A few months ago, I had a great idea. I’d just recently found a great challah recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, and I had the thought, “You know, challah isn’t the same as brioche, but it’s close. Cinnamon rolls are made out of brioche… so what if I made challah out of 6 braided strands of cinnamon roll?
The bread came out interestingly layered and noticeably over-worked, but good. The next step was seeing how the bread would do as cinnamon French toast. When asked how I came up with it, I gave a joking answer of “I like cinnamon toast; if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”
It’s a reductivist joke, and one that too many operations are taking literally. If you’re creating a dish, and you want it all to highlight and enhance a particular flavor, that requires fitness to do well.
If you’re going to go overboard, you’d better be able to swan dive.
It’s a Dinner, Not a Dare
It took me a while to realize that good recipes don’t necessarily come from trying to beat the diner into submission. They rarely come from a goal of “let’s make this the strongest/spiciest/most chocolately/most hoppy/ funkiest dish ever.” It doesn’t come from anything that would wind up in a episode of Backyard Scientist or Epic Meal Time. That’s not a concept- that’s a dare.
I’ve had a few culinary screw-ups trying to follow that philosophy, including “the spiciest Mexican chocolate cookies ever-” dosed with pure capsaicin that sent my roommate screaming from the kitchen. My attempts to make “the darkest chocolate ganache ever”- using 100% cacao, a.k.a baking chocolate- resulted in being so bitter my long-suffering roommate proceed to chug a gallon of milk, desperate to wash the acrid and tannic dryness from his mouth.
When your eagerness to see just how far your can push a given flavor and or experience overrules the cardinal rule of cooking, it doesn’t even matter if it still succeeds at being food:
“In matters of cookery, there are not a number of principles; there is only one and that is to satisfy the person you are serving.”Marie Antonin-Careme
Not Quite A Review
A few months ago, a new ramen shop opened near my home in Portland, Oregon. I was debating writing a review of their food on here, but have since decided not to bother for reasons I’ll make clear in a moment. I passed it a few times on my regular walks, and finally decided to ask a couple dining outside what they thought of the food. One expressed that it was his favorite tonkatsu that he’d ever tried in the city- high praise when one lives in a city as rife with ramen shops as Portland, each with its own speciality and shtick.
The praise alone merited a closer look at the menu which was, for the most part, expected and reasonable. The part that stuck out was the pairing of each bowl with a small cup of its own house-made condiment. Then, I noticed another menu to the side labeled “Spice Lover’s Menu” that boasted habañeros, ghost peppers, Carolina Reaper sauces, and other painfully hot offerings. I decided to take the advice of the guy outside and settle in for this “best in the city” tonkatsu ramen.
Despite the color and textures of the usually flavorful additions of soft egg, pickled shiitake mushrooms, pork belly, and nori, the bowl of ramen felt like eating nothing. It was a piece of plain white paper, washed i down with a glass of room-temperature water- not terrible, not great, just… nothing. The “sesame burnt garlic” condiment provided only a slightly acrid flavor of ash.
On leaving, I reflected that while the tonkatsu was the most popular offering, the first item on the menu was a spicy chorizo ramen made with poached egg, daikon, a dan-dan inspired broth, and a “chili crisp” topping. Tonkatsu may be the most popular, but this was clearly their flagship product if the separate “Spicy” menu had anything to do with it.
A few weeks later, craving ramen and feeling lazy, I brought a bowl of the chorizo ramen home. The broth was a fiery orange-red in its steaming plastic container, the noodles and additions piled artistically in a separate bowl. A small sauce cup containing the ocre “chili crisp” emerged from the bag last.
I ate half the bowl, and threw the rest away. Another bowl of nothing, but this time covered by so much flavorless heat that I doubted I could taste anything, even if there was something there to taste. For all the spicy sausage, chilis and pepper, I may have enjoyed pouring Tabasco over some pasta more. That wouldn’t cost $15 at least.
If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Overdoing WELL.
I’m no stranger to wild concepts, and I admit to loving a good gimmick. When I had my baking business, I came up with pastries inspired by my favorite books and dreamed up a collection of cupcakes inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins. My logo is a top hat, and my sign off is “Stay Classy.” I love it enough to appreciate when gimmick is done well, and recognize when it’s done to cover up a lack of quality or talent.
Having a wild idea for “turning food on its head,” trying something new, and “blowing their minds” is great. I’d go so far as to call it necessary- audacity in introduction and ingenuity in challenging staid old concepts is vital to the progress of all fields, not just cooking. Not when it’s done on a dare, though.
Definitely not when the food people are paying for can better be described as a fad at best and a practical joke at worst.
Not when “audacity” comes without an appreciation of what came before, and the desire to make a splash rather than a change. Not when a bowl of ramen can be described as “all flash, no substance.”