I’m not sure we ever vanquish addiction, we just change the target. At the moment I’m focused on the biographies of chefs. I started with Chef’s Table, now deep into Mind of a Chef. These aren’t cooking shows and the topic isn’t really food. What they are about is the process by which people find the courage to express their unique vision. But the way I wrote that is not quite right, because finding the courage and finding the expression are interdependent. The expression does not seem to exist prior to the courage. It is in the process of trusting themselves that these chefs found their visions.
It turns out that my two passions have more in common than I realized…emphemerality, improvisation, and tension with tradition.
Tango and cooking are both ephemeral.
There’s something that affects your psyche when you know that every single day you are going to create something which will be consumed, destroyed. I’ve always struggled with the fact that we spend days, hours, all this time, making this food and it just goes away in the course of minutes. And that’s it, it’s gone. The moment the food goes out, it’s lost forever. There is a beauty to that. We never can hold on to that purity, no matter how much we try. Rather than avoiding it, why not just embrace it wholeheartedly?
You can be a wonderful chef your entire life, and at the end of it, you’ll have absolutely nothing to show for it….Food is a metaphor for our own mortality. We know for sure that my restaurant will die with me.
Chef Ed Lee, “Impermanence”, Mind of a Chef Season 3: Episode 7
Tango and cooking both have the option for improvisation.
Alain Passard earned three Michelin stars for his restaurant, L’Arpège. After many years as a chef he felt he was losing interest in cooking. Then he became inspired by vegetables, and was moved to create again. “With insane bravery” he removed meat from the menu. From this avant-garde change he got pleasure again, as well as new smells, tastes, sounds and a “new hand”. Despite this “insult to French culture”, he didn’t lose his stars. And, as a result, according to Christophe Blain, “people changed the way they eat. He invented the idea of vegetables from the garden to the table.”
At L’Arpège not only the theme of the restaurant, but also the cooking is “instinctive”. The dishes are based on what produce arrives from the farm. Passard says he has “never written down a recipe.” This way of working “forces us to keep looking. Next year I don’t want to make the same recipes that I did this year. I want things to continue to evolve, because, without that, there’s nothing. It’s complicated, yes. It’s not easy, yes. But what do you feast on? What a pleasure!” He experiences fear every day, because in the space of a few seconds, he has to find the preparation that works.
When you close your eyes at night, what’s important? You’ve spent the day taking risks. Each day, that’s my challenge.
Alain Passard, Chef’s Table: France, Episode 1
Another avant-garde French chef, Adeline Grattard, also talks about fear.
On the first night she opened her restaurant yam’Tcha, an important critic dropped by. An improviser, like Passard, she hadn’t decided what to cook. She felt fear. Then
I gave what was inside of me. It’s the things that moved me, that I liked, that came out. It was a mixture of all the flavors I loved between France and China. It gave me tremendous strength. I found myself. I found what drove me….Now I realize that a cuisine reflects what you have inside of you. It’s an expression of your inner life. What came out is us. It’s a love story between France and Hong Kong.
The critic described yam’Tcha as “a cuisine of understanding…a softness of the soul…” He goes on to say “the great restaurants…have nothing to say…to your stomach, heart, mind, your loyalty, your love of gastronomy.” Another chef says “Adeline has become a model for a whole new generation of young French cooks. Adeline came with her own sensibility, with her history…her trips. She doesn’t try to be someone she’s not. She’s a whole person, and that’s priceless.” Chef’s Table: France, Episode 3.
Very like dancers, chefs are very much in tension with tradition.
Now with three Michelin stars, Osteria Francescana’s Chef Massimo Bottura was hated both by diners and critics alike in his home of Modena. Italians have 26 centuries of history in which the best chef in the country is “Mom”. Massimo felt that when people ate tortellini in large quantities, they were no longer respecting the tortellini.
Tradition, most of the time, doesn’t respect the ingredients. (or the labor).
Scandalously, he served only 6 tortellini, demanding that diners pay attention. His goal, however was not only to be provocative.
“One of the most important ingredients in Bottura’s food is memory, his memory of tasting things and of the way things were made, and reinterpreting them in a more modern way.” (Faith Willinger) “He takes what his mother made and turns it into something divine.” Or, in Massimo’s words, “I’m trying take you back to the moment of childhood.”
He cooks food based on the way he experienced lasagna, focusing on the crisp almost-burned cheese, not his grandmother’s explicit “recipe”.
Which is more true?
The minute you call something a Tradition, you’re declaring it dead. Because you’re saying that it’s a static thing, that there is only one definition.
Chef Edward Lee
Mind of a Chef, Season 3: Episode 2
Some of the most poignant stories in these series are about dedicated chefs from Latin America, who were told “you’ll never really be able to make French food”. This rude comment by critics who claimed to be allies, shocked these chefs into looking deep inside themselves.
Argentine Chef Francis Mallman was awarded the Grand Prix de L’Art de la Cuisine by the International Academy of Gastronomy based on a homage to the Andes, a 10-course meal of potato dishes. Despite having matched all his teachers and friends, he was still haunted by a comment by the French head of Cartier, who after eating in Mallman’s French restaurant in Buenos Aires said “I think you have to think what you’re doing because it wasn’t quite right. This was not French food.” Mallman couldn’t shake off this criticism.
