March 19th, 2015
Beer, a well-known chef once told me, is liquid bread. The processes are remarkably parallel and, when done right, both have comparable nutrition. That’s something to keep in mind when reading Tom Philpott’s report on the new USDA paper which reveals that craft brewers use 400 percent more barley in their beer than corporate brewers. Given that barley, water and hops are the only ingredients you need to make beer, this is intriguing intelligence, and for me it tidily explains why the stuff from the big boys tastes like nothing.
But reversing the beer/bread continuum raises an interesting parallel with big baking vs artisanal baking. Here, too, the contrast between mass produced and small batch comes down to an obvious experience — taste or no taste. Now that we know this difference appears in corporate beer because they fill the ingredient void with water, it raises a question: what on earth do you add to a loaf of bread when you toss out the food that was supposed to be in there?
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You may have noticed some recent articles on the worrying theme of “peak chocolate,” suggesting that we might be running low on the food of the gods. Well, we might at that, but if you take a peek at the research sparking these reports the surprising reason isn’t so much that we’re running out of chocolate trees (though climate change has them square in its sights) but rather that we are heading into a dearth of chocolate farmers.
The nine billion dollar cocoa industry does not, it seems, funnel much of that loot down to the smallholder farmers, sixty percent of them in West Africa, which actually grow the cacao beans. The majority of them get by on less that two bucks a day, a pay rate which means that most African chocolate farmers are too poor to have ever tasted chocolate.
But this is one unequal situation with a solution, of sorts. The farmers are simply switching to more profitable crops, like rubber and palm oil. After all, it’s not like they’re going to miss the chocolate.
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I once ate (and can never forget) a French cheese of such venerable age that it tasted uncannily like meat. For better or worse, chefs are now aging beef to the point that it’s starting to taste like cheese. This trend began in the States and is now moving into the UK, where you can read Tony Naylor’s bite-by-bite tour of the different Ages of Beef.
It’s well-nigh impossible to remember from within the Age of Refrigeration, but aging beef — like making cheese, making alcohol, like all of these beloved traditions which began as a means of preservation — is a way of creating sublimely tasty foodstuffs with microorganisms as your sous-chefs.
But the extreme aging now being attempted is not a venerable tradition. It is actually a side-effect, believe it or not, of industrialized American beef production. Not, mind you, because the big cattle concerns have the patience or subtlety to produce this kind of thing, but because you can’t extreme-age grass-fed beef. To age one hundred days (or three hundred?!), you need fat, and lots of it. You need the highly marbled meat that Americans think of as “good” beef (actually a result of stuffing cattle with grain feed, never mind that beeves are specialized grass feeders which get sick when fed grain) in order to create steak that’s closer to truffle than cow.
And, of course, it would be wise to consider the carbon/farmland/water footprint of this sort of beef production, which is, bluntly, appalling; one researcher believes abandoning beef-eating would make a bigger impact that abandoning cars. On the other hand, maybe the solution can be found in extreme-aging all the beef we eat — after all, its taste is so overwhelming that no one can manage more than a few bites.
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Chef David Chang (Momofuku/Lucky Peach) believes that the internet is making everything taste the same and he may have a point. Search engines are homogenizers which deliver the same information to everyone and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that more and more of the creative class is getting their ideas from identical virtualized experiences, unalloyed by, say, actual experiences. It adds up to a lot of same, missing the sort of serendipity and outright mishap that midwifes the unique.
But he makes a second point that I find much more insightful. It’s about the effect of social media on creative experimentation. Chang cites his own experience with Noodle Bar, and how it took months of blowing it to figure out how to make it work. Instagrammed tables and yelped zingers create an atmosphere of needing to get it instantly right and that, Chang rightly points out, prevents trial and error. “I’m sorry, but nobody is born a chef genius, it’s whoever makes the best mistakes.” At Noodle Bar, it was only the creative freedom that came from believing that they were going out of business which lead to their eventual success.
I’m not sure if Chang intended to say this, but if you combine his two insights, you get the curiously apt notion that the internet makes everything taste like fear of failure.
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Things are tough in France these days. At the highest levels there is a political and cultural malaise and at the lowest levels pernicious inequality and integration failure is driving low-end losers to self-identify as jihadis. But something else just might be more startling — a spate of legal actions are targeting one of the most sacred precincts of French culture — the kitchen. Joel Robuchon, chef with the most Michelin stars ever, has been named in a complaint about harassment in his new restaurant. He’s not the only one. Yannick Alleno, who runs a three-star on the Champs-Elysees, is being sued for “acts of violence and harassment,” and at Pré Catalan, another three star establishment, a station chef was fired after intentionally scalding an assistant on multiple occasions.
Robuchon is outraged at the accusation, Alleno is launching his own countersuit and meanwhile, the chef at the presidential palace is among those who have signed a manifesto entitled Touché Pas A Mon Commis, which translates roughly as “hands off my assistant chef” and calls for the end of brutality in French kitchens and the law of “omertà” that shields it.
Whom are we to believe? Well, let’s just say that I know people who have done time as commis in three star kitchens and I’m more inclined to believe their version of the truth.