New-New Food: A Foreigner’s Perspective
But on Thursday I was ready to challenge myself in the heady intersection of celebrity cooking and chemistry. Michael Ruhlman, who cooks, authors books, and co-writes cookbooks with the top chefs of Le Bernardin and the French Laundry, was speaking at New York University.
More specifically, Ruhlman was the star guest of the Experimental Cuisine Collective, a creation of NYU’s chemistry department plus the nutrition, food studies and public health department together with Chef Will Goldfarb. These are the people who write highly scientific papers on things like molecular gastronomy and stretchy ice cream. Nothing, as yet, on wiener schnitzel.
I was an eager student of Ruhlman’s language and philosophy, though, and listened to him carefully. If I have it right, he’s proposing a platonic ideal of cooking. A sip of carrot soup should bring a sort of enlightenment as you taste it, a revelation that “this is what carrots are all about.”
Of course, there is likely to be an element of surprise involved. Your platonic ideal of carrots might be served to you not in a bowl, but in a concoction made of caviar. Or your spoon might turn out to be made of frozen brisket or something.
One of the cooking luminaries in the audience pointed out that the Japanese have been doing precisely this kind of thing for the last 5,000 years: it’s called “sushi.” Then I got confused, because that would mean that “new-new cooking” is, in fact, old-old cooking.
Despite my premature befuddlement, I found Ruhlman very likeable. Tall, and with sandy hair, he had the kind of easygoing American manner which green-card-holding citizens of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire like myself consider imitating.
His presentation morphed into a thoughtful discussion in a lecture hall brimming with culinary-minded scientists and technically-savvy chefs and authors. He was disarmingly humble, saying he was intimidated by his own audience. Among them were Marion Nestle, the ultimate academic authority on anything food; celebrated food writer Betty Fussell; Rose Levy Beranbaum of Cake Bible fame; Michael Laiskonis, pastry chef of Le Bernardin; and Francis Lam of Gourmet Magazine.
Ruhlman even admitted to us that Bisquick scares him. He disarmingly pointed out that pancakes and cupcakes—and dough and batter—are essentially the same things. It’s all a matter of consistency. I had no idea.
Consistency is a big deal, it turns out. Francis Lam made us laugh by commenting that too much xantham gum will turn your creation “into snot.” Ruhlman remarked that he gained much of his knowledge at the CIA, which instantly gave me a much higher opinion of this country’s intelligence community. I’ve since discovered that Ruhlman was actually referring to the Culinary Institute of America. (The romantic in me continues to hope they know how to make a vinaigrette in Langley, Virginia.)
There were chunks of Americana which I found quite intriguing. For instance: is it true that you people by and large don’t have scales in your kitchens? How the hell do you manage? And is it really unusual here to invite friends over to cook together? You Americans are missing so much fun. Trust me about how well food and intimacy go together.
On the positive side, I was stunned to see that Americans who care about food and the quality thereof don’t see themselves as a beleaguered minority. Quite the opposite: they are part of the avant-garde.
In Germany, by contrast, Ruhlman’s lecture-cum-discussion would have descended into a cultural pessimism, reaching agreement that life was better before the Dark Satanic Mills of the Industrial Revolution began poisoning us. In America, when someone complains that children don’t know where their veggies come from, somebody else pipes up that more and more school gardens are being created.
In short, Americans are capable of indulging in ecobabble while remaining quite optimistic about the future. As a German used to ecobabble as a means of predicting nothing but doom, this really is a new language for me. I even have an appetite for carrot soup.
Hannes Stein is a correspondent for Die Welt, the German newspaper.
Photography by Jen Minary.