Posts filed under Literature

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

Two Legends Reign as St Regis NYC Re-installs the King Cole Bar Mural

New Yorkers are cheering as the St. Regis Hotel has now reinstalled Maxfield Parrish's famous King Cole Bar mural after a four year absence. After a century of being surrounded by smokers, the artwork has been restored to its original stunning luster. The result is like seeing the large 30 foot painting for the first time.

The restored mural now glistens with an iridescent effect that is exactly what Parrish famously created during his lifetime without equal.

Like a master chef who layers flavor on flavor to create a final culinary masterpiece, Parrish placed layers after layer of light-enhancing varnish between his individual colors to create the unique glowing effect that the staff of the Rustin Levenson Art Conservation Associates have so carefully reclaimed.

Art historians, as a result, consider Parrish to be in a class by himself – just like the famed King Cole Bar itself. Year after year the rich, the famous and the talented have favored this New York landmark. Most often it is the Bar’s famed Bloody Mary cocktail that everyone seems to ask for at least once (or twice).

Indeed, this esteemed cocktail was created in its final form at the King Cole by bar master Fernand, “Pete” Petiot.  And although there had been previous versions, it was at the St Regis that it was finally christened the Bloody Mary – all thanks to James A. Michener and Juanita Hall.

Prior to 1947, the Bar had served the cocktail under the name of the Red Snapper. But that year a previously unknown writer, James A. Michener, released a small book entitled, Tales of the South Pacific. Within a year this collection of revealing stories about war in the Pacific theater would win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. It would go on to be transformed into the epic musical, South Pacific, by Rogers and Hammerstein.

Enter Juanita Hall. In the Broadway production and also in the 1958 movie version, she would play a unique character entitled, yes – you guessed it, Bloody Mary. A skilled jazz singer in her own right, she made this role her own. Her haunting rendition of the song, Bali Ha’i, won her the Tony Award, the first ever presented to an African American woman. 

In one of those rare moments when a society acknowledges a major cultural change, the name of this half tomato-half vodka (plus spices) cocktail converted overnight to the Bloody Mary, the name of Juanita Hall's unforgettable character.

And so it has been called ever since. Oh, various individual people would, through the years, say they alone named the drink. Such occurances, however, seldom stem from a single source - history rarely works that way.

No perhaps, just perhaps, it was the conscience of the American people who decided to honor a book, a musical, a pivotal role – a difference, an acceptance of equality... all still presided over to this very day by ol’ King Cole in the restored mural that now glows softly behind the bar at the legendary St Regis Hotel. 

Post Note, November 21, 2013: Chef John De Lucie just finished his relaunch of the King Cole Bar and Salon. Among those present to celebrate the re-installation of Parrish's grand painting at the St. Regis Hotel were Uma Thurman and Hilary Rhoda - definitely ladies of discerning taste and style.

Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2013