Posts filed under Peter Schlagel

The Copacetic Dance of Creative Cuisine

by Peter Schlagel

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught, “All is fire; all is change and flow”. This is the same sage who said, “You cannot step into the same river twice”.

With this point of view, he surely must have had the insights of a chef. Because, for a chef, the conception, preparation and serving of a suite of creative dishes to an appreciative diner is much more than a sequence of static random tastes collectively comprising a meal.

No, it is more like Stravinsky’s multi-layered ballet The Firebird wherein a pure vision is transformed into the ensemble action of an entire company of dancers and musicians, each playing an important role in the creation of a magnificent performance.

Firebird 5.jpg

Many diners have the mistaken impression that they will be served a linear procession of different and pleasing tastes as they sit passively consuming the next carbon copy dish in a meaningless parade. This is not unlike an anonymous viewer of a TV sitcom like Gilligan’s Island, complete with its cues of canned laughter after each one-liner joke, demanding no more than half-awake attention between commercial breaks.

And if one is in a hurry (and what modern consumer is not), then one can further shorten the entire process without even having to get out of one’s car to quickly order and consume fast food served in neat little bags and boxes.

This is not dining or cuisine or conscious art. This is simply eating, a necessary function shared by all animals from man to mouse to mite. It requires neither brain nor consciousness, only hunger and a mouth. How the food is prepared is of no consequence, as long as it can be eaten.

However, culinary creations, like all great art, demand a great deal of their audience. They have the capacity to move the conscious soul and change lives forever. Fine cuisine is deeply human and expresses the highest capacity for creative life. And it is inherently dynamic, not static.

A consumer of fine dining must be fully awake and prepared to be challenged, surprised, even changed. Each diner is invited to actively participate in a grand “dance” of shifting melodies and harmonies of flavors, some major and some minor, some rhythmic, some percussive, and all comprising a complex dance of movements and singular experiences that cannot be reproduced again exactly like this unique performance.

Dizzy Gillespie 1.jpg

Think of a small local jazz band improvising on a standard composition at a one night show in a small private club, or a modern dance company’s world premiere of a new work. These performance art presentations are not accidental or random. They are as carefully planned and executed as a general’s battle plan or Beethoven’s 9th Symphony because the mind of the general or composer or chef sees the entire vision before the first note or the first table place is set.

Everyone in the kitchen must learn to “chop wood and carry water” before one can create the other kind of magic, for they are one and the same. Or, as the great Zen Master Dogen pithily put it, “Practice IS realization”.

He was the same sage who wrote Instructions to the Cook, giving voice as head chef to the vision and responsibility for leading his creative team through the essential rules for the kitchen, as well as the greater community and a life well lived. Each performance, each preparation expresses completely a unique lived truth.

Ferran 1b.jpg

A talented chef has the ability to visualize combinations of flavors, herbs and spices before the food is ever procured and prepared. This is part of his or her unique talent and artistic genius that enables the creation of new dishes as well as variations on the classics that delight, challenge and move the diner.

The insightful diner is invited to join in a “dance” with this creative movement of the chef’s vision through a knowing appreciation of their purposeful culinary art. They can then engage in the free flowing river of experiences that the chef and his staff prepare, present and guide them through.

Food 1, Japanese.jpg

The diner cannot be a passive semi-conscious consumer of canned familiar post-cards of taste. Instead, he or she must be equal to the great adventure of discovery and satisfaction that comes from true art. They must be brave and awake. They must be open and fully human in order to experience the real full potential of great culinary art.

Yes, Heraclitus, the chef–inspired sage, was right – all is fire and change in the kitchen. Creating new “music” is hard work. When successful, the diner can share in the wonder of experiencing new culinary art that will challenge all their senses as they savor its beauty and know that they can’t step into this same deep river twice.

But fortunately the number of creative culinary rivers is today without limit. With due courage and imagination, another river, another culinary experience is just waiting to be discovered, perhaps just around the corner this very night! Go ahead, accept the invitation and enjoy the dance!

