September 15, 2015
Beyond Food and Evil
Nature and Haute Cuisine After the Chez Panisse Revolution
Fresh, local, seasonal, sustainable, and simple: the gospel of Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, has become a potent cultural force. But today, a wilder, weirder, and more tech-savvy cuisine is emerging to take its place. Featuring fantastical ingredients like sea buckthorn, lichen, and live ants, and processed with complex equipment like Pacojets and Thermomixes, this new cuisine is both nature-obsessed and highly technological. What’s conspicuously absent from techno-cuisine is the didacticism of Chez Panisse and its ilk. We can’t all eat grass-fed beef, and sometimes local isn’t greener. Chefs like Rene Redzepi of NOMA and Daniel Patterson of Coi show us there is no single correct way to eat or cook - or to embrace nature.
“If, for some crazy reason, you decide to make this dish, then we’ll need to have a talk about the lichen powder.” So begins the recipe for “Prather Ranch Beef Encrusted in Lichen,” a typical selection in San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson’s new cookbook. Fresh lichen powder, needless to say, is not available at the grocery store. Nor can you order it online. You have to venture into the woods, find the best-tasting lichen, and scrape it off trees. Then you have to turn technology loose on it: clean it, rinse it several times, boil it for one to three hours, dehydrate it overnight, and grind it.
Once you’ve prepared the lichen powder, cut a cylindrical piece of grass-fed tenderloin, preferably from Prather Ranch, where cattle “graze on cool, lush Sierra-Nevada mountain fields in the summer, and Sacramento Delta pasture in the winter.” Dust the cylinder with your lichen powder, and vacuum seal, or “cryovac,” it. Cook it in 140°F water for about ten minutes while preparing marrow stock and a sauce featuring wild bay, angelica, fennel, and cypress. The result? A renewed intimacy with your local woods, a practical course in high-tech cookery, and a brand new flavor that Patterson describes as “earthy and round.”
Patterson’s pal and contemporary, René Redzepi, also has a new cookbook out. Redzepi’s restaurant, Noma, has recently been voted the world’s best by the London-based Restaurant magazine. Redzepi shot to fame by running a fine restaurant using only local ingredients in a place everyone assumed was devoid of interesting local flavors: Copenhagen. Redzepi’s recipes are just as exotic, oceanic, deep-woodsy, and uncookable as those offered by Daniel Patterson. Think “dessert of carrot and sea buckthorn” and “silken fresh cheese and crispy beech leaves.” And as with Patterson’s, if you hope to cook from Redzepi’s book, make sure to plan ahead: the latter recipe requires you to pickle beech leaves in a vacuum pack with apple balsamic vinegar for at least a month.
Notably for two chefs whose cooking is so intentionally intended to evoke a very particular place, both Redzepi and Patterson are transplants. Redzepi grew up in Macedonia and trained in some of the Continent’s finest kitchens before returning to Copenhagen to invent the new Nordic cuisine. Patterson, the scion of a prosperous Boston family, dropped out of Duke University and moved to California. Largely self-taught, he opened his first restaurant at the age of 24 and has been a fixture on the San Francisco restaurant scene ever since.
Redzepi is a decade younger than Patterson, but both are leading lights of a new global generation of chefs who are turning the world of haute cuisine upside down. Young, invariably handsome, and almost exclusively male, Patterson, Redzepi, and the rest of their jet-setting bro-hort convene for private, off the grid, “Cook It Raw” weekends in exotic locales such as Lapland, where they forage for native ingredients and compete to one-up one another with original new dishes (Ravioli of reindeer blood, heart, and lingonberry broth, anyone?).
Each summer, they converge upon Copenhagen for Redzepi’s annual MAD food symposium, which describes itself as “a community of chefs, cooks and farmers with an appetite for knowledge.” Symposiums in recent years have included topics such as “Appetite,” “Vegetation,” and “What Is Cooking.”
Uncookable though they are, Patterson’s Coi: Stories and Recipes1and Redzepi’s A Work in Progress2 do offer enough recipes to qualify as cookbooks. But both books seem more comfortable on the coffee table than the kitchen counter, replete as they are with rich photography of natural landscapes. Coastal grasslands, country lanes, crashing waves, and cherry blossoms grace two-page photo spreads; close-ups of muddy pigs and dried flowers and seaweed abound. And then there are the dishes themselves: bowls and plates laden with moss, bark, hay, and rocks.
