An interesting article made its way into my feed reader this morning. Michael Ruhlman was discussing responses to a recent article in the New York Times about recipe "dealbreakers".
The article focused on the things that we see in recipes that make us want to skip them and move onto the next step. The underlying theme of the article seemed to be, "what will a recipe say to you that will make you think it's too hard to try?" As I thought about it, I realized that I had some personal recipe dealbreakers too. As you might have guessed, I read a lot of recipes, mostly found in a variety of Google searches. What kinds of characteristics make me move on?
If a recipe calls for any brand name product, I am unlikely to consider it. If a recipe is poorly written, I will generally move on. If a recipe calls for "margarine or butter", I know that if I actually decide to make the recipe, it will indeed use butter. If a recipe oversimplifies steps that should not be oversimplified, I am unlikely to take it seriously. If a recipe reeks of inexperience (as most online recipes do), I will scoff at it and move on.
There are some recipes that I may spend hours analyzing, even though I know I will probaby never make it, at least the way that was intended. This often is because I respect the chef, or am interested in the technique, and want to understand it further. When a recipe calls for a difficult or expensive piece of equipment, I start wondering how unhappy my wife would be at me if I were to actually purchase or, in some cases, build it. In short, I don't like easy recipes. I like good recipes.
The author of the article refers to Chef Thomas Keller as the "modern king of fussy recipes", whereas Rhulman refers to him as the "master technician". In this case I will refer to Rhulman as "a man who knows what he's talking about" and the NYT writer as "a wimp, unsuited for spending any amount of time in the kitchen". In fact, as I read the anecdotes in this article, one word kept popping into my head to describe each of the cooks mentioned: "wuss".
Is this because I'm sort of elitist, perched atop my pedastal, waiting for the right moment to slander any cook who would dare show less experience than me? Okay, so maybe I'm a little bit elitist. My wife occassionally uses the word "snobbish". In my opinion, I'm a man who likes things done The Right Way. Actually, there are a lot of right ways to do a lot of things. As a Perl programmer, I often repeat the acronym "TMTOWTDI" (pronounced Tim Toady, meaning "There's More Than One Way To Do It"). Indeed, there often is. And what the right way is depends entirely on the situation.
In my class this week, and in fact in most of my classes, we discuss a serious danger that our users often put us in. Linux and Unix guys will know what I mean when I talk about users using "chmod 777" to share a file with others. For the rest of you, this means the file is accessable to the world in every way that a file can be. Anyone that can find it is able to add potentially malicious code to it and then run it, causing untold amounts of hard to the user, system, network, or worse. Why do users do this to us? Because it's the easy way to share files. Even if they know The Right Way, they still want to do things The Easy Way because that's the way they know how to do it. They can't be bothered with understanding why it's so dangerous. Some may even see it as "a bad habit that they'll fix when they have time".
We spent a decent amount of time talking about various right ways to share files, and I even polled my students on their favorites. We discussed various pros and cons of each one, and I ultimately advised my students to consider in each situation which was really the right method to use. After a full lecture that focused on three file sharing methods (FTP, NFS and SMB), I asked my students what they would prefer to use. I then told them that in most situations, I would rather use scp or SFTP, methods which were not covered in the lecture, but which they all were familiar with, and I could see a light turn on in their heads. They agreed that in most situations, that's what they would use too.
In the cooking world, there are various ways to do things that we don't even think about. The NYT article discussed one person who "won't truss" and "won't lard". How many people reading this post even know what trussing or larding means? Let's see, there are a couple of hands up in the corner... yes, Jayce^, I see you. You can sit down. The rest of you? If you want to learn a couple of techniques that will improve your cooking knowledge tremendously, look into trussing and larding. If they are too hard, move on and find something else. But don't knock the rest of us that know how to do it, and know why to do it.
I play with a lot of weird techniques. I'm sure plenty of people see me as weird and eccentric. Well, they do anyway, but I'm specifically referring to these techniques. I'm encouraged by the work of other chefs, real chefs, the pioneers that spend their free time experimenting with ingredients and techniques that are not common. Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller, Wylie Dufresne, Paul Bocuse, the list goes on. These are the avant garde who have brought and who will bring new techniques to help us reanalyze and redefine our cooking methodologies. I'm not saying I will ever be on a list with them. They have something that is in short supply on my resume: restaurant experience. But that won't stop me from trying.
The common thread between each of these pioneers is that they know and have mastered the basics. Without a solid foundation, they know that their work in the kitchen is nothing. Even the recent Pixar film Ratattouie tells us, "anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great". To the NYT writer, you can pretend all you want, but I think you know that until you do what it takes, you will only be a shell of what you seem to pretend to be. For you, I recommend the apple pie at McDonalds. That is the level that you apparently aspire to.