I’m notoriously grumpy while grocery shopping. Once, my partner and I got into a fight in the Aldi parking lot because one of the eggs in our carton broke. He does his best to keep us supplied in soups and noodles–simple things I can heat up when I’m anxious and depressed — but I find myself yearning for expensive, fresh produce. As much as cooking intimidates me, I eat constantly — popcorn, apples, Toblerone, peanut butter and crackers — whatever I can find. I scry for news of the downtown market that was promised two years ago. I grow hungry and impatient. The world of food seems impenetrable, a place for people with money and time, and I never feel as though I have either. Read more…
At The New York Times Style Magazine, Jeff Gordinier profiles the most amazing chef you’ve never heard of: Jeong Kwan is a 59-year-old Zen Buddhist nun who cooks in a remote temple south of Seoul, South Korea. She has no restaurant, no customers, and no cookbooks, yet her vegan cuisine earns rave reviews from Michelin star chefs and restaurant critics alike.
Jeong Kwan has no restaurant. She has no customers. She has published no cookbooks. She has never attended culinary school, nor has she worked her way up through the high-pressure hierarchy of a four-star kitchen. Her name does not appear in any of those annual round-ups listing the greatest chefs in the world, although Ripert will assure you that she belongs among them, as do a few contemporaries of hers at temples throughout Korea.
Kwan is an avatar of temple cuisine, which has flowed like an underground river through Korean culture for centuries. Long before Western coinages like ‘‘slow food,’’ ‘‘farm-to-table’’ and ‘‘locavore,’’ generations of unsung masters at spiritual refuges like Chunjinam were creating a cuisine of refinement and beauty out of whatever they could rustle up from the surrounding land. Foraging? Fermenting? Dehydrating? Seasonality? Been there, done that — Jeong Kwan and her peers at monasteries throughout Korea have a millennia-spanning expertise in these currently in-vogue methods that can make a top chef feel like a clueless punk.
But Kwan’s lunch left me humbled and exhilarated. Here were compositions on the plate that were so elegant they could’ve been slipped into a tasting menu at Benu or Blanca and no one would have batted an eyelash. Here were flavors so assertive they seemed to leave vapor trails on the tongue. Somehow, all of it was vegan. Korean temple cuisine is made without meat, fish, dairy or even garlic or onions (which are believed to arouse the libido), and tasting it for the first time convinced me that vegan and vegetarian chefs in the West needed to board immediate flights to the Republic of Korea for a crash course in plant-based virtuosity.
But even if you can talk about food for hours, there comes a point when you need to make contact with it. Which is why Kwan has led us to the garden. Here, she coos over pumpkin blossoms, green chiles and eggplant, and shows me how to pluck leaves of mint and perilla — gently, with a moist pinch between my thumb and index finger at a firm spot on the stem. The leaves are placed in a wide basket; shortly they’ll be carried up the hill and incorporated into a meal. But for a moment I am encouraged to hold the leaves to my nostrils and breathe in their herbal fragrance.
Kwan believes that the ultimate cooking — the cooking that is best for our bodies and most delicious on our palates — comes from this intimate connection with fruits and vegetables, herbs and beans, mushrooms and grains. In her mind, there should be no distance between a cook and her ingredients. ‘‘That is how I make the best use of a cucumber,’’ she explains through a translator. ‘‘Cucumber becomes me. I become cucumber. Because I grow them personally, and I have poured in my energy.’’ She sees rain and sunshine, soil and seeds, as her brigade de cuisine. She sums it up with a statement that is as radically simple as it is endlessly complex: ‘‘Let nature take care of it.’’
“He wanted to know if there was such a thing as a ‘Fart Chart’ of different kinds of beans,” McGee said. “And if he used a different kind of beans, could he maybe eat a couple more servings? He also wondered if there was something he could do to the beans ahead of time.”
The next day, McGee went looking for answers. At the Yale biology library, he discovered that plenty of food-science research had been published by and for the food manufacturing and packaging industries, but little of it had been shared with chefs or home cooks.
“I spent hours in that library because I had never seen anything like it,” McGee told me. “Poultry science and agricultural and food chemistry. I would just flip through random volumes and see microscopic studies of things I eat every day. It seemed so cool and unexpected. It took more than a day to home in on the right sources about beans, but not only did I find out what’s in them and what you can do about it, but there is a fart chart and there are things you can do to lessen your suffering. Most of the research in the field of flatulence was funded by NASA. If you think about it, it makes good sense — these were still the days of capsules.”
In the California Sunday Magazine, Daniel Duane eats with the unassuming culinary celebrity Harold McGee, to find out how the failed academic’s popular first book changed the way we talk and think about cooking.
Cody Delistraty | Longreads | January 2017 | 8 minutes (2,327 words)
Dominique Crenn did not follow the typical path to chef stardom. Instead of going to culinary school or working in Paris kitchens, she earned a business degree from the Academy of International Commerce and moved to San Francisco.
