How Today’s New Rock Star Chefs Challenge Alice Waters’ Dogma

What to eat. What not to eat.
June 4 2014 8:39 AM

Noma vs. Chez Panisse

How today’s rock star chefs reaffirm and challenge Alice Waters’ dogma.

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Both Waters and the young chefs are, of course, serving haute cuisine. The cost of a dinner at Chez Panisse may not quite achieve the same stratospheric price as dining at Coi or Noma, but it is no bargain. Waters’ food, though, is routinely described as “unpretentious,” which means that rich people can eat it without feeling like Gilded Age robber barons dipping lobster in melted butter.

Like Waters, Patterson and Redzepi shun typical luxury ingredients like foie gras and filet mignon, but they don’t tend to attract the label unpretentious. Their ingredients may be modest, or even marginally edible by most cultural standards, but the preparations are not. The person-hours that go into each dish boggle the mind.

In the food world, at least, labor has replaced scarcity as the definition of a luxury good. It’s the labor of hand-rearing; of organic farming; of hunting, fishing, and foraging; of dehydrating and canning and pressing and distilling and all the rest. If artisanal is the new gourmet, it is because that which is conspicuously consumed in the former are the hours that highly educated craftsmen have spent bent over a stove, a still, or a deep woods trove of matsutake mushrooms.

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It is easier to see that when you read about Patterson scraping lichen off trees, but this labor is part of the luxury offered by Waters too. And that’s somewhat problematic for her politics. She cooks peasant food, but only rich people can afford it. Even her recipes can fall flat for the average home cook, since we are generally not cooking with the peak-of-perfection produce that Waters uses.

The conceit that farm-to-table cuisine comes straight to the diner unmediated by the kitchen obscures the enormous cost and expense associated with producing such food in the field and pasture. If nothing else, places like Coi and Noma do us a service by making those costs more apparent.

Whatever its flaws, Waters’ philosophy offers a coherent vision of what food is and what it should be. Waters’ is a didactic cuisine, a moral project that instructs us on the correct way to procure, cook, and eat food: support the local farmer, treat animals humanely, plant gardens for underprivileged children, luxuriate in vegetables, scorn processed food. It is explicitly value-laden and political.

Inside the test kitchens of the new generation, the culinary philosophies, such as they are, are weirder, more postmodern, and harder to parse. Where the Waters oeuvre tells us how to live, the “cookbooks” of Patterson and Redzepi barely tell you how to make a steak. The proper use of these cookbooks is not to replicate the recipes, much less a whole way of living, but rather to draw creative inspiration and to start thinking and tasting anew. The exhilaratingly odd plates served up in the stark, modern dining rooms of Coi and Noma are elite art, not a lesson in how we should all cook or eat every day.

Still, even as they reject Waters’ simplicity and traditionalism, Patterson and Redzepi affirm her other values: fresh, local, seasonal, and sustainable. Yet, by challenging the idea that the six elements of the Chez Panisse recipe are inseparable components of a natural category, the cooking of Redzepi and Patterson also suggests that other combinations of values might be possible—and moral.

The food production methods that Waters champions, for instance, would be nearly impossible to scale up to feed the country, let alone the world. James McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, estimates that if the United States’ 100 million cows were converted to grass-fed production, it would take half the land in the country to feed them. The solution he proposes is that everybody quit eating so much beef already, and Waters agrees with that. But it doesn’t negate the fact that beef is on her menu and in her cookbooks and that her solution to the environmental impacts of beef is to go grass-fed.

Similarly, local is generally quite sustainable on the scale of a few high-end restaurants, but it won’t actually be the greener option for every single ingredient. In certain cases, field tomatoes from far away might be better for the planet than greenhouse tomatoes from the neighborhood, and so on. Ingredient by ingredient, these debates are matters for scientists and economists, but it is safe to say that if all people ate like the patrons of these restaurants, not all their ingredients would continue to be sustainable, especially those which are foraged.

If the message from the new generation might not be as clear as Waters’, that very ambiguity may be valuable. They begin by teaching us that we can eat well—very well—without relying on the Chez Panisse formula. They hint at other solutions to the problem of ethical, green, appetizing food, solutions that don’t rely on an impossible-to-scale return to a romanticized version of our agrarian past. One could imagine a cuisine, for instance, that is sustainable but not local. In fact, one might want to imagine such a thing: fresh-sustainable-innovative-technological-global.

These chefs’ food is about the future, a future both highly technological and wilder than our world today, where our relationship to nature is closer and more delicious than ever.

This essay was originally published in the Breakthrough Journal. It is reprinted here, in edited and condensed form, with permission.

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