Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Cook Like A Kid (As Published in ONE Magazine)

Good god...being a chef can be boring at times... It’s not the hours or the getting changed 8 times a day or even the laborious meetings with officious officials from the FSA. (Damn killjoys banned unpasteurised foodstuffs and are proceeding to bring down the culinary elite by forcing us to microwave and to cook things “well done” the bastards...).
It’s the customers.  Please don’t misunderstand me: without you, no business will ever survive — disintegrating like napkins shoved into a half-filled glass of Pinot Grigio or collapse like a badly executed soufflé au chocolat.

Let’s try a little experiment. Please be calm and relaxed, and fucking pay attention to what I’m writing or else I’m bringing back the salmon:
I would like you to regress back to a time you rememeber, as a child or teenager or young adult. Think clearly, be as precise as possible ... think about a moment in your culinary history where you tasted a food for the first time.  We have three levels of this experience when it comes to our taste buds, let’s explore...
The first thing you’re likely to remember is texture, that’s number one. Then comes the explosive flavours of your chosen food, and finally the third, after-taste — how the first two culminated in your mouth and then left it with many  feelings and emotions — a final thought, a single solitary word or expression.

At that moment, you became liberated and your taste buds had been released from a shell of conformity and constraint.  From my experience, these feelings or emotions are lost nowadays on the general public. We conform to the everyday, and the mundane. We watch “Celebrity” Chefs and their predilection for the over-complicated and bizarre. We may even strive to recreate and copy their artistic endeavours, yet we can, and usually will, fall short. It’s time to return to basics.
My journey into cooking began when I was three years old. There I was, peeling the devils’ excrement in my grandmothers kitchen: Brussels Sprouts. I hated that vegetable, I still do. Yet there is something that warms me about that task.  Even tasting them, despite my gag reflex. Stripping the root, gently peeling the earthen leaves and finally beholding it’s fine colouring and glistening surface. Whoever decided to make them smell like the white, sweat-soaked sports socks of a hundred-metre hurdle winner beggars belief. Yet, now doing what I do, I bung in some chestnuts, a hint of white wine, some nutmeg, and even I will scoff the lot.

The love of food starts when we are very young. Nowadays, we begin with mass-produced organic baby food, mashed up and enhanced in glass jars with bright colours and funny looking mammals on the labels. We need something to inspire the younger generation to eat sweet potatos and beef cooked in red wine sauces.
In honour of the recently passed restauranteur and highly respected food critic Egon Ronay, why don’t we start our 21st century children with what we actually had as kids — earthworms, and fur from the next-door neighbours dog.  This is how we began our culinary journey, by eating things we shouldn’t. We learned for ourselves, until we were force-fed broad beans, broccoli and rice pudding.

But our journey doesn’t stop there. We move on. Our tastes evolve through our teenage years of kebabs, takeaway pizzas, koftes, and cheesey chips smothered in gravy after a night on the lash with friends and colleagues. My personal favourite was a kebab house in Troon, Ayrshire; donor meat dressed with lashings of a triple mix of cheddars, chips finished with bisto gravy and a drizzle of extra hot chilli sauce.  Yeah, it was down right disgusting but the flavours exuded strength and robustness, the smell permeated into my clothing as I munched down happily and content with a drunken sense of exquisite euphoria.  Yet at work with my chef’s hat on, I would prepare a delectable dish of filet mignon avec sauce béarnaise, pommes chateau et legumes and have the same experience, flavours and textures would produce similar feelings and emotions.

Too bad, that in recent years many of us have become accustomed to the run of the mill, every day foods. Lasagne, gammon and chips with English mustard and garden peas, well done topside of beef, horseradish and Yorkshire pudding. Well I haven’t! I experiment everyday.  My colleagues do the same.  We experiment and work on new ways to create flavours and textures in an endless search for our way back to the time in our childhood that we discovered food. We are Chefs afterall, nothing will ever take that away from us.  We were destined to do what we do and our quest is to demonstrate to the general public that food is fun and should be experimental.

But best of all, it’s there, inside each and every one that cooks — be it a steak and ale pie or a lobster thermidor, those culinary experiences are there to be had, treasured and shared. I beg of you dear readers, remember to experiment, liberate your taste buds and let them run free, for too many of us bow down to the status quo.

And on that note I will leave you with this thought. I am now off to warm the kettle and wolf down a sweet and spicy pot noodle — why?  Because it warms me with its flavours, texture and above all its history! Club de Mar, 24 hour Spar and a pack of Empire biscuits for breakfast. God Bless Nostalgia and God bless our enlivened taste buds.