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Chefs Weigh In on What's Become of Classic Culinary Techniques and Traditions

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Welcome to Hot Topics, in which chefs chime in on an issue in food.

[Art: Eric Lebofsky]

The Culinary Institute of America recently announced that it would be giving its Escoffier Room restaurant a serious renovation. Adam Tihany will design this new incarnation, which will be a sleek brasserie called The Bocuse Room. With the name change and renovation will come a readjustment of the restaurant's kitchen that moves away from the Escoffier system, reflecting instead Paul Bocuse's contributions to cooking and, more generally, the evolution of gastronomy.

Most would agree that the revamp is long overdue. But a New York Times article about the news did show that it got people thinking about Escoffier, old techniques, and whether or not the world of cooking has abandoned certain fundamental traditions relevant to any era. Is it possible to pinpoint certain techniques that cooks no longer focus on but should, or have we seen a logical evolution that preserves those foundations while incorporating new ideas and reflecting changing times? We asked five chefs from across the country to weigh in.

Here, now, Jonathan Benno (Lincoln Ristorante, New York), Daniel Patterson (Coi, San Francisco), Barbara Lynch (Menton, Boston), Chris Hastings (Hot and Hot Fish Club, Birmingham), and Ed Brown (Ed's Chowder House, New York) take on the question.


Jonathan Benno

Restaurant: Lincoln Ristorante — New York, NY

You were already quoted in the New York Times piece, but I wanted you to elaborate.
We don't use rouxs or a lot of the classic sauces anymore. Are we better off or are we worse off? I'll use my kitchen as an example: if I went to the cooks in my kitchen and asked them to make a consommé or classic velouté or hollandaise-based sauce, could any of them do it? Most of these are culinary school graduates, whether it's Johnson & Wales or FCI or another school.

But what's the answer to that question?
I'm sad to say that a lot of them probably couldn't without being shown how. That's kind of sad. It's not just because the CIA is reinventing the Escoffier Room.

Oh, of course not. Just using the news as an opportunity to talk about a bigger issue.
Right. But it's a sign that we're maybe losing touch with technique, which is concerning.

Nostalgia doesn't seem to play into this for you. It's more that you think you'd have better cooks if things were a bit different, if I'm getting you right.
Certainly. I think we would have better cooks if we could slow things down and reinforce those ideas. Cooks don't spend ten years working around great restaurants any longer. That whole notion of apprenticeship — I'll start with my generation and certainly speak in the first person: I worked for Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud and Tom Colicchio. I worked a long time as a cook before I got a sous chef job and then a chef de cuisine job. Now I'm an executive chef. That took a long time. I don't believe that too many people do that anymore.


Daniel Patterson

Restaurant: Coi, San Francisco

Do you think that there has been a loss or abandonment of certain old traditions in cooking or that generally there has been a healthy evolution?
I'm not sure I understand the perspective of that question. Food, at the most basic level, is about people. We may do things or think about things differently now than we did 1000 years ago, but there is a thread of continuity that runs through everything, and that applies to all sorts of disciplines. It's like saying, "Now classical music has gone away." It's not true. It has become subsumed into new forms, or is played to smaller audiences. It's the same with all types of art. It's not dead. It's just morphed into something else.

It's a long, long continuum; we're at one point on it, Escoffier was at another. Escoffier's work has been maintained, to a greater or lesser extent, in succeeding generations. How his exact dishes and techniques mutated is what everyone is focusing on, but it's not so black and white. I don't think you leave something behind entirely and then move on to a new era. It's a lot more grey. We're still making things now that Escoffier would recognize, like animal bones being simmered with water and then reduced.

What exactly are people fearing might be lost?

Techniques, traditions — everything from recipes to things like the old-school table side service...
There's table side service at Noma, French Laundry, Per Se, even at my restaurant, which is hardly classical. Tradition still matters to many cooks. The passion for haute cuisine is just as strong in those kitchens as it was in Escoffier's time. But our ideas about the forms of expression have changed. For example, the trend towards lighter, cleaner, more direct flavors.

