September 17, 2009
"I've always suspected that for me, the act of cooking and the act of writing are linked, that the desire to cook and the compulsion to write arise out of the same spot in my unconscious, as two different manifestations of the same innate urge." Michael Ruhlman, The Reach of A Chef.
Cooking, sex, writing, art. Cooking, sex, writing, art. It's a mantra, and there's a rhythm and rush when you imagine each of these rituals, connected as they are by heat at the root.
There are certain things I like to do and certain things I feel compelled to do. Cooking mostly falls into the like category, but writing is a passion. There have been stages in my life when I felt so overwrought, so riddled with emotion that I was driven to create art even when I didn't know how to do it, to assemble collages, for example, that included photos I had taken, or to paint with acrylics. Years ago, during a divorce, I did nothing but paint for months. I didn't really know how to paint, but I had to do it. I became riveted by the rituals, the feel and smell of paint, the struggle to make something coherent happen on the canvas. I had to try to be creative in a big way, to make sense out of the craziness within, seeping out of me like questions into the dark. I felt if I didn't, I might go nuts.
Some people create because they must, others just because they are driven. I'm reading The Reach of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman, who knows the culinary trade inside out, having worked in the kitchen and become expert writing about what happens there and around those who are transforming American cuisine. He writes about Tim Ryan, for example, a culinary success story whose accomplishments include opening up the American Bounty Restaurant (one of the first eateries to focus on regional cooking), becoming the youngest president of the American Culinary Federation, acquiring an M.B.A., and a Ph.D. in education. Ruhlman calls him a true chef "at the core."
What exactly does this mean, besides, one suspects, possessing a certain ferocity of character, and determination?
According to Ryan, there are four characteristics that determine greatness in an artist: 1) excellent craftsmanship, 2) innovation, 3) work that is both trendy and valuable, 4) and the capacity to influence others. Who are the great modern chefs that fall into this category? Ruhlman's list includes Paul Prudhomme (of Louisiana fame), America's first celebrity chef; Wolfgang Puck (Spago); Larry Forione, (An American Place); Charlie Trotter of Chicago; Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill); Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose forte was innovation; Nobu Matsuhisa, the Japanese artist in Manhattan; and Thomas Keller, known for his unique altering of French styles and techniques. Add to this list, Paul Bocuse, dubbed by Ryan "the Elvis Presley of the culinary world."
The American food revolution really began in the 1980s, and it has been greatly aided by television, which has provided an array of stages to help evolve the myth of the chef. What is "a chef," this creature whose reputation, once monk-like, is now anything but, synonymous in some cases with the worst kind of excess. And why are people obsessed with the chef culture?
One reason may be because we all have to eat and most of us do have to cook. And so, when we see someone perform culinary magic, we have enough reference points that we can recognize that this is something we have not only not ever done, but in many cases not even dreamed of doing, and so we determine we must have this thing -- both the ability and object just out of our reach. The chef takes us out of our world, expands the envelope, blows out the horizon. A chef is a leader says Ryan, head of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
The kitchen takes you down, down into the ravenous underbelly, into the realms of the unexpected, into the layers of desire. You are encouraged to excavate there for what you want, to wander, to ravage ingredients like treasures, to appease and to please.
I know what I am searching for in all this. It's not the chefs -- their badness, perfection or originality. It's the heart of care I never knew navigating the great kitchens of the world, passing from master hand to master hand, conjuring the current of art, the mysterious magic smoke that drives the writer's hand too.
It isn't that I've gone batty over chefs or even the idea of them. It's just that Bourdain so reminds me of my brother John, the one I lost. He lives like John did, drinking and eating the best, traveling and writing, constantly charming. A companion to all, Bourdain reminds me of him even in the intimate public persona he has evolved.
My brother died in 2000 in Chile of respiratory and pancreatic complications due to alcoholism. He left the U.S. for Chile during the first Gulf War, running from U.S. imperialism, but also toward something purer, better. I believe he was trying to find that part of himself too. He set up a fishing lodge in Patagonia, and took fishermen who came from all over the world, on fresh water trout expeditions, and wrote about his adventures like a modern-day Hemingway. He cooked like a top chef and was a genuine connoisseur of fine wines. He was an adventurer in the truest sense, who would risk his life to help an amigo, and, according to letters received after his death, did, in fact, do this more than once in the wilderness. After his death, the woman he'd lived with, the mother of his two children -- a girl and boy, who were seven and five, respectively, when he died--managed to develop The Heart of Patagonia into a premier resort, one of the best in the country today.
But, and here is a bit BUT, while my brother -- even with his cloak of superman abroad -- tried to be something more than the measure of a man he was raised to be, struggled to be tender with things and to forge real connections to the people and the land he had adopted, what prevails in the chef culture now and has for some time is the "kill, take and feast" macho attitude. It's a world in which primitive man beats out his maleness in the wilds of the kitchen -- "Eat me and my shit, baby!" -- nothing less than that, despite the fact that a few women have succeeded here and there and have stories to tell of matching wits or side-stepping brutalization brilliantly, oh yes, and cooking well.
Bourdain, who epitomizes the celebrity chef-that-no-longer-cooks-just-eats-out-all-over-the-globe, is all about raising his glass to man's dominance in the wild, the uninterrupted conquest, the macho ideal that is the reason people are drawn to this sport (as opposed to culture) of being a chef. It's the blood and guts lure, more killing and bloat than nurturance and tenderness, order and sensitivity -- rest assured. The chef culture, like wrestling, represents primitive man in all his gory glory.
What will happen when the fire in the dimming arena dies and a new, gentler order emerges in the kitchens of the world? I suspect it's starting to happen in the most modern kitchens -- fresh stories, new myths, a kinder direction. It's been a long time comin'.