I thought, he’s French, he does beautiful watches, but he’s not a chef. But I never forgot it, it was something heavy in me. In time I realized he was right. I was just trying to copy exactly everything I had learned. That happens in every craft in life. At some point in life you have to turn around find your own way, your own language. A few years later I realized I had to go back, pick up the tools, memories, adventures, and experience from my childhood and recreate my cooking life.
Chef Francis Mallman, Chef’s Table, Season 1: Episode 3
Now he is famous for rustic cooking using 7 different traditional Patagonian methods for cooking with fire.
Alex Atala followed a similar path. After training in Italy, he moved home to Brazil. The important restaurants were serving French and Italian cuisine, but he knew the Italian food being made in Brazil was not as soulful as Italian food. Later a French chef working in Rio told him he would “never make French food as well as I do.” Opening his own restaurant, D.O.M. Atala started to cook only food that comes deep from his heart, taking diners on a “journey through Brazilian cuisine”. It was considered crazy at first to open a fine dining restaurant using Brazilian ingredients and cuisine. He studied and fell in love with Brazilian ingredients and devoted to himself to learn from nature and native people, eventually creating a “subversive” menu that presents workers’ food and Brazilian ingredients as delicacies. He realizes that the “luxury is in his hands, in his ability.” Cooking technique enables him “transform ingredients into emotions.” (Chef’s Table, Season 2: Episode 2)
Méxican chef Enrique Olvera tried to follow what he learned about high quality food and being a professional chef. Although his restaurant, Pujol, was known as one of the best restaurants in México City, he realized he was just copying New American Cuisine with Méxican ingredients. One day another Méxican chef advised him “You’re a really good cook, but you’re not making Méxican food. You have a responsibility as a Méxican cook to do Méxican food.” To be authentic, he realized that he wanted to serve Méxican street food as fine dining. He went to study the origins of Méxican cuisine in Oaxaca. He reconceptualised the purpose of his restaurant as using the traditions, cuisines, and ingredients in a unique creative way to preserve the culture and ingredients. “A triumph of imagination over technique.” (Season 2: Episode 4)
After six years working in fine dining restaurants (French, Italian, Japanese), Virgilio Martinez wanted to work with Peruvian ingredients. His restaurant Central serves dishes based on ingredients from single ecosystems across Peru. He has botanical teams slowly researching the ingredients and learning from the communities. Then he evokes each ecosystem on a plate in Lima. (Season 3: Episode 6)
So, what is traditional and authentic?
What can we dancers learn from the journeys of these hard-working and ultimately acclaimed chefs?
Tradition is technique
Chef Ed Lee explains that what these chefs have done is recognize that “tradition is technique”. They all studied traditional cuisine, but in order to contribute something to the world, they used that technique to express something totally different.
Jacques Pépin says it this way (Mind of a Chef Season 4: Episode 8):
Techniques are very important. In itself the techniques are not. But if you happen to have talent, then it lets you take that talent somewhere.
Tradition is already an amalgam and this continues
Ed Lee’s personal passion is to appreciate the ways that immigrants have developed both American food and their home countries’ traditions. He doesn’t call this ‘fusion’. What is happening to Thai and Caribbean food in the US, he sees as an organic process based on “reverence of culture”.
We’ve used the words ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’ … connected emotionally to something we think exists back in México or Thailand or Queens or L.A. But really Thai food is already an amalgam of all of its surrounding neighborhoods and cultures, so American Thai food is a natural evolution of that too.
Of course, Argentine Tango was already an amalgam. And as it travels across the world and through time, it continues that process.
American food is anything that happens in this country by any chef who asks themselves “What am I cooking? How do I make food with these ingredients that are here and my culture and my history?” This is an American dilemma that you don’t have in Sicily, or Provence, or in Syria or Korea. … It’s technical cooking, emotional cooking, and finding where those things can overlap.
Likewise Argentine Tango is a mix of technique and emotion, constantly finding its articulation with new contexts.
It gets better
A lot of these immigrant cuisines have gotten better since they come to the US. Not only is it delicious, but it’s really saying something.
Chef Edward Lee
Mind of a Chef, Season 3, Episode 2
Lee argues that this activity to respond to context is actually keeping traditions alive.
Another chef-researcher is Magnus Nilsson. In deciding to run his North Sweden restaurant with only local and seasonal foods, he started to study the historical foods of Sweden.
There are so many fantastic traditions that I didn’t know about before starting to travel. The sad thing is that many of them are on the verge of disappearing. The only way for things to survive is if they are used, if they are practiced, if they are slowly adapted, with moderation, to the needs of today.
Mind of a Chef, Season 3, Episode 13 “Traditions”
All of this applies profoundly to tango.
It’s just a Technique: We need to see tango’s tradition as a technique to inform our dancing with the ingredients of our own contexts.
Immigrants: When new people come with their own elements, and involve them with tango, this helps to make tango more vibrant.
If we want to keep a tradition alive, we need to find ways it keep it relevant. Enable it to adapt.
It’s best when it’s personal: Like the chefs, who dared to express their own stories and cultures in their restaurants, we have to trust ourselves as actors/vessels… Indeed this personal authenticity is a method to keep the tradition alive.