Today kind of picks up from yesterdays blog on Cuban food and culture. Having spent a considerable amount of time in Cuba I came to one clear observation. Cubans do things on Cuban time….slowly. I’d like to talk about contemporary cuisine and what this encompasses. I have spent considerable time discussing International Cuisine as a subject of its own. The primary difference between contemporary and international cuisine is the use of techniques, ingredients and basically keeping it classy or in the case of International foods, classical. I’ve mentioned before that if you use a term or recipe that is classical, you should keep it that way, if you don’t it just isn’t that thing. Here is a simple example. Crêpes Suzette (pronounced [kʁɛp syˈzɛt]) is a French dessert consisting of crêpes with beurre Suzette (pronounced [bœʁ syzɛt]), a sauce of caramelized sugar and butter, tangerine or orange juice, zest, and Grand Marnier, triple sec or orange Curaçao liqueur on top, prepared in a table side performance, flambé. That is it, period. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s a classical French table side preparation that falls under International cuisine. Contemporary cuisine on the other hand is less rigid, and perhaps creative. Most of the restaurants you may dine at are contemporary. lets look at some examples in this category.
One of my favorite go to foods, when I’m tired and just want something easy and satisfying. This is “comfort food”.
One of the building blocks of contemporary cuisine is the familiar food of our past. These foods are
affectionately referred to as “comfort” foods. These are foods of our heritage that were prepared for
us by family—usually mothers or grandmothers. Comfort foods include the foods of our heritage.
These oftentimes are ethnic. It has been proven through research and study that when a culture is
assimilated into a master culture through immigration, the heritage food of ethnic origin is the last
item that people will give up to the master culture. There is something deeply special about the
foods that come to us through our ethnic heritage. We never forget. Comfort foods could be
religious in origin like Kosher foods or the offerings at a protestant church supper. These foods are
basic, comforting, and warming to both body and soul. They are more often than not tied to some
warm and golden memory of youth, usually tied to a favorite relative or family friend. These foods
are loved and remembered, but not really made in most homes anymore. So, they become part of the
restaurant experience where the restaurateurs and chefs take advantage of customers unending
desires for the “comfort of home.”
Coined deconstructionism, this example of contemporary cuisine was popularized in the late 80’s, and 90’s by award-winning chefs like Michael Anthony (Gramercy Tavern), John Sundstrom (Lark), Blaine Wetzel (Willows Inn), Michael Stadtlander (Eigensinn Farm). An important contemporary approach to classic dishes is called deconstruction. This is in the same vein as deconstruction that is a style in literature and art. Through deconstruction dictates and
traditions are torn down and laid bare and the subject is built back up using creativity and
imagination. For meatloaf and mashed potatoes one could practice deconstruction in a number of
different ways. For instance, an entirely different method could be used in the preparations. The
mashed potatoes could become a soft, creamy center to a meat-encased item—like a fritter. In
Middle Eastern cuisine the dish kibbe combines ground meat, seasonings, bulghur wheat, and water.
It is used as an outer casing to a similar filling that is deep-fried giving a crispy on the outside and
soft in the center. This method would use the characteristics of contemporary cuisine of creativity
and ethnic and international cooking.
Contemporary cuisine approaches the ingredient with the utmost respect. One of the characteristics
of this style of cooking is to take each ingredient and respect the integrity of that ingredient as much
as possible. This means that the ingredients that are used have to be of the highest possible quality
that can be acquired. Freshness is paramount. Food as living, organic matter contains good flavor
based upon how the life in the product is treated. The method that was used to raise the ingredient is
also important. Organic products taste better than industrially produced products. Conditions of the
soil, weather, and how the ingredient is harvested and processed make huge differences in the end
result that lands on the diner’s plate. Respecting the integrity of the ingredient also means limiting
the number of ingredients in a dish to as few as possible. Fewer flavors confuse the palate less and
preserve the respect for each individual ingredient to a greater extent. As the great pastry chef Emily
Luchetti (2004 James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year) of Farallon Restaurant in San
Francisco has said, no more than three flavors on a plate at a time, anything more muddies the
waters. It is better to use the finest, most outstanding ingredients you can find, prepare them to the
utmost of your ability, and add items that will accentuate the flavor of the ingredients without
imposing on, or masking, the original flavor. There have been many more trends and fads that fall under the auspice of contemporary cuisine such as the fast food/slow food movement, molecular gastronomy, California cuisine, and so on. These ideas are just re inventing classical International concepts, and making them new. It’s what makes food and the creative process fun. It’s also, ultimately what defines a chef. It takes a lifetime of travel, work and education for a chef to finally realize his “style”, and put it to plate. Cheers and happy Thursday!