She immediately fell in love with it. “It was home, and I knew it,” she said. There, she worked under the legendary Jeremiah Tower and Mark Franz at the now-defunct Stars, a restaurant-cum-training ground for great chefs. (Restaurateur and Food Network host Mario Batali spent time in the Stars kitchen.) Two years later, she went to Indonesia, where she was the first-ever female executive chef at the InterContinental Hotel in Jakarta. There, she won her first Michelin star.
Crenn decided that she wanted to create a place that felt like a community, “that felt like a family,” so she moved back to San Francisco and opened Atelier Crenn in 2011.
Crenn’s food is highly inventive, mostly seafood, with combinations of traditional French ingredients mixed with American modernism. The menu — written entirely in poems — rotates constantly. A diner might receive a menu with a line of poetry that reads, “I touch the salted water, and hold the shell against my ear.” The corresponding dish is caviar, sea urchin, and oyster topped with cucumber “snow” (crème fraîche). A line like “and leaving a beautiful reflection” precedes a delicate Bluefin tuna belly. “There came a wave of oceanic delicateness,” is lobster in a yogurt broth with coconut.
In 2012, her culinary stardom took off. Atelier Crenn received a second Michelin star in its second year, making Crenn the first female chef at an American restaurant to earn two Michelin stars. Earlier this year, she was named “The World’s Best Female Chef.”
We discussed the role of memory and literature in food, the emotions of taste, the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, fame, and how she, like Picasso, has created a fundamentally new style — where her canvas is a curious mix of ingredients and memory.
Cody Delistraty | Longreads | February 2016 | 14 minutes (3,672 words)
“The most stylish chef in the industry,” according to Vogue Paris. “A fairy tale child,” according to fashion editor André Leon Talley, “straight out of a gothic novel.” The grandson of Maxime de La Falaise, a 1950s beauty who wrote for American Vogue and played muse to Andy Warhol. The nephew of Loulou de La Falaise, the afflatus of Yves Saint Laurent. The great-nephew of Mark Birley, who ruled London nightlife with Annabel’s and Harry’s Bar. And on and on.
Daniel Le Bailly de La Falaise has always had much to live up to.
Yet even from his younger years, Daniel parried the pressure with aplomb. He modeled for Vogue Paris as a wispy seventeen year-old. He acted in plays on the West End alongside Michael Gambon. It was the same path of aristocratic, creative urbanity that his forebears lived so well.
But one day, he realized it wasn’t quite the life for him.
“I asked myself the question of whose career I coveted and I couldn’t really come up with the answer,” Daniel told me over the phone from Bolinas, California. “I wanted control over what my life would be and cooking was something that I had always done.”
So cook he did.
He was slated to start work at the River Café, a respected Italian eatery on the banks of the Thames, but his great-uncle Mark Birley challenged him. “If you’ve got the balls, if you’ve got balls, Danny, you’ll start at Harry’s Bar,” Daniel recounted him saying in reference to the members-only Mayfair restaurant founded by his great uncle. “He thought I’d make a week and in the end I did years there.”
Today, Daniel lives mostly on an estate near Toulouse, France, with his wife, Molly, and infant son, Louis. He manages Le Garde-Manger de La Falaise, an exclusive line of oils and vinegars sold at Selfridges in London and at Claus in Paris, and he is the author of a recent book from Rizzoli called Nature’s Larder.
But his central work remains cooking. He cooks for himself, his family, and his friends, but he also caters celebrity and fashion events, which take place mostly in Paris, London, and Milan. He catered Kate Moss’ wedding and, most recently, he was in charge of a 125-person dinner at the Château de Courances in northern France for the Olsen twins’ fashion brand, The Row.
Although Daniel’s provenance is one of sophistication and blue blood, he eschews pretension. His favorite food is spaghetti alle vongole and, as he puts it, “there is no better luxury than really distilled simplicity.”
Daniel spoke to me about the pressures of aristocracy, the sexuality of food, and what cooking for the rich and famous really takes. Read more…
Gravy, curry, casserole, beef stew ─ some of humanity’s most comforting, aromatic foods are the least photogenic. At Serious Eats, Kat Kinsman analyzes America’s obsession with culinary appearances and makes the case for learning to measure food by other, non-visual standards.
I’ve been thinking about ugly food, and ugly things in general, for an awfully long time now. I still remember using my post as a high school yearbook editor to make sure the wallflower kids were just as well represented as the tall poppies in our class. Sure, they weren’t the prettiest of the bunch, but I felt a certain solidarity with them. I knew we had a special value all our own. As a girl who figured I’d never measure up as lovely enough (mostly because so many people flat-out told me so), I had always identified with the ugly and the overlooked—the teddy bear with the wonky eye, the holey thrift store dress. I understood these things. I celebrated them.
