Wednesday, December 5, 2007
A few years ago I was looking through a cook book by a Japanese chef who was trained in France. I cannot for the life of me remember his name. The book was entirely in Japanese and so I was only able to look at the pictures. And what pictures they were! Every plate was perfect. So simple. So clean. To this day I have held one dish from that book as the most perfect I have ever seen. It was a terrine of yellow peppers with a sauce of yellow peppers and olive oil. There it was, a round white plate with a yellow terrine of many layers of yellow peppers in a yellow aspic laying on top of a yellow sauce. Nothing else, but I still can see it and hope to someday produce a dish that captures the pure simplicity of that one dish. I am sure the fact he was Japanese has something to do with his ability to serve such a simple dish. The Japanese have the most perfect cuisine in the world in terms of their whole approach and philosophy to cooking and eating and I think this spilled over into his own personal approach to food. The artist Hans Hoffman has said, "The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak." The essence of perfect food is the elimination of everything except that which is necessary and the true talent of a chef is judged not by what she adds to the dish but what she leaves out. A chef must know when to stop and restraint is a trait needed if she wants to create the most sublime of food. It is easy to add more and more crap to a dish but it takes talent and courage and self-confidence to serve a yellow pepper terrine with a yellow pepper sauce without finding it necessary to add a garnish of a different color to break up the plate. But where does this simplicity come from? It's not a new idea. Escoffier, over 100 years ago, was concerned about simplicity in food. Fernand Point preached it while commanding the stoves at La Pyramide, and the whole nouvelle cuisine movement took simplicity as a driving theme. Each generation of chefs must redefine what simple food means, but the fact that each generation is concerned about the meaning is telling. Does our desire for simplicity in cuisine come from the fact we live more and more complicated lives? Or is it hard wired into our genes coming from the days when we gathered nuts and berries? I don't know. I do know, however, when I taste a tomato, and it tastes like a tomato, I am happy.