Perhaps in reaction to the diminishing wildness of the world or to the increasing wildness in some specific places, like Scandinavia, the food portrayed in these books takes the locavore ethic far beyond the garden-variety farm-to-table aesthetic that has become commonplace in recent years, pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s by the creators of the then-revolutionary California Cuisine. Patterson wanders through California, stooping to collect wild wood sorrel, and brainstorms new dishes while “exploring the ecosystem around my house, the coastal greens, spring flowers and winter herbs."3 Redzepi and his staff revel in the returning spring by “scratching on the forest floor, lifting dead leaves and branches, searching for signs of life."4
A meal cooked from the recipes in these cookbooks, or served up at Noma or Coi, tastes deeply wild. Ingredients are dragged straight from the forest or high tide line to the kitchen, where their wild essences are amplified—think earth, tree, and smoked hay flavors, live shrimp, and, yes, ants. But though fundamentally new in its aggressive wildness, Patterson and Redzepi’s cuisine is nonetheless a reflection of, and a response to, an underlying culinary milieu in which their tastes and creative impulses have been forged and refined.
In 1965, at the age of 19, culinary legend Alice Waters went to France and had a gastronomic epiphany. Once, she ordered trout à la meunière and was treated to the sight of the fish hoisted on the chef’s rod, gasping for breath, before it was cleaned, prepared, and served to her.5 “My home was on the other side of a farmers market and I walked through that market every day on my way to school,” she told an interviewer. “I think I just absorbed that love of fresh ingredients through osmosis. When I came back to California, I wanted those same foodstuffs here."6
Waters came home to Berkeley and began throwing increasingly elaborate dinner parties in her small apartment. Two years later, she opened Chez Panisse. Brimming with a commitment both to the finest local ingredients and to the leftist politics of the day, Chez Panisse quickly became a countercultural hotspot. But the staff struggled to get food on the tables and to make ends meet until Waters was joined by a former architecture student named Jeremiah Tower, who talked his way into the job and soon took over the kitchen.
Together, Waters and Tower invented California Cuisine. The quest for freshness led the staff to the local, whether that meant lettuce grown by Waters herself or wild fennel foraged beside nearby railroad tracks.7 Meanwhile, Tower, despite having no culinary training to speak of, began to elevate the cooking. A 1976 Northern California–themed dinner, the menu in English rather than French, with dishes like “Big Sur Garrapata Creek smoked trout steamed over California Bay leaves” was the watershed moment8 and vaulted Waters and Chez Panisse onto the pages of the New York Times and into the national consciousness.9
Waters split with Tower in 1978, and in the years that followed, Waters’s aesthetic, and her politics, continued to evolve. Dishes at Chez Panisse became increasingly simple, showcasing high-quality ingredients with as little mediation as possible. Waters’s Zucchini Ribbons with Lemon and Basil, for instance, consists of cleaning and slicing a raw zucchini and sprinkling it with salt, pepper, basil, lemon juice, and olive oil.10
Michael Pollan, the high priest of sustainable food who urges us to eschew any food containing more than five ingredients, rhapsodizes about a dessert he ate at his first visit to the restaurant: two perfect peaches, served in a copper bowl. “The rap in certain culinary circles is that what Chez Panisse does best more closely resembles inspired shopping than inspired cooking,” he writes.11 But that’s okay, he says. “There can be no inspired cooking without inspired shopping and, behind that, inspired farming.” Fussy preparation would just get in the way of the celebration of really good farming.
Over time, being local and sustainable became ends unto themselves. By focusing on the local, Chez Panisse sought to establish itself outside of, and as a challenge to, the industrial food system. Sensitive to the charge that hers was a cuisine for the rich, Water launched programs to bring organic gardens to schools serving underprivileged youth. More recently, she and Pollan have led efforts to cut federal subsidies to conventional agriculture and to increase public support for organics and farmers markets.12
By the 1990s, fresh, local, and organic had moved out of hyper-elite circles into the wider world of upscale dining, and even into chain restaurants. Every food prognosticator, from industry consultants Technomic13 to National Public Radio,14 is predicting that “local” and “authentic” will be key values in every dining demographic this year. Fast-food chains are jumping on the local and sustainable bandwagon, and sales are soaring at early adopters such as Chipotle. (Not that Waters would approve. In 2010 she criticized In-N-Out Burger, even though it relies on fresh and local ingredients. “It’s probably better than any other chain,” she said to the L.A. Times, “but it’s not real or authentic. I’d rather eat from a street vendor in Sicily.")15
Today, it is Waters’s world: we all just cook in it. So successful was her recipe for authentic food that the values she braided together into Chez Panisse’s winning formula—fresh, local, seasonal, sustainable, traditional, and simple—now seem inseparable.
The differences between Waters and this new generation of chefs aren’t always easy to parse. Waters, Redzepi, and Patterson all cook nature-centered food, food that is about the plants and animals that constitute it and the places those plants and animals come from. The new guys love local food, talk about sustainability, and also concentrate their gastronomic prowess lovingly on vegetables.
