September 10, 2009

Top Chef 6.4: Mastering the Art of French Cooking

This season, as with most of the other seasons, a divide is emerging between the contestants who have some sort of background in or affinity for French cuisine, and those who don't -- with the latter usually ending up at the back of the pack. Hector, who packed his knives and went last night, was an obvious example: Latin-American food was essentially all he knew, and he seemed to flounder when asked to do something outside of that milieu. Meanwhile, Jennifer, Kevin, and the Voltaggio brothers, who all appear to have Francophilic tendencies, are consistently at the top. Occasionally you get some outliers (Ilan from Season 2 specialized in Spanish cuisine, and won); and French cooking experience doesn't automatically mean you'll excel (Ron boasted of his French background, and Mattin is actually French, but neither did well in the last challenge); but generally it seems to be the case that knowing and appreciating French cuisine is a prerequisite to doing well on Top Chef.

But why is this? Is it just culinary imperialism, or is it that, as Michael Ruhlman once wrote:
[The fundamentals of cooking] may have been best categorized and explained by French cooks beginning hundreds of years ago, [but] these fundamentals apply to every kind of cooking there is, Mexican, Italian, Russian, Asian, because food behaves the same in one country as it does in another.
That's my sense as well, based on my (admittedly limited) cooking experience. Once you figure out how to make a b├ęchamel sauce, for example, you can do virtually any cream-based dish, from macaroni and cheese to chicken korma. And it may be that being able to see past specific dishes to the forms that they embody (how very Platonic!) is the mark of a great chef. I've noticed that self-taught cooks don't do very well on Top Chef, and it may be that lack of theoretical training that holds them back.

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