The chef anthropologist
I have a confession to make. I am internally conflicted. Not a conflict of character or some moral dilemma, although there are aspects of that to my confliction. My conflict resides in an obsessive fascination with molecular gastronomy, while simultaneously disdaining it.
I read articles and watch videos about Grant Achatz and Ferran Adria in excess, and I am always seeking to try restaurants that are pushing the envelope and offering unique taster menus that I can try. Yet, there is a fundamental issue I have with most of the basic tenets of this kind of culinary artistry, particularly as it pertains to what I do and how I have defined myself as a chef.
Much of my interest and education in cooking has revolved around being true to culture. Finding spices, ingredients and techniques that somehow represent a group of people and bringing them to my little corner of the world. Food as education. Food as cultural exchange. Generally this food tends to be more rustic, simplistic, yet elegant and always focused upon the ingredients being utilized. I have sought out farmers whom I have built a relationship with to provide me with the fresh ingredients that are the basis of my cuisine. Meat, eggs, vegetables, spices, all the necessary components of my culinary artist’s palate, so to speak.
I also have cultivated a theory of food that is very much centered on taking chemicals and processing out of the equation — eliminating unnecessary ingredients that may pose a health risk or simply adulterate the natural quality of the food I am creating. I go out of my way to spend quite a bit of money on these ingredients, using organically grown, sustainable products where I can.
Yet, the use of various chemicals in the culinary laboratory that has been the foundation of molecular gastronomy intrigues me. The ability to morph a food into something it is not, yet maintaining the essence of flavor of that ingredient so as to create a transformative experience for a diner, is something beyond cooking. It is part mad scientist, part modern artist. The dancer in me, the artist in me, craves that kind of freedom. The academic in me pulls me in the other direction, telling me to maintain the dignity of the ingredients, the history, the culture.
Where then do I fit in as part artist, part academic? I did not come to cooking from a traditional background. I came to it from a history of both artist and student. First a dancer, then an anthropologist interested in culinary anthropology. Food for me represented the transition between the two and an opportunity to fuse both my loves. As I have evolved, I think much of my cooking has gone beyond the cerebral and is now returning to the more intuitive, but there remains an evolution between the two that still eludes me.
Perhaps that is what constantly pushes me to create new recipes and do new things. This constant conflict I feel. As others inspire me, as new ingredients come my way, I am attempting to make sense of my conflict and trying to formulate a new normal for myself. I guess with that being said ... then I have come to what my true New Year’s Resolution is, albeit a month late. Find the resolution to the conflict. Create the amalgamation between the cerebral and the intuitive, between academic and artist. Stop beating yourself up for wanting to try new techniques that may involve adding chemicals to your food. Don’t allow yourself to be pigeon-holed by some unattainable and unsustainable ideology.
I am a chef. I am an anthropologist. I can be both, and that doesn’t mean compromising my ideals or my “culinary morals.” I guess it is like discovering a new faith. Somewhere underneath it all exists a kind of culinary spirituality, but my culinary truth cannot follow a specific dogma or church of worship. I have to find the faith within my own self and manifest it within my own personal expression.
Monika Sudakov is the chef and innkeeper at the Chestnut Street Inn in Sheffield. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.