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"Modern American," Phil said. "Contemporary American?" I suggested.
"How 'bout this: Global Fusion."
Global Fusion wasn't half bad. Phil Baltz and I were bouncing ideas off each other in a phone conversation back in 1997. I had called Phil, a whip-smart friend whom I could always count on for good ideas, in a real predicament. People of various intents-customers, purveyors, other cooks-were asking over and over, "So what exactly do you call your food, Rocco?" And I didn't have an answer. Here I had spent untold hours building and defining a personal cooking style, and yet I was stumped when challenged to categorize it.
I did know what it wasn't. It wasn't, by a long stretch, classic cuisine. Was it fusion food, that hot buzz phrase of the 1980s and '90s that describes multi-ethnic hybrid cuisine? No, not quite. Although I do get a kick out of mixing old-school techniques with ingredients from around the world, my cooking is driven more by gut feel, and less by formula, than what is generally referred to as "fusion food."
Phil and I coined a few more ineffectual two-word phrases that day. None fit very well, and in the end I decided there was only one way to describe my food: "Rocco DiSpirito cuisine." I knew this wouldn't be particularly helpful as a description, but the futility of the whole process-the attempt to pigeonhole any chef's work into a textbook definition-was a real eye-opener. For one thing, I saw the danger in self-branding. The mere thought of having to live up to a world-spanning title like Global Fusion Chef for the rest of my cooking days made me edgy and claustrophobic. Naming one's food may be convenient, but it punishes the cook with a litmus test that has to be passed with every new dish. If I had to ask myself, "Now, is this what I'm supposed to be making?" every time I developed something new, I'd go crazy.
As I thought more about it, it dawned on me that a good many of America's chefs cook intensely personal food that can't be neatly labeled except in terms of that chef! There's Daniel Boulud cuisine, Nobu Matsuhisa food, Alice Waters dishes, and Charlie Trotter style. Bring up the subject of vegetable juices with another enthusiastic cook and I'll bet you that somewhere in the conversation, a phrase like "Jean-Georges food" (as in Jean-Georges Vongerichten) turns up.
I think we're basking in the golden age of American cooking. Decades of rampant experimentation have resulted in a move away from that old culinary yardstick-classical French cooking. Chefs are free to create, to tinker, to reinterpret. Thanks to improvements in shipping and the marvelous, melting-pot character of our population, America's access to diverse ingredients is matched nowhere else in the world. Restaurant service has come into its own, with a style that is increasingly less ceremonious and more genuinely hospitable. And guess what? American food is no longer the butt of jokes in other countries. Just ask that group of Japanese tourists who have a reservation at Union Pacific next week, or the German family that has made dinner at New York's Gramercy Tavern a priority after reading about Tom Colicchio's food. What is Tom's food like? (I should know: his restaurant's a few short blocks away from my own.) It's American, and yet grounded in classic French, with an unswerving reverence for the seasons ... it's ... well, the best way I can describe it is to call it Tom Colicchio food.
On one of my nights out of the kitchen, you might find me hanging out with any number of New York City chefs. Twenty years ago, camaraderie among a city's chefs simply didn't exist. Why? The fact that everyone was plating up the same French standards made for some unfriendly competition.
Just as there is my kind of cuisine, there is a style of cooking out there with your name on it waiting to emerge. You don't have to be a professional cook to lay claim to your own body of cooking; in fact, professional training has little to do with it. You are already equipped with your cuisine's informing elements. You have preferences for certain foods over others, certainly. There are probably dishes you enjoy cooking at home and others you'd rather have someone make for you. And I'd bet you probably have a good instinct for which flavors go well together, too. If you surrender to your instincts, all these predilections, combined with the whole of your life experiences-your childhood, ancestry, culture, the place you grew up, the countries you've seen, your family's holiday traditions-will swirl together to become your personal cuisine. Nurtured to its fullest form, your cooking style will be as reflective of who you are as your wardrobe is. And you will feel as comfortable pulling together your own food as you do wearing your clothes.
What I'll share with you in this chapter are the elements that have worked for me. There are aspects of my cooking that are pretty idiosyncratic-my love affair with yuzu juice, for example. But I wouldn't have written this book if I didn't feel that some aspects have universal appeal and benefit.
