“The secret of cooking is to understand when to stop cooking,” said Marco Pierre White when he was the greatest chef of his generation as opposed to a humble stock cube peddler.
I can assume with quite some certainty, that when Shakespeare wrote the phrase, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” he was not thinking about me cooking for my pregnant wife, and yet, never has an aphorism felt more apt. Curtailed as I am by the limitations of my wife’s new olfactory and gustatory dislikes, my cooking has taken on a new lease of life. I am cooking better than I have in a long time, even if I do say so myself, and I’m doing it without onion or garlic or too much oil, or sometimes without any fat to speak of at all. The cooking I am engaged in is a tight rotation of about four dishes. A gentle Hainaese chicken, a roast chicken with salad, my vegetarian lasagna and a very simple mushroom risotto, all bolstered at lunchtime by the simplest of cold sandwiches.
I wrote the introduction above a few days ago and have been unable to write another word since. Soon after sitting down to write I read the fascinating and vital piece in the New Yorker about Jonathan Nunn and Vittles and how he has changed the landscape of food writing and food criticism in the UK. This afternoon I wasted my time (or perhaps spent is a better way to put it. Spent as in money. I used credits of my time,) watching a long-form interview with Fred Again… on the internet. Both experiences floored me. Flawed me, is perhaps better. Highlighted my flaws to myself. Sometimes you have a moment where you realise how insignificant one's own output is. How some are innovators and some are imitators. To be confronted by your own meagre ability in front of others’ sheer capacity is an affronting realisation. But there is liberation in it too. There is inspiration in it. Here I am lauding my ability to cook without garlic, and there they are, changing the face of food writing and music. If that realisation doesn’t liberate you to cook some mushrooms in butter and have them on toast whilst thinking “oh, well” then nothing will.
In an attempt to get back into the writing I read this by Auguste Escoffier, "In cooking, as in all arts, simplicity is the sign of greatness." Agreed. And then it hit me. Do we really need to strive for greatness? Surely striving for greatness is in contradiction to the sentiment expressed. Simplicity is a sign of simplicity, right? And “art”? Are you not just making your tea? Or someone’s lunch?
“I was fortunate enough to not even be slightly good at anything else,” I’m back on Fred again… again, “so I had clarity of focus.”
Constraint equals restraint, restraint as conscious control though, not as externally imposed limitation. Creativity within parameters, not a straight jacket on your creativity.
The cooking of the last decade or so has become more complex, much as it might not appear so given the environment in which it’s served and consumed. There appears a direct correlation between the laid-backness of the setting (or set dressing) a restaurant chooses for itself and the complexity of the food it feels it needs to serve. I use complexity not to define technique, but instead to define the sheer number of ideas and nods to things that have gone into a dish. To take an overtly binary example; in a big, bright, airy dining room in West London where there are starched white tablecloths and food is served on classic white plates, cucina povera is cooked simply with good ingredients and served as it is cooked, whilst in an unfurnished old shop in East London, open warehouse shelving holds tattooed bottles of natural wine, there is only an induction hob and you perch precariously, unbecoming on a wobbly stool, here the food is high-key, clever, a fireworks display of technique and flavour, a punch to the mouth as opposed to a passionate kiss.
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