Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Perfect Tomato

When I was living in Portland and really starting to cook seriously for the first time, it was inevitable that each summer some pretentious chef or silly Farmer`s Market junkie would pontificate over the wonders of tomato perfection. Ripe, round, fragrant, and myriad other adjectives evoking an image of fruit so magical one could hardly imagine the pedestal upon which it sits, much less the object itself. I have no doubt that similar observations are being made right now as tomatoes roll into season. While I easily become exhausted by tomato worship - don`t misunderstand, I like tomatoes, but not in, you know, that way - it speaks to a larger purpose of the value that eating and cooking in season has. What I never could figure out is what exactly makes the tomato, or anything else for that matter, perfect? For the past two weeks I have been staying with an organic tomato farmer in southern Japan. Shikoku is a gorgeous island with perfect summer farming weather. Alternating hot and wet with plenty of sunshine and a cool breeze or two. The farm is opposite Ikumi Beach in Kochi Prefecture, a popular surfing spot. I`ve made a regular practice of jumping in the ocean for a little while after the evening picking is done.

We live and breathe tomatoes here. They are included in every meal, all work centers around them, and I even took part in a blind tomato tasting that surveyed product from other organic farms as well as some supermarket ringers thrown in the mix. There is undoubtedly an effort here to achieve the perfect tomato that had so many folks back in Portland moon-eyed. I can`t help but wonder though, is it possible to quantify ultimate perfection? The same question has had me stumped over cooking in restaurants. Obviously there is a clear difference between good food and bad food. We can all generally agree on the broad strokes of how to classify quality eating, but when it gets down to what is great and what is better there are far too many shades of grey. That is why restaurant reviews rarely influence me. They are no more than one person`s opinion, for whatever that is worth. Furthermore, they usually judge based only on the tangible - flavors, textures, execution, atmosphere, and image. What about the context?

I`m becoming acutely more aware of how important context is in why we enjoy food. Time, place and situation have pungency and flavor greater than any spice, herb or even the fanciest salt. For instance, The food prepared for me by my hosts as I labor from farm to farm in Japan is magical. After a long day of work, to be cooked for by someone showing gratitude for the help I gave them is far more satisfying than any restaurant meal. There are no expensive boutique ingredients, immersion baths or award winning egos. Just appreciation for the digging I did that day. Think about the last time you went camping and built a fire to roast that tiny fish you caught. Was it seasoned and cooked with the same precision it would be at twenty five dollars a plate? Probably not, but did it taste better? How about old fashioned home cooking by none other than mom, or grandma? Even the most prestigious chefs reference these memories as a source of inspiration and often as their ultimate favorite food to eat. After being caught up for so long trying to achieve new accolades and levels of perfection in cooking, I can`t help but wonder about these things now that I`m on the outside looking in for a moment. I`ve heard people say many wonderful things about impeccably prepared and creative food from restaurants, but the most emphatic reactions to food I`ve witnessed are always outside the game and reserved for the home cooks who do it with more love than salt.

So what is perfection, then? Can a restaurant nail a dish so thoroughly it trumps every special meal you`ve ever had? Is there absolutely nothing like a vine ripened heirloom tomato because of flavor and texture, or because you grew it yourself and enjoyed it with friends and a bottle of rose while grilling in the backyard? How can this idea fit into professional cooking? I droned on constantly to my cooks and servers about the pursuit of perfection in everything we did. I`m sure they can confirm that it was central to my kitchen ethos, and that I surely did drone....endlessly. I`m thinking now however that achieving perfection was a somewhat misguided goal. If you get there, what next? Perfection is elusive because there are factors involved that simply can`t be replicated. These are organic moments that arise just as spontaneously as they disappear. They are unique to each person`s image of the perfect meal. It is the search for perfection that makes great cooking. Actually finding it is not important.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Back Where It All Began

