The flame, seasoning, and cutting — the decisive factors of good cooking
What things do you like to focus on in your cuisine?
There are three: the flame, the seasoning, and the cut.
These can further be subdivided into smaller categories. For instance, the flame or cuisson takes traditional techniques like hearth cooking, firewood, frying pan, roasting, grilling, steaming, and modern techniques like sous-vide (vacuum), salt- or sugar-based heat, comfit, and double flames. This is to say using two flames in conjunction, such as steaming followed by grilling, or sous-vide, comfit, and then sous-vide again, then to the hearth, and so on. comfit or preservedThen there is bread and feuilletage. There are perhaps over 1,000 ways of controlling heat and this has to be mastered.
What I don’t like in French cookbooks is the mention “add salt and pepper”, I don’t like the automatism behind it, whatever you cook, “salt and pepper” without a second thought. There is also timing, like with onions or turnips, they can be salted early. Turnips must be drawn of moisture in order to improve the texture and you may garnish them with ginger. Provided you used salt to improve the texture, you are not going to use it again just before cooking. And if you plan on adding ginger there is no need to make the flavor clash against pepper, so it can be obviated. Further, lemon and olive oil might be better suited to raw fish than salt and pepper. Same goes for soups, there are endless variations to how you season and garnish a dish. Consider soy sauce, olives, capers, preserved cucumber, bonito flakes, mustard, shredded chocolate and so on — the possibilities are endless.
The cut is also essential. You must select the cutting method best suited for the flame you use. Is something more delicious cooked whole? If cut how big and at which angle? What if the item is minced small? If it’s cut unevenly? The small pieces are going to cook more than the others. Do you use a machine? Or should you crush it with a knife?
These are the three essentials.
I suppose that plating is not included in these.
Plating can be slightly off but the heat, seasoning, and cut are enough to complete a dish. Balance is important, too, of course.
It’s no good when chefs are too fixated on the appearance of food. While we say that we dine with the eyes that alone is not enough. While something may look good, if it is not cooked or seasoned properly, it’s a wash. If it has a lovely little flower on it but does not taste good, it’s a waste. Even a simple sherbet is no good if it has artificial flavors. No matter how nice to look at, food must first and foremost be good to eat.
Looks aside, if the dish has been properly cooked, seasoned, and cut, it is complete. You do not need looks per se.
People tend to forget that idea of “gourmandice” (the desire to eat delicious food). They get distracted with little accents and decorations and forget about stimulating their appetite and curiosity in pursuit of delicious food, not beautiful. It goes back to wanting to eat a hot meal in winter, or chestnuts in autumn, that sort of thing. Something more primal. Wanting something cooked in a hearth, or roasted, or different from the usual — these kinds of urges. Places like Mexico and Singapore do not have major temperature changes throughout the year, but France has distinct seasons. Enjoying the seasons is one pleasure, and you have the chance to try different seasonal foods.
Last week, we ate oysters in Norway at 8 below zero. Delicious! Then there is butter spread on crunchy toast, smoked fish, warm soup. It is essential to enjoy the seasons and seasonality with producers of these foods.
Take beurre blanc (a traditional sauce of butter mixed with white wine and shallots) — I paired it with soy sauce, rice, sumac and cédrat lemon. I wanted to enjoy seasonal items served warm. People might consider these unusual or“ethnic,” but I’m merely cooking what I want to eat.
What are some things you have been focusing on in your cuisine lately?
I started using a cocotte to boil rice about fifteen days ago. This begins by finding ways of preserving the grains. I am researching the best length of time to soak the rice or let it rest after cooking. I change the steaming time to 1 minute, 1.5 minutes, 2 minutes, and so on, and test the results.
I have already been working at this for fifteen days in order to find the best boiling threshold. It’s difficult to find that golden point. Then in terms of classic techniques like beurre blanc, I am enjoying combining soy sauce and seaweeds. We have a producer who makes delicious seaweeds, the samphire (or sea fennel) and I like using it to add flavor.
