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.


  1. yup, that's why the bottle of wine at the vineyard tastes so unbelievable you just have to buy it, only to open it later and be less impressed. :>

  2. Someone posted on linecook415 awhile back the following quote: "Bad cooking and bad fucking have much in common." This is the first thing that came to mind when I read this post.

    The question you are asking is very Japanese in nature. Is there such a thing as perfection? A perfect meal? A perfect woman? For me, certain moments are perfect. I would submit that love is a place where you don't want anything to change. This maybe the very place where human relationships and cooking intersect.



  3. Some great questions for sure, and ones that will now be rolling around in my cranium for a while. But this also reminds me of a Thomas Keller quote from TFL Cookbook.

    "When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving towards perfection becomes clear: to make people happy. That's what cooking is all about." -Thomas Keller