The perception of this act or process varies through time and space for individuals and societies. At the MAD 4 symposium (created by Chef Rene Redzepi of the famed Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark) to be held on 24-25 August, 2014, this query is probably directed at those who cook for a living. The international audience at this event held under a red circus big top is mainly comprised of individuals and groups from culinary and other related fields and professions. This unique two day event in Copenhagen has consistently focused on promoting thought provoking dialogue and this year, the discussion will center on the question of “What is Cooking?” Since the presenters range from cooks and chefs to scientists, social activists to food journalists and writers the presentations and dialogues cover a vast spectrum of topics. In the past three years culinary luminaries such Ferran Adria and Alain Ducasse have graced the stage and added gravitas to discussions at this forum. Incidentally the 2014 event is being co-curated by Chef Alex Atala of D.O.M, Sao Paolo, Brazil one of the most colorful and respected chefs of our times with a huge fan following.
Food, simply stated, is culture on a plate and it represents a society in a particular time or place. It is how cooks and human beings express themselves and feel fulfilled when they create something that connects them to other beings. Cooking is a part and parcel of the basic human desire to nurture and connect. Ever since the advent of fire into the human arena people mothers, grandmothers, hunters caregivers have been cooking to feed bellies and sustain life. In this piece the conversation is about the cooking by those who have chosen it as a profession.
Food like everything else evolves and changes over time and the boundaries are constantly being expanded as part of a natural progression. The creative act of cooking also empowers the cook to be courageous and defend their vision while moving beyond tradition and the accepted norms. Change is important and the young cooks who are leaders in the evolving face of the culinary art need to be recognized, celebrated and embraced. The future of cuisine and the direction it will take will emerge through this brigade of young cooks both male and female. It is our window into the future of gastronomy. However there are times when upon tasting a sublime morsel we applaud the cooks choice of this métier and on other occasions wish they taken another path in order to spare their diners the unnecessary techniques and ingredients to embellish their tasteless tasting menus.
Physically demanding, at the cost of familial relationships, monetary pressures, it is a tough place, this world of cooking and yet cooks choose to live their lives cooking. So what is cooking?
Most of the world cooks to feed hunger but we are part of a society where we feed not just a physical hunger but satisfy something more inside of us. Is cooking transforming ingredients? Is it creating new and revolutionary combinations of flavors? Is it recreating the past, are memories being revisited or cultures being explored? Do we need to study the historical evolution of this art /act to study how we ate in the past or to predict how and what we will be eating in the future? The future is built on the foundations laid through history as we are discovering through anthropological research but at the same time we are establishing the base for cooking assisted by technology and restricted by scarcity of resources that will surely occur in the future. Will we cooks be engaged in eradicating or mitigating hunger on our planet or self-absorbed and cooking for our paying audiences? Is the act of cooking the same in both instances?
It is hard to generalize because it is more a emotional and creative process rather than a physical or manual one since the cook bares his soul and puts it on display for the world to see. Cooking is a brave act in our present food culture because in this world of social media, Instagrams, Twitter etc. the cook opens up not to a small audience or his diners but to the world at large not knowing what response he or she will garner. Sadly, most successful (materially) cooks are not actively cooking anymore because their celebrity has taken them out of their kitchens onto TV screens or stages at symposiums or book signing events. There are positives to this status too as they have a voice that is heard and the power to change people and opinions for the enhancement of the society of cooks and it is heartening when they do so.
Do these cooks perceive cooking in the same way as a line cook, a home cook or a culinary student?. What about cooks who cook on an assembly line or designated stations to bring the head chefs vision to the plate? Are they cooking too?
The process of cooking has through time referenced the medicinal value of foods and herbs to heal our bodies from the times when we were foragers and hunters. In affluent societies around the world we have now started to regress and are now targeting our cooking towards better health or to building up resistance to diseases by using ancient sciences like Ayurveda and Chinese herbal medicines. Now is this still cooking or is it medicating? Some of us don't know and don't care, simply being focused on the benefits of ingesting these healthy foods and cooking with them.
Just as the process of cooking evolves, the perception or meaning of this act of cooking also changes constantly and makes this discussion pertinent and interesting. The role of cooks is changing in our society as we become involved in the process of cultivating, as well as sourcing products, the science behind the processing , our impact on the environment and the politics of food that seems to be at times distracting the cooks away from the paraphernalia of the kitchen and cooking.
Cooking can be referred to as an art, a profession, a menial act, a media sport in the Iron Chef arena, a quasi-scientific process, an emotional expression, the topic of discussion at forums, a means to satiate hunger, a bridge between man and the elements, an entrepreneurial or intellectual process that involves fire and heat etc. and I can go in and on about it. For those fortunate to be able choose to cook, it is an absolute joy and the only way to exist.
There are two events on the MAD Symposium calendar this week in NYC to generate funds to support the 2014 events by friends of MAD. A cocktail reception on 16th March at The Apartment by the Line with tickets sold at $200 for the evening. This will be followed by a $1500 per person dinner on 16th March at Eleven Madison Park. The diners will enjoy the cooking of Rene Redzepi, David Chang, Alex Atala, Barbara Lynch, and Daniel Humm with desserts by Christina Tosi and Angela Pinkerton.