Oedipus Chef: A Modern Cook’s Conflicted Relationship with His Mother

How do you make culinary improvements on traditional meals without becoming too modernist?

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Let’s say you’re Italian. Your mother made “sunday gravy,” a rich meat sauce cooked for hours and hours on the back burner. There is sausage in there, and meatballs, and tomatoes, and lots of garlic. Now you are a respected chef. What are you going to do to pay tribute?

If you said, “dry the sausage out and microplane it into a teaspoon of concentrated tomato water,” you may be pigeonholed as a modernist. On the other hand, if you just make the same sauce your mom did, you may get called a hack. Just what is a conscientious cook supposed to do, anyway?

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The tension between tradition and innovation is challenging a lot of chefs these days, many of whom are searching for a third way out and not finding it. This became obvious to me last week when attending the Starchefs Congress, an international summit of culinary minds who come together to look at the latest kitchen equipment. In one demonstration, Davide Scabin, a chef of the future from Rivoli, Italy, gave a presentation on how to use “fresh dried tomatoes” from a vacuum bag, and how to make pasta so you can store it for five days in the refrigerator. He also made a risotto that looked a matzoh. (At least, I think it was risotto.) I was baffled. But Scabin insisted, as such chefs always do, that he was, at least in spirit, being true to the traditions of his grandmother.

Scabin was followed by a panel consisting of Mario Batali, the most influential Italian-American chef, Scabin, and Mario Carbone, one of Batali’s proteges. Carbone, along with his partner, Rich Torrisi, have their own experiment underway in how to modernize traditional cooking without completely perverting it, but it was almost impossible to nail either he or Batali down on just where the line was. What was a technique midway between mom cookery and tweezer food, I asked them? Mario said the key was in searing meat. Carbone said cooking spaghetti well. I walked away perplexed.

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It’s not just Italian-American chefs who face this question. In a recent issue of the brilliant food magazine Lucky Peach, there was a collection of recipes from Momofuku’s “mother’s day expo,” a kind of workshop in which chefs from David Chang’s various restaurants were invited to produce high-concept tributes to their mom’s cooking. Matt Rodofker, a Jewish cook at Ssam Bar, produced his version of the traditional deli platter: Tasmanian sea trout played a triple role as lox, pastrami, and corned beef, and olive oil-poached hake guest starred as whitefish salad. A Manischewitz wine cocktail, complete with bitters, gin, and simple syrup, accompanied the platter. It sounded weird to me, but it may have been good; at least the guy was trying to stay true to Jewish cooking by keeping the technique relatively simple. Spanish food hasn’t always been so lucky. The best thing about it—its rustic and raw materials—have too often ended up as disembodied broths and Star Trek-like food cubes in the hands of its modernist masters.

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The alternative— actually cooking like mom did — isn’t very attractive, even if people like myself do like it more. But although Carbone (who, like most of the chefs here, I know well) didn’t really articulate it, I know from eating his and Torrisi’s cooking that they are trying to make regular food better by doing things to it that the diner never sees but only appreciates. I wrote about their turkey sandwich a couple of years ago. It looks and tastes like turkey, only better. (The secret has to do with injection, brining, and a low-temp CVAP oven.) The same is true of Ana Sortun’s falafel (frosted with dark tahini), Michael White’s pork ragu (featuring hot pork fat blended back into the finished tomato sauce), or John Besh’s gumbo (embellished with tapioca pearls), in Cambridge, New York, and New Orleans. All these dishes are familiar, just improved by ingenuity and elaboration. In the long run, I suspect that culinary futurism and Mama’s Sunday sauce will both fall by the wayside, and chefs will grind forward, tweaking the familiar to be just a little bit better. It’s not dramatic, but at the very least, it’s honest work. And that would make any mother proud.