Thursday, August 12, 2010

why have a culinary point of view?

Having a culinary point of view (CPOV) is perhaps the most essential quality of any chef who hopes to win at "The Next Food Network Star." I'm on record as saying that I appreciate this attitude and wish to apply it to my own life. Some commenters here at the Hairy Chasms have questioned whether having a culinary point of view is even necessary for a home chef (on TV, specificity = niche marketing), and I want to address that issue in this post.

I was fascinated when I first heard the CPOV refrain a couple seasons back. It made eminent sense to me that these contestants, in order to be successful, would need to practice γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnothi seauton), Know Thyself.* Essentially, one's knowledge of one's own CPOV is a type of self-knowledge: just who am I (as a chef)? As my commenters would agree, this has obvious implications for a person aiming to star in his or her own cooking show. Specificity perforce limits one's appeal as a TV host, but the target demographic will contain a high percentage of loyal repeat viewers. That's a market that can be cultivated, built upon, and exploited.

But what about for the home chef? Well, to me, the same logic applies: for me to be a successful home chef, it's important not to be willy-nilly in my approach to cooking. This doesn't preclude culinary experimentation and growth as a cook, but it does require me to examine what my strengths and preferences are, and to build from there. Just as we don't speak language in general, we don't cook food in general. Each meal is a specific articulation of our will and our skill. In a real sense, each meal we make expresses who we are. Having a CPOV goes a long way toward guaranteeing consistency in that expression.

In my case the problem is that, like some of the unfortunate contestants on "The Next Food Network Star" who washed out early, I still don't really know what my own CPOV is. The result, I think, is often mediocre, directionless cooking. Being able to cook a limited number of dishes to perfection is one thing, but being rooted in a clear CPOV would enable me to attack many more dishes, including recipes I've never encountered before. Beyond a general knowledge of the fundamentals, a person needs to figure out what they like and dislike, and build a repertoire that reflects their unique strengths. Success at home isn't the same thing as success on TV, but self-knowledge is, I would argue, key to both.

Even if one's CPOV is best labeled "experimental," that, too, is something specific. Look at the crazy chefs of Moto in Chicago. Every meal they create, mostly through molecular gastronomy, is a bona fide original, completely different from whatever had gone before, and yet there's a palpable consistency in what they do. Our CPOV determines our focus. I wouldn't want Korean food prepared by Bobby Flay (who would probably try to substitute gochu with chipotle), but I'd happily eat something Korean prepared by Guy Fieri, whose loose-limbed, freewheeling CPOV includes Asian ingredients.

CPOV matters, whether on TV or at home. It provides direction, whets our sense of purpose, and drives us to express ourselves in ways that faithfully reflect who we are.

UPDATE, August 18, 2010: This post neglects to define what a culinary point of view is; it assumes that followers of "The Next Food Network Star" are aware of how the term is used by the judges and the contestants. Still, the lack of a definition of CPOV in this post is a pretty glaring omission, so I'll be tackling that subject in an upcoming post.

*Referenced in "The Matrix" as the Latin "temet nosce," where the motto could be seen above the kitchen door of the Oracle. Originally an inscription on Apollo's temple at Delphi. See here.


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