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The Changing of the Guard: Tradition - Evolution - Innovation
Apprentice. Journeyman. Master. Not only are they a measure of a craftsman’s skill, they are also an institutionalized methods of learning. The apprentice learns first through observation, then by mimicking and practice, and finally having mastered one thing, moves on to the next. This method of teaching our craft has existed for hundreds of years and continues to this day. Even the greats of my generation learnt how to cook this way. These traditions are a way of life. A means of passing on the accumulated knowledge of the ages to the next generation so that they can take up their banner and replace them. Much as a proud father and mother pass the torch to their sons and daughters. The problem with this type of learning is that due to the very rigid and structured nature, questioning and innovation are not encouraged. Why do we do something in a particular way? Because it has always been done this way, and always will be. Through repetition and rote. Do not question, do not deviate. One omelette, two omelettes, three hundred omelettes.
Traditionalists abound, and even the younger ones will defend the old guard to their dying breath. This is very european. Their veneration for tradition is ingrained into their very bones. It’s one of the things that I think is a marked difference between european and american cooks. American cooks are more willing to experiment, to try new things. They have not been indoctrinated into the same culinary traditions. When european cooks come across the pond to america, they form their own culinary and cultural enclaves. Their bastions of tradition standing against the tides of change. Many american chefs send their cooks off to europe. They are told, go travel, go eat, go cook. I have not once met a cook that has come back that has not been changed by their journey. They spend time over there, and their experiences transform their food. However their cooking is influenced and inspired by, instead of taken over.
I’m not going to claim that one way is better than the other, I don’t believe that. I’m not going to say we should stereotype american and european cooks either. El Bulli in spain was probably the pinnacle of culinary innovation and I suspect they will continue to be so once they reopen in 2014. Personally, I’m more of a traditionalist and don’t really enjoy a lot of the culinary experiments that are taking place, but I respect them. Everything has it’s place, and the next whacked out sous-vide-liquid nitrogen-xanthan gum-spherical-tomato water-ice cream-wafer sprinkle flake may become as common as chopped basil in the future. Who knows.
What brought this all up was when I observed some rather heated discussions going on about poaching steak (for the hell of it apparently), using sous-vide, and new versus traditional methods. One chef even tossing out “So one steak is cooked three times and chilled twice in zip lock bags before you put it on my plate? What has happened to real cooking?” It was quite the discussion. Both sides had their points, but some of the closed mindedness was unsettling in the least. Funnily enough it wasn’t the old guard that were being so closed minded, they just stated their opinion and left it at that. It was their younger proteges that seemed to be the most vehemently vocal, railing against the fuzzy wrong headedness of their colleagues deigning to experiment with callous aloofness to tradition. I’ve seen this same attitude with bakers and no-knead bread. It is not bread they claim. There is no depth of flavor. No kneading? No art. Ridiculous. Never. You. Are. Wrong.
Following this, I could not stop thinking about how we grow and learn in this craft, this passion of ours. How we pass on our knowledge. Which I believe is a responsability and a duty for anyone with an interest in cooking. How things change over time. How very wrong it is to dismiss anything as it is stifling progress. It is limiting innovation. If at first you don’t succeed try, try again. While some may decry the innovators of the time, eventually some of those practices become a part of our culinary heritage.