6/12/2008

06-12-08 - 2

I just finished "The Apprentice" by Jacques Pepin, which was very enjoyable. Alissa doesn't think it's engaging for someone who's not already a Jacques fan. Some things I like about it : Perhaps foremost is just his personality, how sweet and fun loving he is, his joie de vivre, his true love of cooking. But it's more than that. He has a depth of experience and a perspective that is quite unique.

Jacques went through a traditional apprenticeship, which never happens any more. It harkens back to an older time when young boys would go to learn a trade by working for free for a blacksmith, or a cobbler. It gives you a depth of appreciation for the basic techniques, because you had to do them for years. It also produces admirable knife skills and sensitivity (he learned in the days when baking was done in wood burning ovens with no thermometers; to tell if the temperature was right or anything was done required feel and experience, not precise formulas).

When I was growing up "Nouvelle Cuisine" was something that was roundly made fun of. It was a standard joke on sitcoms right next to the toilet seat up and how people of various races drive. In the joke, nouvelle cuisine was a tiny portion of something very simple served on an enourmous white plate. Certainly that ridiculous stereotype did exist and the practitioners went a bit overboard, but it makes us miss how important nouvelle cuisine was. I, like many food lovers, have read the history of the classic recipes from the time of Escoffier and laughed at how ridiculous they seem now. Armies of chefs preparing these elaborate food scenes, and yet all brown, all glace and butter. Thinks like fish stuffed with langoustine and puree of scallops, baked in a salt crust that's carved to look like the fish, and presented with potato puree rolled in truffles and carved to look like heads of coral. It's this bizarre superlative iteration under constraint. Like you're only allowed to use meat and potato and mushrooms and butter, everything has to have a typical gravy like taste, and now spend as much time and money as you want to make it as fancy as possible. This classic style french food doesn't exist any more, all modern high end restaurant food (the generic CIA style we get so much) is a descendant of nouvelle cuisine.

The book actually reminds me of Papillon a lot. Partly it's the style of the way anecdotes are crafty, slight exaggeration, and a kind of bragging that's quite charming. Mainly it's the attitude that every challenge is an opportunity for adventure, and even disasters (Jacques was in a really severe car crash) are something you face so you can get back to fun.

It makes me think of the life I wish I had - hanging out with great chefs, doing food related adventures like gathering mussels or wild mushrooms, trying to do a huge clam bake or cook your own whole cow head to make tete de veau, and having some of your experiments go horribly wrong. What fun, that's an ideal way to live for me.

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