Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Simplicity vs. Fuss, or Big Cat vs. Catherine Deneuve

I just got back from a great lunch over at Sun Wah with the Big Cat, a friend and excellent chef here in Chicago. Over Crispy Pork and Chinese Broccoli with Chiles we talked about the importance of simple food, and perhaps more significantly, accessible food. Seems like at the same time that everyone is so hyped up about molecular gastronomy (a term coined in part by the great Harold McGee, who now laments its use as a marketing term a la Dr. Frankenstein), we are also so interested in the old-fashioned, simple foods, such as charcuterie and cheese and beer and roasts and actual vegetables. Which is a great thing.

I just watched an exceptional episode of No Reservations where Bourdain makes his rounds in Brittany on the northwest coast of France, making a similar observation, most notably in the case of the fascinating and inspiring chef Olivier Roellinger, who returned his 3 Michelin stars to pursue something that mattered more to him: "a more fluid, accessible and natural experience." Aside from his ascent into becoming one of France's great chefs despite a really rough start (he was beaten, nearly to death, by a gang of several people when he was 21, was in a coma for a bit, then a wheelchair for 2 years, and only then got into the food business), which is amazing on its own, Roellinger's story sparks interest because he is a chef at the top of his game, and he chooses to step away from the stuffy environs of perfection, white linens, and plating things with tweezers, and move into a neighborhood of dirt, pigs, charcuterie from said pigs, bakeries and pastry shops, spice merchants, and above all else, an inn with gorgeous yet approachable food. Which begs the question: is something more beautiful because it is inaccessible (think Catherine Deneuve), or does beauty come from the every day realness of something (a wooden table, the sea). I suppose it's far too complex to answer that easily, but I suppose at this point, I would take a lovely plate of Roellinger's well-crafted charcuterie with the Big Cat over a fleeting chance to wash Catherine Deneuve's car given the choice.


At any rate, the point here is that the inherent quality in something simply but lovingly crafted is always pleasurable. Last week, me and mine got hold of some very simple ingredients, and made a really great meal together--the kind of meal that, when created together, and the cooking is actually part of the event of the thing, is greater than the sum of its parts.
We found a beautiful striped bass and some mussels; sweet little parsnips and lovely treviso radicchio, potatoes and brussels sprouts. At home, I had a rich duck stock in the freezer from meals past, and some of that great ham from Tennessee that my Bounty paper towel friend brought me.
We cleaned the fish, and tossed its collar with some soy sauce, cane vinegar, sesame oil, fish sauce and chiles, then blasted it in the oven and served the hugely flavorful result over rice.
This was followed by mussels steamed in duck stock with that salty ham, leeks and celery sautéed in butter, and some crusty bread.
And to finish, puréed parsnips and potatoes with charred Brussels sprouts, a salad of the bitter treviso radicchio with apples, and an extremely crispy-skinned bass with an herb vinaigrette. None of this food is way out there, and none of it ranks high on the difficulty/creative list. But we found beautiful product, cared about it and each other, and had an outstanding evening preparing and eating it. We'd be in the $100 range in a restaurant for something that cost us $15-$20 to buy, but that's not the point. The value inherent in simple, well-crafted food and the pleasure in cooking and enjoying it is its own reward.