Is modernist cooking soulless?

A pair of companion interviews with Timothy Hollingsworth and Eli Kaimeh, chefs de cuisine of the French Laundry and Per Se, respectively, were making the rounds on social media last week. They both offer interesting insights into the cultures of two of the finest kitchens in North America, and are both very much worth reading.

But I have a bone to pick.

In Hollingsworth’s interview, the chef calls out modernist technique, accusing it of being a “fad” and singling out sous vide cooking, saying, “I can cook a piece of beef to medium-rare in a bag and sear it and serve it to you and you’re going to think it’s great. But can I go to a barbecue down the street in the park and barbecue a steak? Can I really cook? Do I know how to cook a piece of meat?”

To me, this is an absolutely faulty distinction, and an example of the accusations of the “soullessness” of modernist cooking. In fact, I would say it’s equivalent to saying that if you use those new-fangled stoves, with their natural gas and their dials to control the heat, then you don’t “really” know how to cook, because you can’t build a wood fire and decide when it’s the right temperature for your food. As Nathan Myhrvold has said repeatedly when discussing Modernist Cuisine, people will never be as good at judging temperature as thermometers are, and there’s nothing soulful about “being a bad thermostat.” Why would you not make use of every tool available to you to bring your food to the highest level you can achieve? You shouldn’t favour a wood or gas grill over a temperature-controlled water bath any more than you would favour a food mill over a blender.

Not having to focus on cooking each steak to exactly the right doneness gives you the freedom to turn your attention to other aspects of the dish. And while it’s true that some cooks do work backwards – starting with a novel technique, then finding ingredients to apply it to – you can find bad cooks and bad food in any style. It’s unfair to single out modernist cooking on those grounds alone. If you ate poorly grown, poorly prepared food at a “farm to table” restaurant, you wouldn’t dismiss that whole movement, right?

Besides, this is not to say that there’s no space for people who cook food using primitive techniques: look at how much barbecue and pizza is still made using wood fuel. I’m even willing to admit that there’s value in tradition for its own sake, in certain contexts. Knowing how to grill a steak (or, heck, build a wood fire) is a laudable skill in its own right, but it shouldn’t be a sine qua non of being a cook.

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