Clarity of Flavor

One day recently, I was reading a restaurant review by one of the great treasures of the L.A. culinary scene, our Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer, Jonathan Gold. If you don’t know Jonathan or his work, he is a grizzled hippy Jewish rocker who used to write concert reviews for the L.A. Times, and at some point transitioned to food — and now is one of the country’s most celebrated authors on all things edible, the only food critic ever to win the Pulitzer. He brings a literate rock & roll sensibility to his reviews that is perfectly suited for Jim Morrison’s City of Night.

The makings of a perfect dinner.

Anyway, in this particular review, he was praising the fresh, focused cooking of whatever restaurant it was (“seasonal, well-sourced produce presented in a way that lets its virtues shine through undisturbed”) against the prevailing trend of molecular cooking and the “restless mutation that modernism needs to survive”. He went on to point out that ” in California, the taste of a Cara Cara orange straight from the tree will always eclipse the flashier pleasures made possible by a packet of xanthan gum.”

This fine California morning, as I was rolling out some fresh pasta dough I’d just made — nearly orange from the eggs lifted from the henhouse I can see out the window as I write this, from chickens who spent the day grazing in the yard — I got thinking of how I would describe my own cooking. While I think of the plate as a palette and the ingredients my paints, I’ve always shied away from modernist cooking. Besides the costs, time and equipment involved, I dislike the bandwagon aspect of it. It’s harder to find a contemporary restaurant in Los Angeles or any other city that doesn’t feature foams and gels and liquid nitrogen than one that does. It leaves me with the big question: what’s the next act?

I rolled out my dough, made my toretelloni, and had some scraps of pasta leftover. These I boiled quickly, tossed with a little butter from Parma, Italy, some Maldon salt, freshly ground Tellicherry pepper and grated parmesan Reggiano. And as I tasted it, I had my answer. My cooking is all about clarity of flavor. A handful of really good ingredients, combined in a way that highlights the character and integrity of each.

I remember thinking how cool it was when Haagen-Dazs came out with their “Five” ice creams — a product that pared ice cream down to all it needed to be (have you ever looked at a Carnation ice cream label!?). Five simple ingredients — no guar gum or carrageenan, no partially hydrogenated anything. That’s how cooking should be. The fewer and better the ingredients, the more clarity of flavor. What has a greater clarity of flavor than a summer peach at peak ripeness, perhaps adorned with a little cream? Or an heirloom tomato, bursting with sunshine, dressed with nothing more than a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of flaky sea salt? Don’t use I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter — there are 11 ingredients in that little tub. Use butter — it only contains one thing, cream.

I got thinking about Haagen-Dazs “Five” and some of the dishes I make. And sure enough, you can make some pretty incredible things, bursting with a clarity of flavor, using five ingredients:

• A dry-aged ribeye grilled medium rare, freshly grated garlic, extra virgin olive oil,  flaky sea salt, ground pepper

• Spaghetti, cream butter, freshly grated aged parmesan, flaky sea salt, ground pepper

• Sliced and toasted grainy rustic bread, thickly sliced ripe heirloom tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, bufala mozzarella, fresh basil leaves

• Steamed calrose rice, thinly sliced fresh raw fish, lemon juice, soy sauce, wasabi

• Homemade chicken stock, beaten fresh farm eggs, grated parmesan, chopped spinach, grated nutmeg

I could go on. And on.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa Gaskin
    Jun 12, 2012 @ 03:12:39

    Minimalism in ingredients has been the bible protocol for Shiloh. Imagine having to navigate 20 ingredients that are incomprehensible when you have fatal food allergies?? Potatoes, olive oil, and salt…that’s our mantra.


  2. Michelle
    Jun 12, 2012 @ 23:18:22

    Many excellent points here! J. Gold rocks (though I guess I won’t be able to read his stuff anymore as I assume it falls behind the Times’ new food paywall?). I totally agree that simple is almost always best, though it does require impeccable ingredients to make it work. But don’t totally write off the molecular stuff. Most of it is silly, overpriced and annoying—but if you find yourself in Chicago, try one of Grant Achatz’s restaurants if you can get in. Several visits to Alinea totally made me rethink my aversion to what I used to call “weird food” and the bar experience at Aviary is incredibly fun.


    • scolgin
      Jun 13, 2012 @ 01:31:33

      Absolutely Michelle. It’s the bandwagon aspect of it that I question. (There was a guy here in Topanga — one of the first-round losers on Hell’s Kitchen — who was serving deconstructed shrimp cocktail.) I almost planned a trip to Spain a few years back just on the possibility of getting reservations at el Bulli. I’d sell a kidney to eat at Noma in Copenhagen. And there’s a couple guys in the states whose restaurants I’d love to visit (Alchatz among them). I did like what JG said about the “restless mutation that modernism needs to survive”, and wonder where it will all be a decade from now. (Thomas Keller pushed the frontiers of French cooking until they could almost be pushed no further. And then he turned to fried chicken and family-style dinners.)


      • Michelle
        Jun 13, 2012 @ 01:49:50

        For sure. The dinner we had at the French Laundry way back when—when Keller was just a cool guy doing French food in an inventive way with fabulously-sourced ingredients—will always in my memory be the almost perfect meal. A later dinner at Per Se was exquisite in every way, but not the same somehow. We never made it to el Bulli and likely won’t make it to Noma. And there are a zillion derivations thereof that I don’t have any interest in. But, honestly: how does one “deconstruct” shrimp cocktail? Too funny!

      • scolgin
        Jun 13, 2012 @ 02:08:47

        Yeah, the shrimp cocktail read like a bad joke. There were a couple naked shrimp and a test tube of some red ketchupy substance. I thought, “This can’t be for real.” It was one of those definitive moments, like discovering they’re selling broiled miso black cod at Cheesecake Factory, that you know a trend has reached critical mass and tipped over into cliché.

  3. Benjamin Thompson
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 20:47:04

    You’ve gone all “Alice Waters” on me . . . LOL


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