If there's one thing I can do to help that inner chef come out of hiding, it's to get you to focus more on flavor and less on producing technically flawless, picture-perfect dinners. Maybe you've heard the debate over whether cooking qualifies as an art. Here's my two cents: depending on the maker's vision, it can be an art or it can simply be a craft, just as there are furniture makers who churn out utilitarian chairs and furniture designers whose conceptualized pieces appear in modern-art galleries. Cooking, I find, has two levels: technique and flavor. In technique you find the craft of cooking, and yes, anyone who cooks needs to know a few how-tos. A cook can choose to engross herself in the details of perfect pie crusts and emulsifications and never think about anything else. Technically perfect food is satisfying in much the same way a utilitarian chair can be comfortable. But beyond technical perfection is the second level of cooking: flavor. Flavor elevates cooking from a craft to an art. It can engage you intellectually and, I believe, should also always satisfy your cravings.
Flavor has always been a part of my life. I grew up in an Italian family that adored food. My grandmother immigrated to the United States from San Nicolo Baronia, a mountain village of 600 people in the Campagna region. She had a small farm on Long Island. I still dream about her lunches: plump little figs plucked from her backyard tree; fresh tomato sauces on hand-shaped pasta heaped in a giant bowl; eggs fried over a mess of sautéed peppers, onions, and garlic. It was simple, rustic food filled with lusty, big flavors. That, more than anything, is how my Italian upbringing has influenced my food: I have always gravitated toward bold flavors. I owe the cooks in my family a second debt of gratitude, for it is from them that I learned to cook from my gut. We didn't use a lot of written recipes in my family; there was no need. Instead, my mother and her mother relied on their instincts, and their taste buds, to guide them through a pasta sauce or frittata.
Remember how I said that the place you grew up will ultimately shape your cuisine? If I had grown up in an Italian family in a small Wisconsin town, or in an Italian family in Italy, I'm sure my food today would be very different. But I grew up in an Italian family in Queens, New York, a borough within a city home to several dozen ethnic communities. When it came to eating out, my family was quite adventurous. I can remember eating Japanese food at about 9 years old, Greek at about 14, and a classic Cantonese dish, shrimp with lobster sauce, in a restaurant owned by a beautiful Chinese woman. I remember her and the flavors of that dish in great detail to this day. For me, discovering new flavors has always been an exotic part of big city life.
I went to the Culinary Institute of America after high school because I had heard that it was the best. I still believe that the education offered by the Culinary-or the CIA, as it is often called-is the best available to young cooks. The CIA's curriculum is mostly classical French, and no matter what their preferred cuisine, most cooks still elect to study French cooking. There are good reasons. Technique is central to French cooking, and technique encompasses a set of skills and ideas that can be taught in a classroom setting. Like a novice piano player who spends hours pounding out scales and one-handed drills, a new cook has to get down his knife cuts, stock making, and product identification before moving on to bigger things.
How much should technique matter to you? For home cooking, I feel that mastering a few basic techniques is sufficient. If anything, home cooks worry too much about technical details. Some of the best food I've had was lovingly prepared by my grandmother. She didn't know sauté from sautoir or baste from roast. It didn't matter. Her food was great because her palate told her so.
I continued cooking in restaurants after graduating from the CIA and then Boston University's School of Hospitality. A young, twenty-something cook with nearly a decade of professional cooking experience (I was 14 when I took my first job at a pizza shop), I defined my ambition in no uncertain terms: I wanted to be a French chef. That I hadn't imagined that there was another kind of cooking I could do is a testament to how much things have changed. I spent a year in France and then returned to the States to work with various French chefs.
In the early '90s, my career path veered off into new territory. Two things happened that would plant the seed which was to become my highly personal cuisine.
First, I got to know Southeast Asian food. Now, people living in West Coast cities are spoiled in this regard: Thai and Vietnamese restaurants have flourished there a long time. New York is much farther from Asia, and the East Coast didn't get its share of authentic Southeast Asian eateries until the late 1980s. I couldn't believe how exciting this food was. The bold, piquant flavors were matched and balanced so naturally, as if the ingredients had found their own way to one another. It resembled the Chinese and Japanese food I already knew well, but it had a vibrant brashness uncommon in other Asian cuisines. I knew right away that this was the kind of flavor I wanted in my own food. Something happens in certain ethnic cuisines that almost never does in European. The components of a dish may not taste all that good on their own. Put a bite of pad thai in your mouth, and the voices of the individual ingredients bellow on their own for a few moments before singing together in a harmonious, resounding chord. Fish sauce, lime juice, peanuts, eggs, and cilantro compete, then coalesce on the palate. It's an exciting tension followed quickly by a resolution-almost as if the cook is offering his diners a puzzle, and then the solution. Southeast Asian and Indian dishes best exhibit this tension and resolution.
Could this kind of effect be duplicated in food with a more European bent? I wondered.
