March 14, 2017
Change is generally defined as the act or result of making something different.
It is synonymous with fluctuation, revision. If you’ve been working in the service industry long enough, this might sound familiar. As chefs and as diners, we often crave a dish unknown, something we’ve never seen before. Sometimes, it’s nothing more than a warm memory, perhaps a dish we were given as a child sitting on our grandma’s kitchen counter. As a pastry chef, it is my job to give the diners what they crave, while simultaneously satiating my own creative desires and progressing with an ever-changing industry.
My love affair began when I was 11 years old, at a hair salon in Oklahoma City with my Gramma. I was flipping through a magazine and landed on a photo of Jessica Simpson posing with a colorful, multi-tiered birthday cake. I had no idea cakes could tower above their consumers the way hers did. From my 12th to my 18th birthday (before college, jobs, and life got in the way) I built tiered cakes for myself, starting with buttercream frosting, eventually graduating to fondant. Three tiers, then five. I made sculpted cakes and wedding cakes for family members and friends before I finished high school.
So in a funny kind of way, I had Jessica Simpson to thank for my growing obsession with the food world.
I spent the last two years of school in a vocational culinary program, buffeted by my cake-heavy repertoire and a general artistic love for Jackson Pollock. Everything I wore was splattered with paint; I loved the way it left bright raised streaks and dots in its wake. Taking a cue from my wardrobe, a friend introduced me to the work of one Jordan Kahn — a chef whose plates were similarly splattered with brightly colored purees and unfamiliar textures. It was controlled chaos, almost too pretty to eat, and I was hooked.
Together, we began to track the early movements of molecular gastronomy. No one knew what hydrocolloids or liquid nitrogen were, much less how to use them. I watched YouTube videos of a young Sam Mason making beet caviar, banana "ravioli,” mustard ice cream, and coffee “soil,” utterly captivated by what he was doing. He was using ingredients I couldn't even pronounce to create things far more intriguing than multi-tiered cakes.
Ferran Adrià, the de facto godfather of molecular gastronomy, considers this approach "deconstructivism,” or: taking a well-known dish and transforming all of its ingredients. Modifying its texture, its temperature, its form. The essence of the dish is maintained, but its appearance becomes something new. As soon as the world realized that food was more intriguing when nothing was as it seemed, no plate could be ordinary. Becoming a chef could be an artistic pursuit.
I wasn't captivated by cakes anymore: I wanted the unknown. I wanted to learn what was unteachable; what was still being invented. I started ordering hydrocolloids online and trying them at home, without a single clue as to what I was doing. I watched video after video and read book after book — elbow-deep in strange encapsulation solutions — trying to learn the ropes of this new era. And then, the same friend who showed me Kahn when I needed it most showed me Uchiko.
Tyson Cole’s little Japanese restaurant in Austin was doing all the things we saw in books and read in magazines; their colorful plates, precise cuts, perfectly placed dots of fluid gels and scattered powders drew the gaze of geeks like us from all over the world. It was 500 miles away from my home in Oklahoma City, and completely out of my league: so naturally, I packed up all my stuff and moved to Texas.
At Uchiko, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. Everyone was so professional; every piece of equipment was spotless and every quart container and utensil was in its place. I showed up with my little notebook, ready to absorb everything, literally giddy with excitement when I was told to make chocolate powder — melted chocolate and tapioca maltodextrin — which I had only ever seen in books.
In the beginning, the creative process I witnessed was more fulfilling than I could have ever imagined. I had never been part of what felt like a city-wide, food-obsessed family. Since then, I’ve learned how to build menus, how to grow a team and create systems for a new restaurant, how to collaborate with other chefs, how to open a bakery from the ground up, how to not go crazy during the trials and tribulations of countless hours of research and development while opening that bakery, and have won a couple of awards. But now the dots, quenelles, and powders that so thrilled me, that sparked my career, are dated. Encapsulation, liquid nitrogen, and fluid gels are a thing of the past.
After a flurry of constant creation, you fall into patterns, and that's when equation desserts begin to populate your brainstorming. An equation dessert is the pastry chef's version of writer's block: arsenal temporarily depleted, they follow a simple crowd-pleasing equation of a few dots, a few piles of powder, a quenelle of ice cream and micro greens. Meanwhile, the crowd you so wish to please begins to crave something different: something homier, something more meaningful. I also wonder if savory chefs felt this shift so keenly; when their proteins were braised, sous-vided, pressed, dipped, precisely cut, charred and seared before they hit a plate, did they feel the diners pining for a rustic, natural piece of meat?
My own personal creative dilemma comes back to this: as chefs, is it our responsibility to create for ourselves, or for our guests? When the culinary fashion turns towards the fermented-for-five-years, misted-with-the-dew-from-the-farm-that-grew-it single bite, and away from the dots, quenelles, and powder of the early 2000s, where does that leave those of us who dream in the abstract? Recently, I’ve tried to please everyone: satiate my own creativity, keep guests intrigued and coming back, and follow the progression of my fellow chefs. Keep one foot in the past and one foot in the future, and try to adapt faster.
We’re light years away from the food we ate 20, 30, 40 years ago. As a cook — and as a diner — I can't help but wonder where we’re headed next and where I'll fit into it. My best prediction from the frontlines is a deep-dive into the basics: perfected techniques like a perfect, silky pastry cream or the gently folded, fluffy chiffon cake we all started with. These tried and true traditions, I think, should be enough to remind the pastry chefs why they fell in love with food in the first place.
And who knows — maybe someday, I'll do for someone out there what Jordan Kahn did for me. There's still time.