Tuesday, Nov 24th, 2015
mise en place. (not pictured: impossibly fluffy shaved ice made using a wooden device that appeared to be held together with string, rubber bands, and a prayer)
The internet is a wonderful thing. Art forms that were once inaccessible to most people have become readily available. Interested in listening to an obscure Italian opera? That’ll be twelve bucks in iTunes. Need to scroll through the entirety of Monet’s impressionist collection? Google Images has you covered. Food, however, remains inconveniently tangible and requires one’s presence. We can’t eat online.
While much praise has been given to Instagram and Facebook and Twitter for disseminating plating styles and techniques, none of these services replaces the transfer of knowledge that occurs in a kitchen. Cooking is, and always will be, a craft, and just as a woodworker can spend hours watching someone turn a few lumps of pine into a rocking chair on YouTube, I’m sure there are many cooks whose first tutorial in rough puff, cold oil agar pearls or nitrogen muddled herbs was via a screen. And as a primer, that’s great. But no video is a proper substitute for the physical cues inherent in almost every recipe, for the nuanced motions only noticeable when standing shoulder to shoulder. And so, cooks stage.
Often that means Europe. Whether France or England, Spain or Denmark, it has become common for young cooks to pack a bag and head abroad to work for free for a week, a month or a year. In the world of pastry, the draw is likely “heading to the source.” It’s 2015 and pastry chefs in this country utilize all manner of modernist tricks, be they fluid gels or methylcellulose meringues, but at the heart of almost every cake, cookie, ice cream and dough is a European technique. So stages travel across the Atlantic, mastering macarons at Pierre Herme and assembling dozens of Sacher Tortes at the iconic hotel.
When planning my international sojourn, though, I looked the other way and began contacting restaurants in Asia. I expected and anticipated new techniques, new ingredients, new ways of organizing and operating a kitchen. Rest assured, I found all of these things in ample measure. I was not prepared, though, to be taught so many things that I quickly realized had an exact equivalent within the French canon.
An example. Croissants, pain au chocolat, kouigh amann—all built off of a yeast-laden detremp laminated with a slab of butter. Hong Kong style egg tarts, Vietnamese mooncakes, Filipino hopia—all products that utilize a similarly flaky, golden pastry. Developed in a part of the world during a time of low reliance on cow milk (and therefore butter), the Asian lamination consists of layering an “oil dough” (flour, lard) inside of a “water dough” (the detremp). During baking, the same general principal applies to both the Asian and European methods: steam, expansion, flakes.
These doppelgangers popped up all over the place. Jasmine “pate de fruit” are set with kudzu (arrowroot) starch instead of pectin. The stuffed log of bamboo sitting near the embers of a charcoal grill is Thailand’s ingenious method of making rice pudding. Even cupcakes, the bastardized love child of French technique and American convenience, have a rice-flour-based, steam-baked cousin.
And just as one can argue that food itself can intersect all demographics and classes—a good barbecue restaurant or taqueria will attract as many suits as construction workers—staging highlights the global commonalities of kitchen work. You can travel thousands of miles and be the only cook whose native language is English and instantly discern that the G.M.’s rapid-fire Thai is complaining about the two-top at table 7 who have traveled to one of the world’s best Asian restaurants and have requested “nothing spicy.” You can always bond, wherever you are, over purveyors showing up late, Pacojets suddenly sounding like someone threw a wrench underneath a lawnmower, and the near impossibility of getting staff meal ready between lunch and dinner service on Friday. And whether you’re in Bali, Brussels, or Boston, cracking open a can of cheap beer at the end of a 15-hour day for your coworker is a worldwide sign of hospitality.
Cooks are a restless bunch, always pushing against the required daily repetition of restaurant work and seeking the new, the unfamiliar. Staging is our way of recharging creative batteries. And for a westerner, no less, staging in Asia is like attaching jumper cables to a 9-volt. I have nowhere felt more ignorant of pastry techniques than walking around markets in Indonesia, or more uncertain of my ability to work a station than in Singapore, but it precisely this level of discomfort that inspired me, pushed me, and brought me back to Chicago with an entirely new box of crayons to color with. Now, excuse me, but I really need to go find a sheet of paper.