The second turning point in my cuisine occurred when I went to work for Gray Kunz, the chef of the then-brand-new Lespinasse in New York. I was not the only French-trained cook intrigued by Southeast Asian flavors. Swiss-born Kunz had spent years in Asia, and his refined cuisine incorporated the many ingredients he had worked with there. His food was not merely delicious in the way a perfectly executed sole meunière hits the mark. Kunz's food was exciting. One day I paid close attention to a sauce I thought was outstanding, and I had an epiphany. The sauce was successful because it had a logical complexity, and all the elements countered one another. There was tension and contrast among the ingredients, but because each opposing ingredient had been painstakingly balanced, the sauce was neither too sweet, too sour, too salty, nor too bitter.
From the day I opened my first restaurant, Annabelle, in 1995, exciting flavors and taste balance have been the crux of my food. I've tweaked and honed and played around, just as any chef does. Some flavor combinations have resonated strongly for me, and these I come back to season after season, year after year. I think the food we served in the early days of Union Pacific was perceived to have a distinct Asian aesthetic. As my palate has broadened, so has my food, and today the accent is less specifically Asian.
My lifelong mission to uncover new ingredients continues. I visit Chinatown produce stands and Indian markets in Jackson Heights, Queens, and I've cultivated a network of purveyors who constantly introduce me to new ingredients. Every time I meet a new food, I am both humbled and inspired by the reminder that it would take three lifetimes to get to know all the ingredients of this world.
Why do I hunt so enthusiastically for new ingredients? What fascinates me about products like Indian mustard oil, sumac, and huitlacoche (a Mexican fungus)? It's simple: I'm a naturally curious person who never tires of new experiences. For my customers, novel flavors add another level of interest to their dining experiences. Just as some vacationers return to their favorite destination every year while others never go to the same place twice, most of my diners prefer surprise to familiarity. But to tell you the truth, not all the dishes at Union Pacific include exotic or unusual ingredients. Some, like my eggplant with fig soup, rest on a combination of common products rounded up at the Union Square Greenmarket just a few blocks from Union Pacific's front door. Yet, you'd probably find that my dishes made from everyday ingredients have the same personality-the same taste profile-as my dishes that contain unusual foods. How does this happen?
There is a thread that connects my menu's offerings, running through and stringing together dishes with vastly different-sounding names. The cohesiveness exists because when I create a new dish, I know the taste profile I want to achieve before a single raw ingredient is prepped. In a nutshell, I want forthright, expressive flavors that flank a balanced juxtaposition of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter tastes. Whether I'm fiddling with a lobster salad or developing a chilled fruit soup, I zero in on balance and big, stand-up-and-be-noticed flavors-an aesthetic similar to Southeast Asian food. Many Westerners are titillated by Thai and Vietnamese food. Ask them why, and I suspect most people would credit flavors experienced for the first time. In my opinion, newness is only half the phenomenon: the way flavors work together in Southeast Asian recipes is sheer magic. This premise, basic and empowering, is never far from my mind.
We use Western technique, not Asian, at Union Pacific.
Excerpted from FLAVOR by ROCCO DISPIRITO WITH KRIS SHERER Copyright © 2003 by Spirit Media, LLC. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
|Part I||Taste Buds in the Kitchen|
|Chapter 1||Finding Flavor||9|
|Chapter 2||Some Tips for Using This Book||35|
|Chapter 7||Side Dishes||227|
|Chapter 9||Reserve List||285|
|The Four Tastes||318|
|Ingredient Guide with Sources||330|
|Directory of Internet & Mail Order Suppliers||337|
Posted November 30, 2003
I was thrilled when my copy came in the mail yesterday. I was so impressed with the looks of the book, the food looks fantastic. I only gave it three stars because so many of the recipes have such hard to find ingredients. Salt Lake City Does Not Have A Chinatown Rocco!! I cannot get many of these items here and it is semi frustrating for me to not be able to create a recipe that relies on any one ingredient that I cannot get! Ramps, goose or duck fat, fresh lavender?? Nope,not in Provo, Utah. That's okay. My teenage daughters and I enjoy just looking at the pictures of Rocco. We bought the book mainly cause of the cover anyhow. YumWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 1, 2003
Posted October 29, 2003
FLAVOR is an exceptional cook book. Rocco is not just a great chef, but also a great teacher. I have always judged flavor by how much salt and pepper was needed to 'balance' a dish and have completly overlooked bitter and sour. Rocco's FLAVOR provides easy to follow receipes that balance all four 'tastes' beautifully. Cooking with Rocco is a life-changing experience. It will change your philosophy about cooking and turn a good home cook into a great home chef, as well as help you discover your palate and find out where your FLAVOR is.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 22, 2009
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Posted December 6, 2008
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Posted July 21, 2010
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