Zalbar's blog

The Changing of the Guard: Tradition - Evolution - Innovation

by Zalbar

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.


Lost In Translation


by Zalbar


When I was asked to explain the whole saute pan versus frying pan issue it seemed at first to be a rather simple thing. However, the topic itself raised a whole other series of questions for me. Why are there so many french terms used in english speaking kitchens? Why do we even use them instead of our own unique words? What led to french labels and techniques dominating the globe and spreading as far and as wide as it does today? Subsequent Lost In Translation articles will explore the culinary history and evolution of french cooking as well as it’s impact on cuisines around the world. However, let’s first look at the subject that kicked off this series of articles. The saute, sauteuse and sautoir.


~ Saute, Sauteuse, Sautoir ~

The kitchen, both domestic and commercial, is littered with french terminology and for good reason. It is the french that set out in print the what, when, where and how of modern culinary practices and techniques in use today. It was the french chefs who were hired by other countries royalty and upper class houses to prepare lavish banquets and feasts. Their methods and terminology have stood the test of time and endured throughout the ages. History as well as several major societal and cultural upheavals are what has birthed one of the dominating and most influential cuisines to leave it’s imprint upon the globe.This is not to say that there are not also a goodly number of culinary texts and traditions from other countries that have endured as well, however, french cuisine stands apart as being recognized at either extreme of the dining experience. On the one hand it is almost art with it’s small complicated towering mounds of delicately sauced and perfectly cooked morsels of food. They flood the palate with undulating waves and layers of flavour and texture, each more exquisitely satisfying than the next. On the other hand it is also renowned for being a culinary pioneer of down to earth, rustic and heart warming comfort food using every scrap of an animal or vegetable. While most of us would snap our asparagus in half, blanch and eat the top part, the french would calmly retrieve the discarded stems, peel them, and show you the wonderfully tender shoots hidden beneath. To use a euphemism of my own making, the french dive deep in both ends of the culinary pool.

The english saute pan is derived from the french pan called a sautoir. A noun, a thing. The word saute can also be used as a verb, an action. Our problem is that we tend to borrow some terms and ignore others as well as the meaning behind the word and thus lose the comprehension of everything else similar that surrounds it.

In french, to saute something merely means to fry ingredients with a little fat over high heat. That is the complete definition right there, nothing more, nothing less. The word saute itself literally means jump. I’m sure this is not new to anyone, and everyone has read this explanation or heard it somewhere. What most of us fail to grasp is the actual meaning behind the word. The jumping is in reference to the action of ingredients in hot oil but can also refer to the sauteing technique of tossing food rapidly into the air. What type of pan you use determines the method of sauteing that is most applicable.

The sautoir is a wide shallow pan with straight sides, what is also termed a saute pan in english. Sauteing in this is what we would normally call pan frying. As water escapes the ingredients, due to heating, it jumps and bounces in the pan. It sautes. Think of how you cook a steak on the stove-top. High heat and a bit of oil in the pan and away we go. A few minutes on either side and then off to rest before plating and eating. There is no tossing of the food in the air. We are not swinging the pan around like we’re sifting for gold. Yes, this is still sauteing food to the french. Remember, high heat and a small amount of fat. That is the only qualification to be considered for sauteing an ingredient.

The sauteuse is a long handled bowl shaped pan. If you took a big cereal bowl and put a long handle on it you wouldn’t be all that far off. We would use small pieces of meat or vegetable, often times both at once, with the saute method of rapidly tossing the items in the air to achieve browning on all sides. This is what we are most familiar with when we use the term saute.

Another similarly misunderstood word is deglaze or deglacer. Glace. Demi-Glace. Glace de viande. These are all terms we have heard before. Most people know that glace is the french word for ice. If we deglaze the pan and make a pan sauce we call this in french, saute-deglace. But to understand it in culinary terms as the french use it we have to look at it’s meaning. For example glace de viande, which is really concentrated and reduced brown stock or sauce, would translate literally as meat ice. I know, it doesn’t sound very appetizing, but there it is. It also doesn’t really make much sense in english. Glace, where we get our word glaze from, doesn’t only mean ice, as in frozen water. It is referring to the whole process of cooling or heating something so that it thickens. If anyone has ever seen the rubber hockey pucks that are glace de viande, you are probably now getting an inkling of the true meaning of the word glace. Deglace where instead of glacing or glazing something till it thickens to the proper consistency such as in barbecue ribs, we are doing the reverse. The fond or solids, this glace, left in the pan becomes liquid. We deglace or deice them. Another way to say it it is that we un-ice it, we melt it.

All this rambling is to point out what I meant by understanding the cultural and contextual meaning behind a word or phrase. Especially a foreign phrase, and to not use it rote or off the cuff. Why the words mean what they do is very important. If you asked someone how their boyfriend or girlfriend was and got the response “They rock my world.” You would understand. Trying to explain that to someone in a literate sense that only speaks italian, for example, would be almost impossible. Literal translations simply do not work. You have to get at the significance of the phrase to truly relay it’s meaning. This is the most important lesson to take away from this whole article and not just the meaning behind the saute pan and the saute method.

The weird dichotomy of the whole saute, sauteuse, and sautoir thing though is that, if you step into any non-traditionally french kitchen and ask for a saute pan what you’ll most likely be handed is a sauteuse, and if you buy a saute pan what you’ll get is a sautoir. Most pans you see stacked up and used in kitchens and on the burners are simply frying pans or poeles which we define as a flat shallow curved sided pan. We most often use the saute method with them, but they are neither a sauteuse or a sautoir.  Ironically, one cannot saute food, in an english kitchen, in a saute pan.


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