Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Lost In Translation

I think this is the second time I’ve tried to write this post but I may have fallen asleep due to jetlag the first time.  Since Japan, a lot of friends have asked me about what I thought about the food and how different it was compared to Japanese cuisine in the US.  The first thing I’d clearly like to say is that since my ramen tour, the idea of a eating my first bowl back in the US has been met with tepid enthusiasm at best.  It is honestly a matter of Paradise Lost, but it is inevitable and I do believe honestly that I can still enjoy it because the spirit and comfort of ramen exists whether it’s Tomita (#1 in the world) of Japan or a stove top bag of instant Nissin.

Aside from waxing poetic about ramen, I’ve also told friends that I’ve finally clarity on the disjointed representation of Japanese cuisine in the US.  Simply put, I’m not so sure that there are too many popular and established cuisines that are quite so misrepresented as Japanese cuisine is.  The gap between here and there is astonishingly distant. 

It’s not an issue of technique and it’s not an issue of divergent styles.  The intention and structure of the restaurants and menus are not that different.  First and foremost, it is a matter of resources.  So much of the food in Japan is in sync with the resources and options made (easily) available that, to me, it seems that they work here without the same abundance of those conveniences (or necessities).  While you can cook with the same menu and recipes, things drastically get lost in translation when the quality of your ingredients are not met with the same access or governing cultural philosophies.             

The other big component lacking in the cooking here is enthusiasm and expectation.  Yes, there is enthusiasm for sushi and noodles here, but without a native identity, the interest is relegated to being niche at best.  Again, take ramen as an example: the Japanese approach their ramen and noodles with about 100 times more fervor than we approach pizza or burgers.  They consider and treat great ramen as an elevated art form and a passion – critiquing every element with a detailed perspective.  There is no food here that we have ever held in that regard and I’m sure (nothing beyond a warm adoration for pizza) has ever generated that excitement.  And in that vein, such excitement constantly generates an atmosphere of growth, ambition, experimentation and achievement.  What incentive does an Ippudo have to rank above mediocre in Japanese standards (cumulative ramendb score of 52) when they are constantly crowned as one of the best in the US?

I understand that we might be too big of a country with too many identities to ever reach the momentum of establishing such a culture, but if anything, I have seen how a tool with similarities to yelp (GULP) can become such a powerful asset for improving food.  Of course, our yelp is still an education degree or two behind coherent and appropriate criticism.          

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Another Year, Another List

I’m not the biggest fan of “Best” or “Top” lists.  While I understand the excitement and public interest that these lists generate, I simply can’t rationalize the generalized yearning for constant gratification based on a judging system for a subject that cannot be tangibly judged.  It’s not lost on me that competition, awards and recognition are all good things to have, but I’m not so sure they are core measures for the art or spirit of cooking. 

First, let me put a disclaimer out there: basic human vanity and ambition is not lost on me.  I will never say no to being awarded for my work and I will never work without a goal in sight.  And, while I often argue the legitimacy and bias of these lists, I’m not immune to their impact or their value in the restaurant industry.  They are important and they are necessary.

If you haven’t seen or heard it over the last 24 hours, Danish restaurant Noma has been crowned the #1 restaurant in San Pellegrino’s 2010 Top 50 Restaurants in the World – a hefty honor that Spanish restaurant El Bulli had seemingly handcuffed the last 4-5 years.  To be honest, I’ve always been dazzled by the promise and meaning of being on that list.  It is not only a dream, it is a definitive pinnacle of culinary success and for many, it is enough reason to die happy.

While I can certainly defend the importance and existence of such a list, I’m not sure I can defend its credentials, unintentional bias or ripple effect on a evolving industry.  The list is unbelievably biased to Western fine dining in a time when fine dining is becoming less approachable and more difficult to maintain.  I’m sure the 50 (or 100) or so restaurants on that list have no trouble drumming up business, but doesn’t it seem misleading to put out a giant list that sends such the message: “non-tasting menu need not apply.” 

I know the techniques and skills grandfathered by some of these great restaurants have inspired so many in the world, but at the same time, doesn’t that subjugate creativity on some level?  The El Bulli, Fat Duck and Alinea books may be the open peek to their ascension to the top of the world, but it seems that some cooks have spent more time reproducing someone else’s inspiration than redefining their own.   And in that vein, a desire to be top-listed has likely lead to influxes of copycat restaurants hell-bent on attaining what they think is a clear-cut and linear fine-dining climb to the top.

While most of my example here is geared towards the Top 50 list, I tend to think that the example holds true for any list/trend.  When lists and awards come with a promise of dollars and publicity, it’s hard to look away from what sometimes may just be a rat race.  It’s even easier to try to get mixed up in the fray, but it seems on closer examination, isn’t it always an original that sits at the top?