Fire River 1c.jpg

Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2014

What Egypt’s Revolution Can Teach Us About the Meaning of Cuisine

The Future of Terroir, and Terroir of the Future

An Essay by Peter Schlagel 

First, let us praise the power of an impassioned people.  Their common yearning for a better life, an authentic meaningful living shared openly with family and friends that fills their hearts and minds and souls with pride and joy, their iron refusal to suffer further abuse or intimidation, their rising up together to transcend fear and hold their ground – these dramatic courageous recent events in Egypt and Tunisia have inspired people all around the world and forever changed these ancient lands. 

Such is the transforming power of a new vision of a life of freedom in each familiar long-suffering locality, the universal human need to be free to work and create and love and live with family, neighbors, colleagues and countryman, one unique neighborhood, city and country at a time.

Such, also, is the transformed “good ground” and terra firma of a new vision of terroir whose roots reach deep into the rich ground of a living community’s unique heart and soul and local cultural legacy extending beyond place and time and environment.

This new philosophy of hospitality and cuisine, this new vision of “La Vie de Terroir”, has a long and noble ancestry.  We owe a great debt of gratitude to the French who first introduced and popularized the term “terroir” as an ingenious marketing innovation to sell French wines by highlighting its origins from unique local vineyards and chateaus.

Others (notably Spain and Portugal) had developed systems of classification based on local origins, but it was the French advocacy of terroir that proved most successful.  It became so popular that their system of "Appellation d' Origine Controlee" (A.O.C.) came to dominate the making of the finest French wines, Champagne and Cognac.

The actual mix of grape varietals was secondary to the wine’s region of origin.  As fine winemaking took root in new regions around the world (such as North and South America, Australia and South Africa), the particular qualities of new wines in new soils gave birth to entirely new styles of wines expressing the local character of their new cultural and physical terroir.

Along with advances in knowledge about successful practices of growing various wine grapes and scientifically informed techniques of winemaking, the concept of terroir expanded to include all the local variations of time and place, of season and soil. But it is only recently that a new vision of a more complex terroir has begun to take wing, an integrated multi-dimensional terroir whose center of gravity is creative culture rather than physical environment.

From this expanded point of view, it is the rich interplay of local cultural values and master artisan traditions with the particular qualities of local soil, season and sensibilities that gives rise to the highest quality of unique local products grounded in historical cultural conceptions of meaning, excellence and depth.

Thus, while we can speak of the highest standards of French haute cuisine and the best pairings of various superior quality wine styles for each traditional course, we can also envision new styles of quality wines and beverages steeped in other great cultural heritages with profoundly different cuisines and standards of value and excellence.

For example, China (“Our Land”) has one of the world’s oldest and most diverse cultural histories reaching back many thousands of years and encompassing a vast and diverse array of different local peoples, languages, traditions and environments.

Yet the central cultural tradition of a shared community-style meal with all dishes served together on a large communal table does not lend itself easily to the foreign European tradition of sequential courses.  This kind of cultural difference can give rise to new creative additions to an already rich tradition of diverse cuisines, a new terroir of the future.

India, similarly, also has one of the world’s longest and richest cultural traditions including thousands of local variations.  The innovative marriage of modern technical knowledge with local cultural legacies and wisdom gleaned from thousands of years of practical experience can be blended and transformed by the creative choices of great chefs to yield new exciting samples of the art of cuisine as shared gifts from surprising new terroir.

This view of terroir honors its esteemed heritage while extending its depth and range to include new creative meaning grounded in the amazing wide diversity of local practice, culture and standards of value that give shared significance to our common human experience. 

Just as the cultural revolution born from the acts of brave Egyptian people has forever changed the familiar ancient lands around the Nile, so can the creative choices of food artisans, from growers to chefs to those sharing fine meals, forever change the honored traditions of our shared cuisine experiences through the new terroir of the future. 

We are grateful to the 80 million people of Egypt for reminding us that the daily art of cuisine and hospitality we all share and enjoy is made possible by a connected cultural terroir grounded in freedom, respect and civility. We thank you for your courage, your example, and for this great gift of a hard lesson relearned and freely given to our common culinary world.

Your Culinary World copyright Peter Schlagel/Ana Kinkaid 2011

Posted on February 15, 2011 and filed under Champagne, Chefs, Courage, Peter Schlagel, Terroir, Wine.