Every once in awhile, I go through these phases where although I'm learning new techniques, I feel overwhelmed by the immense amount of ideas, ingredients, and techniques that I will never realistically have the time to explore. This is such an important part of the learning process, and one that makes the free-flow of ideas so much more important. We constantly read and find new ingredients that promise interesting results, and try to source and procure them. We bounce around the internet and stumble upon a technique (or recipe reference to a technique) that seems to have exponential applications, then either print, copy, scribble, and file them away to try later. The chagrin arises from the realization that we will never have the time to expand our knowledge as much as we want to. Think of the most basic of 'new' ingredients such as agar agar (which is not new by a longshot), and the millions of ways to utilize it. Ingredients and techniques beg to be explored.
Once you realize this... then begin to look around... you see how many others are out there doing the same thing to one degree or another. The amount of chefs out there exploring new ideas grows every year. Some of us are trying to keep current. Some of us are just opening the door for the first time. We are all somewhere in the middle of complete novice and master, building repertoires, and expanding our ideas. It's sort of like staring out at the universe. If you don't feel like this at times, then you probably need to adjust your perspective. We constantly find ourselves on either end of the information lifeline. Sometimes we can offer help and assistance to those who know less than us, and sometimes we are fortunate to have those who help us to understand things a little better. Our team is very blessed in that we have made a few friends that are much more knowledgeable than us. We are thankful to all of them for their willingness to share information.
Maybe it's the current political climate, or our recent travels of networking with other culinarians, but I have been quietly analyzing the changes and evolution of cuisine throughout my time in 'the business.' We have gone from a trade that values repetition and mastery of passed-on techniques to one based on pushing boundaries and exploring the new. It seems that ideas are not explored as much as they once were. This requires a different approach to learning. Documentation is key. Creating, analyzing, and re-creating are necessary. The game has become much more mental, and the passing of information is vital. The other big difference between 'old-school' and 'new school' is that most chefs don't keep secrets anymore. This is probably a necessity born from the lack of time to explore new ideas. Chefs share ideas to boost the evolution of them. The whole landscape of thoughts becomes much more organic. That's what's amazing to me about the new cuisine. Many people view it as being cold... as something almost removed from nature, but the truth is that the development of new ideas and food mimicks nature more than it ever has before (read the section on nature in "Cooking: The Quintessential Art" by Pierre Gagnaire and Hervé This to gain a new perspective on exactly what is 'natural'). Old ideas become stagnant if they are not allowed to grow. If such a rigidity is imposed on them that does not allow for self-expression, then they will wither and die. The organic side of new ideas spreads them out upon all sorts of grey soil like some kind of Johnny Appleseed of brain fodder.
After watching Jay Rayner's discussion with Ferran Adria this morning with my coffee after Alex and Aki's tip off, I felt a strange sense of consolation to my feelings of hopelessly never having enough time. Some of the translated words of Chef Adria brought me back to my mental happy place. He spoke of taste, which is often in contrast to what people often think of with El Bulli food. Technique and idea conception usually come to mind when looking at the Adria brothers' cuisine, but in essence it is purely driven by taste... as all food should be. This is very important as we have adapted a similar standard to keep ourselves mentally in check. Technique is cool, but without flavor for enjoyment, a dish is hopeless. I often use the example of Chef Wylie Dufresne's onion soup with our cooks. I look back on it as the best French Onion soup I've ever eaten... not because it had little perfect orbs of hot melted gruyere cheese floating in it, but because the flavor was phenomenal. Two of Adria's other comments reassured me with our progressions. He said that without closing El Bulli for 6 months and only doing dinner service the other 6, they would not be able to create. So in essence, if Ferran Adria (with his el taller and army of stages) could not find the time to create with 'other matters' surrounding him every day from morning to night, then I should not feel bad about my progression in the little time afforded to me. He also talked about creation versus service. His quote was, "It is one thing to compose a masterpiece, and another thing to perform it." This has been another guideline for us (and reassuring to hear). An idea matters very little unless it can be executed successfully. We've had a lot of success in trials that failed when we tried to utilize them under fire. Early on, this reinforced our adamance of 'sticking with what you know will work.' A lofty idea is useless if it doesn't make it to the guest. Analyzing methods under this criteria has helped us save face many times. Remember, in the end you are not cooking for you... you are trying to convey an idea or emotion to another human being... and if the bridge collapses, your mission has failed.