But it is also difficult not to see the high-tech, highly processed food offered by Patterson and Redzepi as at least in part a reaction against the new culinary mainstream that Waters has created. Not long before he opened Coi, in 2005, Patterson suggested as much in the New York Times:16
Alice Waters… has become to us what Beatrice was to Dante: a model of righteousness and purity, reminding us of our past sins while offering encouragement and inspiration on the path to heaven. The only path to heaven. So deeply embedded is the mythology of Chez Panisse in the DNA of local food culture that it threatens to smother stylistic diversity and extinguish the creativity that it originally sought to spark.
A few years later, David Chang, another leading member of the new culinary bro-hort, visited San Francisco and denounced the local cuisine in similar terms.17 “Fuckin’ every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate. Do something with your food,” he implored. Waters fired back in 2012, criticizing Chang and his pastry chef Christina Tosi for using condensed milk and other processed foods in their desserts. “I understand the creative appeal of turning something bad into something surprising,” she wrote, “but I can’t support the choice of highly processed ingredients."18
After Chang’s criticism of San Francisco restaurants, Patterson sprang to his adopted home’s defense, challenging Chang to a good-natured East vs. West cooking showdown. Patterson’s “Vegetables on a Plate” by many accounts won the day, but it bore no resemblance to the stripped-down, unmediated produce worship for which Waters is famous. The dish featured seven different vegetable preparations including such notables as “romaine, garum, and parsley crumb” and “carrot, hay, and wild garlic."19
Where Waters seeks minimal preparation of ingredients, Patterson and Redzepi seek to intensify their essence through technology. Fresh ingredients are not the end, as they are for Waters; they are the beginning. “To make this soup you will need peas so fresh and sweet that you could mistake them for candy,” Patterson begins his recipe for Chilled English Pea Soup. “And a Thermomix,” he continues. “Without both, this recipe is not for you."20
Patterson and Redzepi use tools and techniques that are unavailable to the home cook, including Pacojets, which blend frozen things; Thermomixes, which heat and puree simultaneously; commercial-grade food dehydrators; and dry ice. Their claim, embodied in their dishes, is that these nontraditional, advanced technologies can take us closer to the essential experience of an ingredient.
Where Waters’s cooking conjures French and Italian pastoral cuisine, the food prepared by her younger counterparts aims to replicate the pasture, or wild nature, itself. A Redzepi dish uses milk skin, grass, flowers, and herbs. “The garnish came from the field, where the cow that had supplied the milk had walked, grazed and defecated. The plate itself was a small closed ecosystem."21 Similarly, Patterson cooks local matsutake mushrooms with pine needles because the mushrooms grow and are collected in pine forests.
While Waters seeks to return cuisine to its rustic roots, Redzepi and Patterson have no room for even the most modern interpretations of traditional food preparations like Pasta Puttanesca, Boeuf Bourguignon, or steak and eggs. Rather, the new generation revels in being rootless. “We’d made a dish with no reference points in the past nor in other lands,” Redzepi writes of his dehydrated scallop chips on boiled grains with winter cress, squid ink, and beechnuts.22
Both Waters and the young chefs are, of course, serving haute cuisine. But by methodically stripping the creative elements out of the Chez Panisse oeuvre, as she did in the years after Tower departed, Waters achieved a remarkable cultural alchemy. The cost of a dinner at Chez Panisse may not quite achieve the same stratospheric price as dining at Coi or Noma, but it is no bargain. Waters’s food, though, is routinely described as “unpretentious,” which means that rich people can eat it without feeling like Gilded Age robber barons dipping lobster in melted butter.
Like Waters, Patterson and Redzepi shun typical luxury ingredients like foie gras and filet mignon, but they don’t tend to attract the label unpretentious. Their ingredients may be modest, or even marginally edible by most cultural standards, but the preparations are not. The person-hours that go into each dish boggle the mind.
In the food world, at least, labor has replaced scarcity as the definition of a luxury good. It’s the labor of hand-rearing, of organic farming, of hunting, fishing, and foraging, of dehydrating and canning and pressing and distilling and all the rest. If artisanal is the new gourmet, it is because that which is conspicuously consumed in the former are the hours that highly educated craftspeople have spent bent over a stove, a still, or a deep woods trove of matsutake mushrooms.
It is easier to see that when you read about Patterson scraping lichen off trees, but this labor is part of the luxury offered by Waters too. And that’s somewhat problematic for her politics. She cooks peasant food, but only rich people can afford it. Even her recipes fall flat for the average home cook, since we are generally not cooking with the peak-of-perfection produce that Waters uses.
The conceit that farm-to-table cuisine comes straight to the diner unmediated by the kitchen obscures the enormous cost and expense associated with producing such food in the field and pasture. If nothing else, places like Coi and Noma do us a service by making those costs more apparent.
Whatever its flaws, Waters’s philosophy offers a coherent vision of what food is, and what it should be. It’s right there on her restaurant’s website: “Alice Waters, chef, author, and the proprietor of Chez Panisse, is an American pioneer of a culinary philosophy that maintains that cooking should be based on the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients that are produced sustainably and locally.”
