Friday, December 13, 2013

The Flair Factor

Have you ever said to yourself, "That person over there is a great cook." without tasting a single morsel?

A great cook bears the unmistakable stamp of a balance between extreme fussiness and extreme flexibility. These are the absolute flying banner heralds of a confident and experienced cook.
No thyme at the market, no problem. We'll just toss in some sage leaves. Missing some mirin, no problem. We'll add some sugar and some saké.

No eggplants, non-negotiable! We'll switch to a different dish instead.

No casserole, no problem. We'll just roast in this pan over there. No mortar and pestle, no problem. We'll just crush it in a different way.

Thirteen ingredients and seventeen steps, non-negotiable! Just do them in the order and stop fidgeting, for cryin' out loud.
If this sounds familiar then you know somebody like that already.

It is this intense focus and yet seemingly effortless adaptability that makes cooking seem so difficult to those not initiated into the process.
What does "sautée for a short time" mean? What constitutes "short" as opposed to "long"?

Two or three eggs. When would you pick two as opposed to three?

Salt to taste. What happens if it's raw meat and you can't taste it?
None of this makes any sense to an amateur who has yet to understand the internal logic that makes it all tick. However, like all things it's based in the only thing that makes any sense — experience and an intellectually-considered experience at that.

Cooking requires an adaptability to a changing landscape. No two ingredients that you buy are going to be the same or even similar. Things change with the seasons and much more importantly, you never dip into the same pool twice as a person because your very being is changing as you evolve in your experience. You are learning as you go along.

This is not exclusive to cooking.

Experienced musicians behave the same way. So do engineers. So do costume designers for the theater. As do the very best military generals and the finest surgeons.

This is a general characteristic of excellence in any field that requires adaptability based on field conditions that are variable and changing.

There is only one way to get from here to there. As the saying goes, the way to Carnegie Hall is "Practice, practice, practice."

It's rooted in experience but what matters is intellectual richness. The more you push yourself outside your comfort zone and grab new experiences, the richer you are for it. Even if you have absolutely no interest in Japanese cuisine, understanding its principles will enrich the flair with which you make Italian food. That's because you bring a brand new set of skills to the table (sic).

Great cooks are nerdy, by definition. They are continuously reading books to learn what they don't know yet. Almost every single one reads books about food in bed.

And paranoid. They always think they have missed something even though they have most likely not.

And intellectually curious. They revisit an old favorite that they could make in their sleep but they analyze it as if they had never seen it before in their lives to bring their new experiences to bear on it.

Naturally the goal of it all, when all is considered and done, is to don your ascot and say to your guests in a nonchalant manner, "Oh, that's just something I threw together."

That would be the flair part.

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