One of my favorite things about Chicago is the array of dining options. I love going out and seeing what the chefs of this great city are doing with food. It is exciting to see the creativity that these individuals possess when it comes to new ways of viewing ingredients and recipes that have been around for generations. But every now and then I have to wonder: has creativity gone too far?
A friend of mine brought this to my attention the other day when presented with a seasonal beer list, which included pumpkin beer (of course). We started discussing how far things have come from the original. My friend (who is not in the food industry) was adamant that they had come too far, and that the classics were being lost. “Coffee should taste like coffee, beer should taste like beer and creme brulee should taste like creme brulee” (exact quote). This made me think about all the menus that I had looked at over the last several months, and I realized that indeed you rarely see classic dishes any more that have not been tampered with or tweaked in some way. Or if you do, the restaurant is often seen as outdated or the chef is considered uncreative.
Fundamentally I realize that the only way to push the envelope with food is to start with a base and then change it. This is why you will find even ethnic cuisine chefs have been classically French trained. There is a culinary foundation that you must possess in order to be successful in a kitchen brigade, and the French have perfected that training. Then why is it that if someone can execute a classic dish to perfection, without some new different twist, that many find it… boring?
That night my friend and I ordered profiteroles from the dessert menu, as we tried to stay with the classic theme. And they were beautiful and perfect and delicious: pâte à choux, chocolate sauce, vanilla ice cream. Period.
A few weeks later, I went to dinner with another friend and I ordered a plain creme brulee out of sheer curiosity. I forgot how much I liked plain creme brule until I ate this one.
I then went out with another friend and ordered a simple roasted pork dish. Nothing fancy. Just meat roasted to perfection with no bells and whistles. I had not been that happy with an entree in some time.
This got me to thinking about my travels. I have many fond memories of elaborate, two and three Michelin Star dinners or “fancy” restaurants. I am actually a large proponent of molecular gastronomy because, quite frankly, it’s just… cool. But then I start to remember other meals: the simple barbecued meat sold by the pound, served on layers of brown paper with white bread or crackers and no utensils in Lockhart, Texas. The unadulterated tuna nigiri on the California coast. The creamy clam chowder in Boston. The perfect, fresh oysters in Brittany. The best Boeuf Bourguignon I’ve ever had in Dijon, or the simple escargot in garlic butter there.
I realize that I often remember the classics that many see as outdated as well as the new and inventive. So, while I’m not saying that we should not reinvent dishes as chefs (where would the food industry be without a little reinvention of the wheel?), I’m simply saying that sometimes the creme brulee should simply taste like creme brulee.
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