And how would you react to the quote — I think it was from Anthony Bourdain — that he "would hate to see a world where Escoffier food isn't served without irony"?
I think everyone should express what they want to express. If a chef finds that the cooking of Escoffier has meaning to them, then they should cook like that. If they are cooking from their heart, then their customers will understand the food as a genuine expression, without irony.

It's kind of like saying, "It's really a bummer that no one uses a horse and buggy anymore." If you wanted to, you could, but other things have come along since then. It's not an exact parallel, but you know what I mean. I don't think anyone is out there saying, "Don't do it." I think the problem is that there aren't any chefs saying, "I really want to create a restaurant where I can cook the food of Escoffier." If they did, it could still have life. Why not?

Any last words?
There's this charity dinner in San Francisco with all the four-star chefs in the area. I had a quick look at the menu, and Roland Passot of La Folie is doing a dish called "Faberge Egg Peach Melba." These things haven't gone away. Peach and raspberry are still with us, but maybe the peach is now aerated, who knows? It speaks to the trueness of what Escoffier did, that the touchstone remains, but we're just looking at it with different eyes. Culture is not lithic. It changes, and cuisine changes along with it.


Barbara Lynch

Restaurant: Several restaurants in Boston, MA

How do you look at this?
It's a very healthy evolution, I think. There are two chefs you can be: very structured and obsessed with time management, or seasonal and creative. Over time it has shifted to the latter.

It's not all gone, but we aren't filleting Dover sole or Caesar salad at the table. I fell in love with that when I got into cooking, but I couldn't and wouldn't want to do a lot of that today at Menton. We're trying to be more modern than that, but we still have an appreciation for the old.

Do you fear it will ever go away or is that a silly thing to consider?
No. It won't ever go away, and things always come back. It's important history and it's always going to be there.


Chris Hastings

Restaurant: Hot and Hot Fish Club — Birmingham, AL

How would you react to someone arguing that in some ways certain foundational traditions have been left behind?
The traditional, Escoffier way of cooking has evolved so much over time. So many things are different about the way cooks think and do their job. A lot of it, I think, is motivated by concerns for health and making food that's not as rich and heavy. People aren't trying to do those big, heavy reductions anymore. It's a very positive thing.

Technique-driven food, as long as it doesn't get too crazy, is great. The surge in molecular gastronomy has been positive in that it's gotten everyone thinking about improving the way we cook.

So it's been a logical, healthy evolution?
I think that now there's less of an interest in flash and more of an interest in using that knowledge in a more measured way.

Escoffier was the first to put proper technique to paper, basically, and that should not go away. We can't completely embrace modernist cooking without having those at the foundation. We need to know how to properly roast a chicken.

Do you see a nice balance at the moment?
I think that we're swinging back towards the middle. I do believe that there was a point when the pendulum swung in a way where Escoffier and Larousse were being supplanted by laboratory techniques. Now we're seeing a nice balance and blend between the two, never looking sight of the value of the good old-fashioned technique. It's exciting. We should never lose sight of that.


Ed Brown

Restaurant: Rittenhouse Tavern — Philadelphia, PA

What's your take on the matter?
Times are changing, and that's a good thing. Except from scientific cooking, all cooking uses all the basic principles that go back to Escoffier. I don't think we should worry about the loss of techniques. You can be a little nostalgic, but times do change without leaving behind the basic techniques and old traditions.

In fact, I've seen a resurgence in the discipline and technique of cooking in the young generations.

Can you give some examples you find compelling?
For example, I recently opened a new places in Philly, the Rittenhouse Tavern. It's a young chef and a young crew, but those guys are working very much in that classic, Escoffier way. They are working in the classic brigade system but incorporating new styles and tools. None of those guys is over thirty years old. That system hasn't gone away and I don't think it's going to go away.

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