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Food and Time

August 26, 2012

This may seem off the topic, but I am considering the politics of food in literature and researching the philosophies and practices of certain, influential chefs to see if I can understand better what some of the current food philosophies are. Some time ago, I was attracted to René Redzepi’s discussion of time and place and the role of these in sensory experience…. I have since become interested in Heston Blumenthal’s deliberate integration of science into cooking and his conscious challenge to negative attitudes towards ‘science’ among the culinary ‘élite’.

I couldn’t help noticing, as I read through the cookbooks put out by Heston Blumenthal and René Redzepi that the narrative structure of these books fully reflects their respective philosophies (and those philosophies overlap in interesting ways).

Blumenthal’s book is divided into three chapters; History, Recipes, and Science (the former, a narrative about how he came to be where he is, practicing how he does; the latter, a series of scientific articles on the psychology of sensory experience, the science of aroma and taste, etc). The story and the science are given a weighting that equals the recipes (the recipes cannot be properly understood without these two).

Redzepi’s book, similarly, begins with an essay by a friend and colleague who is as interested as he is in the way in which engaging the senses can be a political act (Redzepi is part of a political, philosophical community). The photographs of suppliers, raw ingredients, and dishes have a dominant place, but are kept separate from the recipes themselves – and appear first in the narrative. Redzepi’s book ends with a series of biographical blurbs about the suppliers he uses to create cuisine from local, seasonal ingredients and a photoboard of the chefs that make up the Noma team. Redzepi’s book thereby insists on the inclusion of the people who form part of the physical and philosophical ecology in which his food appears…. to understand the recipes, you need to know the people and their place.

Their websites, similarly, reflect their philosophies very clearly in terms of digital semantic and narrative design.

Both chefs consciously explore metaphors they have adopted while developing their art; metaphors that hold particular meaning to their respective gastronomic philosophies and practices. Blumenthal talks about being ‘a kid in a sweetshop’ (to capture the excitement of experimentation and discovery, p.113). Redzepi adopts the metaphor of ‘the perfect storm’ (to capture the sense of trial and challenge as well as the intense importance of the elements to his cooking).

Both chefs work with the importance of memory in the taste experience. Both chefs insist on a certain equality of the table (everyone is made to feel welcome and encouraged to enjoy the dining experience as an individual). Both chefs include as part of their personal narrative a kind of non-professional beginning (in which childhood food experiences have an influence, but which they went their own way… kind of a variant on the self-made man). Blumenthal didn’t undergo formal training; Redzepi did, but rather more through chance (he followed a mate into chefing). This happenstance beginning seems to connect with their egalitarian dining philosophies, somehow…. and their rejection of elitist dining that has been so busy separating itself from the land and the people through its culturally elaborate traditions that it has lost its sense of physically motivated, intentional  eating.

They are also, understandably, both very conscious of the fact that they are leading the way in terms of gastronomic change.

Some quotes:

“I simply can’t see the link to the natural environment of the raw material if it’s served up looking like a chessboard. We serve the food organically, so it tastes of where it comes from and looks like what it is, as if there’s a connecting thread running from the natural product through to the way it’s prepared. It also shows that we respect our raw materials.” ~ René Redzepi (quoted p.16, Rune Skyum-Nielsen ‘The Perfect Storm’, pp.10-17 in NOMA)

“A typical example of how he [Redzepi] gave his culinary baggage [i.e., his formal training in famous restaurants around Europe] a Scandinavian accent would be dispensing with caramalizing a crème brûlée and also adding a spot of sea buckthorn to the dessert. It might taste [-p.14] wonderful, but it was definitely not original nor true to its geographical latitudes. ‘The dish had too strong a link to something with a completely different history and background’, he admits six years later.” (pp.13-14, Rune Skyum-Nielsen ‘The Perfect Storm’, pp.10-17 in NOMA)

“Straightforwardness is also evident in the very unpretentious names the Noma chefs give their dishes. A glance at the restaurant’s constantly changing meny is a study in straight talking. Take for example a dish that consists mainly of milk and dill. It is, of course, called ‘Milk and Dill’. ‘The things we do should preferably speak for themselves’, explains René. ‘The greatest form of gastronomic beauty occurs when the guests themselves have the experience, instead of us taking them by the hand and giving them idealized input. They must create their own image of the experience, so it becomes mroe than just a nice taste.'” (p.14, Rune Skyum-Nielsen ‘The Perfect Storm’, pp.10-17 in NOMA)

“…one of the key questions that still drives the Fat Duck: What is flavour, and how do we perceive it?” (p.87 The Fat Duck Cookbook) [and, I wonder, could literature play a role in how we interact with food(s)???]

In the ‘Statement on the ‘New Cookery”, which Blumenthal wrote with Ferran Adrià, Harold McGee and Thomas Keller to be published in the Observer on 10 Dec. 2006 (and which he replicates pp.126-127 in The Fat Duck), point 4 of the four points made is:

The act of eating engages all the senses as well as the mind. Preparing and serving food could therefore be the most complex and comprehensive of the performing arts. To explore the full expressive potential of food and cooking, we collaborate with scientists, from food chemists to psychologists, with artisans and artists (from all walks of the performing arts), architects, designers, industrial engineers. We also believe in the importance of collaboration and generosity among cooks: a readiness to share ideas and information, together with full acknowledgement of those who invent new techniques and dishes.” (127)Blumenthal describes this statement as “a way of looking at food and cooking for the twenty-first century.” (p.125)

I love Blumenthal’s willingness to change any aspect of practice that doesn’t fit the philosophy he is working with. He totally thinks outside the square to improve his art: for example, he writes: “I had gained a far better understanding of the physiology and psychology of eating, and I had been dabbling with liquid nitrogen and distillation and flavour encapsulation and low-temperature cooking and other techniques that I wanted to showcase in more dishes at the Fat Duck. I had lots of ideas that wouldn’t necessarily sit comfortably on a menu composed of starters, mains and desserts. The best approach, it seemed to me, was to have a multi-course [-p.81] tasting menu. Contrast was becoming increasingly important to the way I structured my cooking, and a tasting menu would allow me greater freedom to explore this. Equally important, a tasting menu took longer to eat – a critical factor as we were now cooking several dishes for a long time at a low temperature. We needed the breathing space a tasting-menu format would bring. Moreover, escaping the standard course format gave me the opportunity to simplify what went on to the plate and focus on specific elements of a dish.” (pp.80-81)

Refs: René Redzepi  (2010) NOMA: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. Phaidon Press: London.
Heston Blumenthal (2009) The Fat Duck Cook-book. Bloomsbury

NB also: (‘Noma’ comes from Nordisk Mad – Nordic Food)


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