next. At each house we had to put disposable booties on over our shoes before going in. The kitchens were a riot of marble and Viking ranges. At one point, Margaret and I started peeking in the freezers and pantries and were surprised to find frozen dinners and Hamburger Helper lined up like library books. And each of the kitchens was so pristine that I began to develop an inverse principle along the lines of "the fancier the kitchen the fewer meals are cooked in it." From the looks of things, the microwave was getting a lot more use than the 6-burner professional-line Viking range.)
Anyway, the striking thing about modern cookbooks is how good the recipes sound. Where an old book would have a recipe for Braised Fish, a modern cookbook would offer Salmon Braised with Leeks and Chanterelles.
This isn't all bad. I mean, salmon with leeks and chanterelles is pretty good...very good in fact. But let's get real. The recipe doesn't require skill as much as a harmonic convergence—you have to find slender leeks, plump chanterelles and beautiful salmon at the same time. In the same store!!! In most supermarkets in most cities I'd consider myself extraordinarily lucky to find one or two. But all three? Forget it: the recipe is a culinary fairy tale.
Unfortunately, that's usually the point. Many of these recipes aren't meant to be made, but to show us what we're missing and make us feel ordinary.
But back to the profiled chef. The truth that the magazine doesn't show is the well-stained textbook with unglamorous recipes. During school or apprenticeship, the cook made basic dishes over and over. With that foundation the cook was able to dress up a dish by replacing onion with leek, or by throwing in a handful of mushrooms, then maybe shiitake mushrooms, or maybe using salmon in place of cod. You get the picture, once you have the basic technique under your belt, the variations are endless.
That's at least one truth about inspiration. Far more often than not, inspiration isn't so much a bolt from the blue, as much as dressing the same old thing up in spiffy ingredients.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created December 1999