Tasting Menu recently posted a couple of articles, on Focus and Tradition. Allow me to quote, for just a moment, a snippet from the Tradition article:
The first moment of clarity I had around culinary tradition was after a conversation with an amazing chef I know. The focus of his cooking is a little known region in Northern Italy. But he's so talented I figured he could apply his skills to any cuisine. I asked him if one day he might consider applying his prodigious skills for simplicity and picking perfectly complementary flavors to combine to Thai food. And that's when he said the thing that made a deep impression on me: "I can't do that. I wouldn't know what it's supposed to taste like."
All of a sudden enlightenment and understanding rushed in like a really cold drink making its way through your chest on a hot day. You need to actually know what the food is supposed to taste like before you make it.
I'm not sure I entirely agree with this. Don't get me wrong, I wholeheartedly believe that tradition is important. But I do think that that statement could use some revision. I come up with a lot of dishes off the top of my head. Sometimes I give them names, sometimes I don't bother. I am often amused by the similarities between these dishes and "real", classical dishes. Do I know what my new creation is going to taste like before I make it? Well, I usually have a pretty good idea, but I don't really know for sure until it's already made.
Then again, I'm not talking about traditional foods, am I? Rarely do I make anything traditional. In many cases, I do know how. I've trained with some excellent chefs, and they tend to beat into one's head what something is supposed to be like. Yet, ask any 10 chefs how French Onion Soup is supposed to be made, and you're probably going to get somewhere in the range of 10 different answers. And most, if not all of them, are probably right.
I think that if you're going to try and pass something off as a specific dish, it probably does help to know firsthand what it is supposed to taste like. But given a recipe and ingredients, the aformentioned Italian chef could probably pull of a Thai dish that tasted perfectly wonderful. That doesn't mean he'd serve it in his restaurant, or even try to pass it off as a Thai dish. He might even regard his efforts as clumsy, depending on how modest he is. But give him excatly the same ingredients but with no recipe or any idea of what he's supposed to come up with, and he would probably still come up with something that tasted pretty good, and might even claim as Italian, depending on how close the ingredients are to Italian food. And he might even serve it.
In the article on focus, the author goes on to discuss maintaining a focus and vision. I'm a little more with him on this one, thought probably not for the same reasons. Personally, I'm a lot more likely to have dinner at Chile's than Applebees. Is it because I prefer the food at Chile's? Hardly. It's because when I go to Chile's, I know that no matter what I order, it will probably be influenced by Southwestern American cuisine even if only vaguely, and that just happens to be my favorite style of food. I've long-since given up trying to find something with any decent amount of spicy heat at Applebee's. The last several times I've asked (hoping for different answers in different locations), I've been told that they could blacken the chicken a little bit to make it more Cajun. Listen to me, people: blackening food does not make it spicier. Nor does it make the food the least bit Cajun. Adding more spice to food makes it spicier. Adding Cajun spices and/or flavorings makes it more Cajun.
Unfortunately, both restaurants have made it to my blacklist. Well, okay, gray list. It's not that the food is bad. It's certainly better than Mimi's Cafe, which has found its way to the deepest, darkest depths of my blacklist. And while I will now find any excuse to avoid Mimi's, even for a free lunch, I don't mind Chile's and Applebee's on occassion. Yet, they're rarely among my choices when I get hungry. Is it because my standards have gone so high that nothing makes me truly happy anymore? Hardly. My guess is that it's because I've been spoiled.
One of my all-time favorite restaurants is the Red Iguana in Salt Lake City. Not only does their food have that kick that I love, the one that actually causes me to perspire, but it's well-planned, well-seasoned and well-cooked. They have a molé line that makes my knees weaken with anticipation. I'm also particularly fond of a restaurant in Sugarhouse, UT called Kyoto. The first time I tasted their tempura, I was in heaven. Their miso is beyond any miso I have ever tried before, and even something so common as chicken teriyaki is so well made, and so different from the norm as to almost be considered a different dish altogether. What's odd about my liking these two restaurants? The fact that a) I don't particularly like Japanese food and b) despite my love of Southwestern fare, I'm also not a really huge fan of Mexican food. And yet, these are my two favorite restaurants in Utah.
These places have focus. Is that what makes them so good? Hardly. They also have quality. Much of my food also has quality. While I have tossed together some pretty awful food, I daresay I've also put together some mighty fine meals on occassion. Some of them were classics, such as fettucine alfredo or chicken chasseur. And some were just casseroles, with store-bought tomato sauce and sausage, seasoned with anything from "Cajun seasoning" to ground cloves. I just like good food. If focus and tradition help you make good food, then all the more power to you.