When I first started the Astrance, I also spent time studying condiments. We only had two of us in the kitchen, so we didn’t have the manpower to make juices and sauces. You need a larger team to make those to a good quality. However, with pickles, tsukemono, mustard, comfit, jam, cranberries, curries, onions and other preparations, you can use condiments to serve a consistent flavor to twenty-four patrons.
Considering not cost, but the quality of ingredients. Remembering each and every producer while cooking
What is your professional philosophy?
Churchill said, “My tastes are simple: I am easily satisfied with the best.” I am the same way. I love anything so long as it is delicious. That is my one principle. I have no interest in that which is not delicious.
This, as it turns out, is actually a capacious category. You have mackerel, onions, shallots, a mandarin, a soy sauce, rice, parsley… any kind of food can be delicious when it’s good. I dislike the whole distinction between “noble” and cheap ingredients.
Caviar is not delicious because it’s “caviar.” There are plenty of disgusting caviars. They might be too salty or too fatty. Truffles, too, might not be properly matured, be out of season, and so on. Foie gras can be unpleasant. Therefore, I don’t like the concept of focusing on “expensive” ingredients.
It’s a grave mistake to believe you can make delicious food provided you have expensive ingredients. There are chefs unable to turn luxury ingredients into delicious food. Some people might be given truffles but be unable to make them into something edible or mix it with flowers, who knows?
Cooking is cerebral work. You must ask yourself, “Why do I want this luxury ingredient?” “Is it worth buying an item that is 500 or 1000 euros per kilo? How do I plan to use it?” “Is this product truly great quality? Can the producer be trusted? Have I compared it to other products like it?” Just because a turbot is 12 kilos does not make it necessarily something special. It is key to understand ingredients and not be swayed by the price.
Furthermore, one must never waste ingredients. Discarding unused items would be unthinkable. You must remember the people behind those products. People stayed up all night fishing, exposing themselves to danger above the seas. Fishing is a truly dangerous profession. Can you imagine what it is like to operate a boat amidst a stormy sea?
Parsley production is also no joke. People working on farms, in butcher shops, bakers getting up at 3AM — this is all tough work. So my next philosophy is “waste not, want not.” You have to think about people behind it, about the farmer who grows the parsley, the butcher the baker that wakes up at 3 am, the fisherman that risks is life and use the ingredients carefully without any waste.
Lastly, young cooks must be taught these things. Over the sixteen years of Astrance, we had many cooks and twenty-four young chefs went out into the world and opened their own restaurants. These include Shuzo Kishida, André Chiang, and others around the world. It is key to convey to young up-and-comers these important tenets.
With producers of quality ingredients, a staff giving quality service, and quality clients, the chef merely prepares the food
What should restaurants keep in mind?
Creating a place in which everyone can spend an enjoyable time. Restaurants are not merely the haunt of chefs — they aren’t laboratories. When I go out to eat, I don’t pick places based on who is the chef. To be honest, that is irrelevant to me. I want to eat something delicious, I want to have a pleasant interaction at the front desk, and I want good service. I also want good wine on the menu. If we get back to basics, the whole point of a restaurant is to entertain guests, to give them a good time.
This entails various steps. Before that food arrives at the table, there are people picking herbs, making soy sauce, collecting milk, butchering meat, making bread, and so on. We buy it, prepare it, and then the servers serve it to the client.
This is one unbroken line. Each person in the chain has their responsibility to uphold. The chef is no superior to the rest. With producers of quality ingredients, a staff giving quality service, and quality patrons, the chef merely prepares the food.
Therefore, it is important to consider everyone in this equation. Sommeliers consider wine pairings and entertain clients. In this way, hospitality brings a joy to diners. And clients come with this expectation. You must remember to pay your respect to everyone in this chain. So, working directly with fishmongers, butchers, farmers growing vegetables, and so on lets you build these relationships.