A micro essay from In My Blood, by Bo Bech. One of my favorite cookbooks. I transcribed this to show a friend but figured it might be appreciated here.
What I want is actually quite primordial and straightforward. I like to be strong in every expression. But that calls for opting out of many things when cooking. Most often, I am triggered by a single component. It could be a loaf of bread or a head of cauliflower. I become fascinated by the question of whether I can get away with putting it on a plate without all kinds of fuss.
I would, quite simply, like to pay tribute to it. Draw out its nature, its DNA, if you will. This stands somewhat in contrast to the conventional notion that protein always stands above everything else. That is, that fish, shellfish or meat plays the starring role and that everything else on the plate, figuratively speaking, is the gentleman who helps the lady across the river. Many chefs believe that a dish must contain all features: There must be something crispy and something soft, something raw, a puree–it becomes a sort of showy exercise. But it gets monotonous really fast, because then you end up going through an entire dinner repeating the same dish, only changing out the ingredients.
I usually work with a starring role and a supporting role, the latter being there to make the former shine. And then there is always a wild card, a kind of slap in the face that makes people stop and go: “Hey, what was that?” It is usually an ingredient that I find completely logical.
But people may become a little frightened when they see the dish on the menu. I like to draw out their apprehension, because once they have tried the dish, then their forgiveness becomes a stronger feeling.
And to me, as a chef, all that simplicity also becomes a little dangerous. Because if you order the bread or the cauliflower and you do not like it, then there is nothing else to be done. There aren’t all kinds of other things on the plate that can step in to save the day. This is the danger that I like.
But I am also old-fashioned. I do not belong to the school of chefs who like to go out and find ingredients that maybe or maybe aren’t edible–acting almost like the fashion designer who presents a collection just to say: “I can get away with this.” I prefer the friendship to be there from the beginning so that you do not need to set out already facing a headwind.
So instead, I work with ingredients that I know people are familiar with. So that the guest perhaps looks at the plate and thinks, “Okay, fine, mashed potatoes, and so what?”–and then he or she tastes mashed potatoes that are completely different from what they know. We lift something familiar up to a different level so that they realize how good we are, without being subjected to long stories about food.
I care greatly for the hidden treasures. I don’t have a need to tell people how complex the food can be. The guests should find out for themselves that celeriac with condensed buttermilk is a simple dish that tastes fantastic. I hate receiving long lectures about food when I dine out, so I want my guests to also be spared that. One example: I make what I call condensed buttermilk by bringing buttermilk to a boil so that it coagulates, or separates. Then you take all the clear liquid, which constitutes about 85 percent of the fresh buttermilk, and remove all impurities. Then you get a liquid that tastes like buttermilk. Then you reduce it to next to nothing so that you are left with a small brown texture that almost looks like granulated sugar. It is SO acidic. It is not pleasant by itself, but acid can draw fat, so we blend it with browned butter and pour it over the celeriac in great quantities, like chocolate sauce on vanilla ice cream. That sauce costs more than five celeriacs and is pretty complicated to make, but no one knows that. Or needs to know that. The guests only know that it tastes good.
I would like to keep things as simple as possible. If I serve a guava sorbet, then 99 out of 100 people will ask: “What in the world is guava?” It’s like saying “pear” in Europe, guava is just a pear in South America. But you need to use your brain to process all of that and to sit there and mess around with the desserts and consider: “Hmm, there are both some pear and some apple notes here?” It is not until all the detective work is finished, that you truly begin to taste it. In that case, I would rather just serve a pear sorbet. It is, in my view, humble. And uplifting. I would rather be a vagrant who impresses, than a guy in a tuxedo who disappoints. It is very fashionable today to say that you have a test kitchen. “We had our test kitchen develop this dish.” But to me, the kitchen is a kitchen. It is where we cook. I am simultaneously so free in my mind and so focused that I play in the kitchen–maybe random things meet on the cutting board, maybe they meet in my head, maybe the dish is conceived somewhere in between.
Sometimes, new dishes arise out of fury–at other times they are a calm, well-considered tribute. The inspiration comes in all kinds of possible and impossible ways, but over time I have discovered that my ideas rest on five pillars: the Rage, the Tribute, the Introduction, the Reunion, and the Journey.