Waters’s is a didactic cuisine, a moral project that instructs us on the correct way to procure, cook, and eat food: support the local farmer, treat animals humanely, plant gardens for underprivileged children, luxuriate in vegetables, scorn processed food. It is explicitly value laden and political.
Inside the test kitchens of the new generation, the culinary philosophies, such as they are, are weirder, more postmodern, and harder to parse. Where the Waters oeuvre tells us how to live, the “cookbooks” of Patterson and Redzepi barely tell you how to make a steak. The proper use of these cookbooks is not to replicate the recipes, much less a whole way of living, but rather to draw creative inspiration, and to start thinking and tasting anew. The exhilaratingly odd plates served up in the stark, modern dining rooms of Coi and Noma are elite art, not a lesson in how we should all cook or eat every day.
Still, even as they reject Waters’s simplicity and traditionalism, Patterson and Redzepi affirm her other values: fresh, local, seasonal, and sustainable. Yet, by challenging the idea that the elements of the Chez Panisse recipe are inseparable components of a natural category, the cooking of Redzepi and Patterson also suggests that other combinations of values might be possible—and moral.
The food production methods that Waters champions, for instance, would be nearly impossible to scale up to feed the country, let alone the world. James McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, estimates that if the United States’ 100 million cows were converted to grass-fed production, for example, it would take half the land in the country to feed them.23 The solution he proposes is that everybody quit eating so much beef already, and Waters agrees with that. But it doesn’t negate the fact that beef is on her menu and in her cookbooks and that her solution to the environmental impacts of beef is to go grass-fed.
Similarly, local is generally quite sustainable on the scale of a few high-end restaurants, but it won’t actually be the greener option for every single ingredient. In certain cases, field tomatoes from far away might be better for the planet than greenhouse tomatoes from the neighborhood, and so on. Ingredient by ingredient, these debates are matters for scientists and economists, but it is safe to say that if everyone ate like the patrons of these restaurants, not all their ingredients would continue to be sustainable, especially those which are foraged.
One gets the sense that the commitment to hyper-localism among the new breed is viewed less ideologically and more as a creative challenge. “A smaller sandbox to play in,” Redzepi told Food and Wine magazine recently, has been the key to his creative success.24 But even that commitment appears to be showing signs of wavering, according to a recent National Public Radio piece that hinged on the sighting of a lemon in the Noma test kitchen (Note: lemons don’t grow naturally in Denmark).25 Now that the point has been made that Scandinavia is not devoid of local flavors of interest, the “New Nordic” chefs may be ready to try to play with their newly chic flavors in a global context.
If the message from the new generation might not be as clear as Waters’s, that very ambiguity may be valuable. They begin by teaching us that we can eat well—very well—without relying on the Chez Panisse formula. They hint at other solutions to the problem of ethical, green, appetizing food, solutions that don’t rely on an impossible-to-scale return to a romanticized version of our agrarian past. One could imagine a cuisine, for instance, that is sustainable but not local. In fact, one might want to imagine such a thing: fresh-sustainable-innovative-technological-global.
Instead, these chefs’ food is about the future, a future both highly technological and wilder than our world today, where our relationship to nature is closer and more delicious than ever.
1. Daniel Patterson, Coi: Stories and Recipes (London: Phaidon, 2013).
2. René Redzepi, A Work in Progress (London: Phaidon, 2013).
3. Patterson, 102.
4. A Work in Progress, 37.
5. David Kamp, The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation (New York: Random House, 2006), 152.
6. “Interview with Alice Waters,” Onlinechef.com, no date listed, http://www.onlinechef.com/chez.html.
7. Kamp, 152.
8. Jeremiah Tower, California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution (New York: Free Press, 2004), 112.
9. Craig Claiborne, “Cuisine Bourgeoise Out West,” New York Times, June 3, 1981.
10. Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food II (New York: Clarkson Potter, 2013), 146.
11. Alice Waters, 40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering (New York: Clarkson Potter, 2011), 295.
12. Kim Severson, “Some Good News on Food Prices,” New York Times, April 2, 2008.
13. “Technomic’s Take: 10 Trends for 2014,” Technomic, November 13, 2013, https://www.technomic.com/Pressroom/Releases/dynRelease_Detail.php?rUID=262.
14. Bonny Wolf, “Eating Tea and Other Food Predictions for 2014,” National Public Radio, January 5, 2014, http://www.npr.org/2014/01/05/259788506/eating-tea-and-other-food-predictions-for-2014.
15. Scott Kraft, “She Yanks Their Food Chains,” LA Times, April 2, 2010, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/apr/02/local/la-me-alice-waters2-2010apr02.
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Emma Marris is an environmental writer and reporter. She is the author of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.
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