Wednesday
Jan182012

« Who are the real-life iron chefs? »

We've been fortunate enough to meet Yoonseo Lee, a Macrobiotic chef and cooking teacher here in Seoul. She's been an enthusiastic guide to Korean cuisine (specificially vegan cooking) and a few weeks ago she took us to an organic market with only Korean-produced groceries.  We picked-up some important rhizomes like turmeric and lotus, and of course a few other things inclduing rice cakes, brown rice oil (totally incredible), and a grain mix used for making hot drinks.  

Later, at her cooking studio, we began a discussion (still continuing) about food, nutrition, and cooking.  She mentioned Helen Nearing's book 'Simple Food for the Good Life', and we followed-up with it right away.  Yoonseo is a great admirer of the book and I can see why. Nearing's classic is an approach that takes common-sense and practicality as a beginning for aesthetic appreciation of food.  In her book, she discusses the beautiful simplicity of an attitude towards food that couples enjoyment with ease of preparation and quality of ingredients.  

As we sample many new foods here in Korea, we're developing a fondness for the plain baked sweet potato and steamed corn-on-the-cob that are basic street foods commonly found around the metro stations.  As well, jubejube (a date-like berry) tea, hyeonmi cha (roasted rice tea) and even Kimchi, are all simply prepared and delicious.  

This attitude towards cooking, enjoyment, and aesthetic is a far-cry from another source we've been investigating: the cuise of chef Ferran Adria of elBulli restaurant fame.  His work has challenged the traditional and professional cooking world with an approach that blends science and ingredients with a goal of no less than creating an entirely new language of cooking.  His work, and that of his students and collaborators, has produced edible experiences that have been compared to art. According to Vincente Todoli, former curator of London's Tate Modern: "Every time I meet something I did not know existed I say, 'Nice to meet you,' because it extended my idea of what life is about and that is what Ferran is doing ... Art or not art? I don't care but certainly this is an experience that takes me into other realms."

As an philosophical and aesthetic base, Adria refers to Brillat Savarin a 19th century gourmande who wrote perhaps the first book on the philosophy of food and cooking, The Physiology of Taste, Or Transcendental Gastronomy. He has been famously quoted on Iron Chef 'Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are" and on the surface, his words ring true to us.  "Animals fill themselves; man eats. The man of mind alone knows how to eat" "The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they are fed" "Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are".  Of course, on closer inspecition, his book must be taken with a grain of salt (no pun intended) ... in comes as no surprise that the language and attitude is hopelessly tied to dominant political and social discourses that basically promote the domination of all of the flora and fauna by white males.  But all that aside, he's got some good one-liners.  In addition, and more importantly, he paved the way for a discussion about cooking that takes our choice in food and sensory experience of eating seriously. 

We would have to agree with him, at the most basic level, that food and cooking do tell us alot about each other, and that cooking connects to a range of issues that are central to the times we live in.  Further to this, we feel that an ethical and delicious approach can be found in simple street foods, sharing with friends, and ethical sourcing of ingredients.  We want to cook in ways that bring us together with other people to share in creativity while making small but significant changes in the way we live everyday. Show us what you eat, and we'll ask you who you want to be.

Nonetheless, who can deny the fun, camp, and irony of iron-chef food olympics, globular balls of olive oil and meat foam, or even hyper processed potato chips? We're developing an approach that attempts to be consistent and well-thought out, while not getting too hard core.  It's all about connections, creation, and development of small shifts: taste buds, and otherwise.