Friday, August 20, 2010

just what is a culinary point of view?

A previous post about one's culinary point of view (CPOV) failed to include something rather basic: a definition of the term. The purpose of this post is to redress that crucial omission. I can't promise a neat and clean definition in the lexicographer's sense (and keep in mind that lexicographers do occasionally get things wrong: ask any philosopher who flips through a Webster's and stumbles upon definitions of certain important philosophical terms), but I'll do my best to offer as clear a perspective as possible of CPOV.

I first encountered the term while watching episodes of "The Next Food Network Star" (TNFNS) a couple seasons back. The term was used primarily by the judges, and over the course of the grueling series of challenges, was embraced as a basal concept by the contestants as well. I haven't flipped around the channels enough to know whether the term is bandied about outside the context of the Food Network, so I'll leave that open to speculation and eventual field work.

When TNFNS judges use the term CPOV, it's often in the context of dissatisfaction: they're looking for a certain coherence/harmony that's both plainly visible and consistent over time. The term's meaning isn't confined to questions of, say, ethnic style and tradition, though a CPOV can indeed be rooted in such things. A chef's CPOV can also refer to concepts like "making high-end cooking easy for the home cook" or "cooking at a professional level." A TNFNS contestant who comes into the contest saying only, "I want to cook good food" or "I want to cook food that'll wow you" isn't saying anything very specific.

A recent example of the refinement of one's CPOV might be Herb Mesa, a finalist in this past season's TNFNS. Herb seemed to be having trouble embracing his Latin roots; some of his dishes appeared to have been geared toward pleasing the judges by any means possible, and the result was food that lacked focus and conviction. It's implied through every season of TNFNS that a clear CPOV is conducive to better cooking: knowing oneself automatically leads to greater focus and better delivery of the goods. When Herb finally got the message that he should embrace his puertoriqueño and cubano roots, and fuse them with his personal-training philosophy of light but robust eating, he snapped into focus and catapulted himself into the final round. The beautiful dishes he had cooked early in the contest were all Latin or Latin-accented. Toward the end of the contest, he returned to that style.

For that same season, and as an interesting contrast, we can look at the example of Doreen Fang, who was dismissed early on because of her lack of focus. In her case, the judges felt she was giving them whatever came off the top of her head, and the result was a mess in the kitchen: tough pork ended up being her downfall. Paul Young lasted several episodes longer, but the judges were, in the end, turned off by his attempts to try on different hats with every contest. In his case, it wasn't just the cooking that lacked focus: it was his presentation style.

For contestants vying to become the next Food Network star, having a discrete CPOV is crucial not only because it benefits their cooking, but also because it improves their marketability. I tend to associate the term most closely with judge Bobby Flay, who hammered the contestants with the doctrine; but fellow judges Susie Fogelson and Bob Tuschman have gladly taken up the refrain as well. Flay's focus was on the contestants' cooking chops, but Fogelson and Tuschman were looking for star power.

Can the term "culinary point of view" be defined concisely? I'll give it a try:

CPOV = a frame of reference that (1) incorporates any combination of the elements of style, technique, ethnicity, professional standards, or some other aspect of cooking; and that (2) impels a cook or chef to produce food in a consistent manner that will, over time, reveal the cook's or chef's distinct individuality.

Possible corollary: the greater the distinctness, the clearer the culinary point of view.

Having said all that, I think that many contestants have gotten away with CPOVs that don't stand up under scrutiny. One example, heard with painful frequency, is that a certain chef prefers "big, bold flavors." (The likable Aaron McCargo comes immediately to mind.) While this sounds like a fairly specific point of view (the big, bold chef apparently stays away from small, meek flavors-- by which we probably mean subtle, mild flavors), it's actually quite expansive, and not very helpful in clarifying what a chef is all about. Another example of a vague CPOV is often heard on "Iron Chef America" (ICA) when a challenger is being introduced: "he/she prefers to cook with fresh, organic, local ingredients, and tries to keep the cooking simple, allowing the ingredients' natural flavors to shine." This, too, sounds very nice, but since most of the challengers on ICA seem to fall into this category, it doesn't seem like much of a CPOV.

That's why I love hearing CPOVs that are all about style and ethnicity. Cat Cora does Greek/Southern cuisine, for example. Masaharu Morimoto does fusion Japanese/Western cuisine (look no further than his velvety cream sauces for evidence of this). Guy Fieri does California fusion with a focus on Asian/Tex-Mex combinations. And so on. Such CPOVs are fascinating to me, and tell me a lot about the chefs in question. I'm sure that all chefs step outside their comfort zones to cook food that doesn't normally fall within the bounds of their CPOVs, but it's the CPOV itself that acts as the jumping-off point for such risks. Otherwise, it's just random experimentation, just zigzagging, with no guarantee of consistency.

So that, folks, is my take on what a culinary point of view is.


1 comment:

Elisson said...

I think your attempt at defining CPOV nailed it. Much better than the vague, "I'm not sure what it is, but I know it when I see it."

Aarti Sequeira was helped by a very consistent CPOV; Herb Mesa made the finals because he finally figured out that he had one - and a very marketable one, too. I'm hoping they throw him a show, too.