The foods that pleased me the most were the objectively ugly ones: the stews, gravies, gumbos, curries, goulashes, mashes, braises, and sauces that were cooked long and low until they slumped and thickened. Maybe I knew that these foods, like all the ugly ducklings in this world, had to work harder to get their proper due. It takes time and effort to transubstantiate flour and fat into cocoa-dark roux, a rough hunk of muscle into sumptuous brisket, and raw, tough leaves and tops into sweet, savory greens. Time, it seems, can make some foods taste like heaven, and look like hell.
Cricket flour is here, now what do we do with it? In Lucky Peach magazine, Michael Snyder writes about the many ways people in the Indian state of Nagaland cook their local insects. Your garden species will differ, but Snyder’s article, paired with Jennifer Billock’s “Are Insects the Future of Food?,” provides practical food for thought for a planet whose appetite for animal protein might soon outstrip its ability to produce it. Chocolate covered ants were a novelty. There’s no more time to play gross-out. So fire up the skillet and butter the grasshoppers, people. It’s cricket burger time:
The best hornet larvae don’t turn up until November, I’m told, but even in early September, when the larvae are smaller, they’re a delicacy. In the market, they’re sold not by weight but by the stack: big rounds of cardboard-like hive, half the cells squirming with plump, cream-colored pupae, the rest covered with a fine white sheath that, peeled back, reveals larvae in different stages of gestation. The whole thing has a sort of creepy science-fiction vibe—it looks like a hornet factory, which is just what it is—especially when you remove the white, papery layer to find near-adults clambering out of their cells and attempting to stretch their immature wings. Though I was assured that even these wouldn’t be big enough yet to sting, the whole endeavor felt much like a high-stakes, edible game of whack-a-mole.
Gelatin dishes as we know them date all the way back to medieval Europe. From that period up until the mid-nineteenth century, jellied dishes were foods of the elite, served as elaborate molded centerpieces on the tables of nobility. The reason was simple: the process of rendering collagen from animal bones and then clarifying it was exceptionally time-consuming, even by the slower-paced standards of the day…
Few home cooks bothered with such labor-intensive dishes—gelatin indicated to dinner guests that you had a kitchen staff large and well-appointed enough to spare the hours. This remained the case in the American colonies, where elites adapted European customs to their own tastes. Gelatin dishes were a delicacy in New York high society, where the size of one’s household staff was a status symbol; and on the plantations of the South, where enslaved cooks labored in the kitchens. At Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello, wine jelly was often served to guests, Jefferson’s time in France having influenced his tastes.
—Sarah Grey, in her wonderful (and wonderfully enlightening) social history of of Jell-O salad, which ran at Serious Eats today.
“Dashi is like the key actor in a movie,” says 83-year-old Chobei Yagi, whose 275-year-old store, Tokyo’s Yagicho Honten, specializes in katsuobushi and other dried foods. “But dashi always plays the supporting role, never the star.”
Most katsuobushi today comes pre-sliced in plastic bags, which is convenient and allows one to make dashi from scratch in less than 15 minutes, but there is another level of truly great katsuobushi — artisanal arabushi-style katsuobushi and the maturer karebushi- and hongarebushi-style katsuobushi. These are sold in thick blocks, with brown surfaces coated in sun-dried mold. They look more like works of art than food, and maybe they are.
—Sonoko Sakai writing in the Los Angeles Times about the complex, umami-packed base known as dashi, which provides the foundation for so much Japanese cuisine. Sakai’s piece ran in January, 2012.
Surprisingly, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and a staunch secularist, opposed pork consumption. He viewed eating pork as a recent Jewish diasporic cultural development that Israelis needed to shed in order to forge a united Israeli identity. In 1962 the Knesset officially outlawed the breeding and selling of pigs, except for in Arab-Christian areas, such as the villages around Nazareth. In 1994 the import of non-kosher meat was also banned. That action, ironically, fortified what was once a black-market system of smuggling pork from the Arab-Christian pig farms into Jewish areas. Today that market is a legal, flourishing industry reliant almost exclusively on those few original farms.
While the consumption of pork is becoming more mainstream, the production of it by Jews is still rare and sometimes still requires some justifying loopholes. Kibbutz Lahav in southern Israel, which, like many kibbutzim, started as a radically secular project, is the only one of its kind to contribute to Israel’s pork industry, albeit as a byproduct of a program to breed lab animals. Because pigs are physiologically similar to humans, they are the best animals for medical research, explains Moshe Tayar, a kibbutznik and spokesman for the kibbutz’s research institute, where they work to advance treatments for ailments ranging from diabetes to various types of cancer. Excess pigs are processed at the kibbutz factory, which sells to shops and hotels around the country.
Their workers include observant Muslims and Jews who don’t eat pork themselves, explains Tayar. (In a rare example of Muslim-Jewish agreement among Israelis, Islam also views “swine” as a particularly unhygienic and thus spiritually toxic animal, and its consumption is explicitly deemed “haram,” or forbidden, in the Quran.)