It`s been so long. I picked up this here blog like a long forgotten volume on a hidden shelf and took a deep breath, exhaling with purpose to remove layers of dust from the cover. I`ve been busy washing dishes again, back where my internet musings began. I spent the last two weeks on an organic farm of sorts in Gujo Hachiman. A cozy mountain town in Gifu Prefecture, Gujo - as I will refer to it here to forth - is deeply green, tangled with rivers and streams, awash in Japanese history and blanketed with edible mountain plants. My desire to serve some sort of purpose while I travel Japan landed me there. Helping on organic farms is a means to an end. I get room and board in exchange for some toil in the fields. Not a bad arrangement. I guess if you`re lazy and need to be entertained all the time this setup would not be your cup or matcha, but I found the work to be enlightening and part of the adventure. As the arrangement in Gujo had me living with a family, the chores I was charged with often included helping cook and of course the one area of expertise where I`m a viking: washing the dishes...

Gujo brought some new experiences that resonated with things I am familiar with. I dug up and shaped some earth into rows that will soon host edible plants. Hard farm work is a first for me and I felt it in my aching bones and blistered hands, but a long day on my feet is nothing new. The tasks brought a familiar sense of ownership and determination that I know well from endless hours in the kitchen. I`ve always identified with the work that farmers whom I purchase from do each and every day. We may lead very different lives, but have similar routines and motivations. Neither chefs nor farmers count hours. They work until the job is done, and if they are determined to do it right then it takes that much longer. It`s not for the sake of impressing a boss or making a bonus. It`s just the way we do. Or should be doing. It shows in the results and people who care will notice. While helping on farms began as a means to an end, I always hoped in the back of my mind that it would provide some insight into how farmers live and work. After all, we play into the same cycle of growing and shaping food. While the specifics may differ, our purpose and motivation is similar.

This theme has been playing out in my head and reached a booming crescendo today while I was ambling through the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka. One of the more outstanding museums I have had the pleasure of visiting, I spent over four hours browsing the exhibits that had little to no English signage. Towards the end I was merely breezing through, my brain too glazed over to consult the paltry, photocopied guide that was provided in my only understandable language. It didn`t matter, though. The exhibits themselves spoke volumes of how distinct cultures, in every respect show clear similarities in how they live and evolve. My chef/farmer connection began to make more sense in the context that the museum offered, especially where food cultivation and preparation was examined. I marvel continuously at how the tools used to farm and cook cross cultural boundaries, and how in the modern world we may update the appearance and price tag, but the basic function remains the same. I certainly don`t mean to downplay technological advancement, but I have always maintained that there is a fine line between use of a good thing and abuse of the same. Examined as a whole in the Museum of Ethnology, one begins to see where cultural evolution fractures and the abuse of something positive damages the world we live in. Apply this idea to food as you see fit. I think the implications in farming and cooking are obvious to those who care.

But I digress. The farm work in Japan - of which there is more to come - and the mind boggling examples of cross cultural similarities at the museum touched me quite a bit. While I wandered among exhibits, I was also engaged in a conversation with an old friend via smart phone instant messages (Viva technology!). Both traveling at the moment in different parts of the world, we discussed the merits of pursuing our own creative endeavors. On the one hand it`s more fulfilling, but on the other it`s risky and consumes you. By sacrificing freedom and working for other people, you have the chance to live a more balanced life, or at least that`s the idea, right? Looking back on my experience as a chef, I`ve been hoping to find more balance in the future. The dedication and ownership that forms the cultural link between chefs and farmers continues to resonate with me though, and it`s getting harder to understand applying and maintaining those ideals while working for other people`s monetary gain. A work until the job is done and done well mentality begs for the person sporting it to answer to no one else.

A journey need not have only one end and a question can certainly have more than one correct answer. There`s always an expectation however, that you`ll start in one place and end up somewhere new. It`s funny then, that some journeys can end up right back where it all began. For me at the moment, it`s hovered over a sink, scrubbing dishes, on the farm this time.