Thursday, April 29, 2010

Some thoughts from a line cook on IACP, Michael Ruhlman and the simplicity of cooking

This year's annual (IACP) conference, held in our lovely city of Portland, came to a close last weekend. I was pretty stoked to hear that some of the biggest names in food were experiencing some of what we have to offer, as I'm proud to be living in a city and working in a restaurant that does good work. But as the days went on, as photos of (and wild gossip about) the foodie glitterati got littered on Facebook and elsewhere, and as I talked to more of my fellow cooks, I grew warier by the day.

Most cooks I talked to had no idea what the IACP was before it arrived, myself included, and even while it was here knew very little about what purpose it served. For an organization that calls itself the International Association of Culinary Professionals, it was largely inaccessible to most of the cooks (presumably part of the "culinary professionals") in town, not to mention the Portland public. Every event that was open to the public cost money, and most were quite a bit--individual tickets for dinner events cost around $100 a head.

Besides the fact that tickets for the whole conference cost upwards of $700 for members and $900 for non-members, a figure that your average cook could never afford, it was held on what was essentially a long weekend for 9-to-5-ers, otherwise known as prime work time for cooks. The most that your average line cook could hope for was helping prep a dinner for the event, but more likely crossing his or her fingers that Ruth Reichl or Michael Ruhlman would eat at their workplace. While it's thrilling to feed a famous person, I can hardly see how it helps in furthering IACP's goal of connecting "culinary professionals with the people, places and knowledge they need to succeed".

I don't want to ruffle feathers, and I am by no means trying to diminish the impact that the conference had on my friends and colleagues who were fortunate enough to attend. Judging from Tweets and blog updates, the weekend was truly amazing for many. But I can't help but observe how unavailable the events and headliners were to the laborers of the actual restaurant industry, the ones who make the gears churn. The press, food critics, food writers and bloggers are no doubt vital in keeping our industry alive and healthy, but it's weird to be a mere observer of a huge event that is purportedly an attempt to connect culinary professionals. I'm sure it's not the intention of the IACP to leave us out, but it certainly was a byproduct of the event. It's as if a giant party is being thrown in your honor, but you're not invited. Or like when Kelly Kapowski couldn't afford to go to the Bayside High School prom, except we don't have our boyfriends to slow-dance with us outside.

I'm thinking we have to be our own Zack Morrises. I'm dropping some Saved By the Bell science on y'all mofos!

One specific thing that did come from the weekend, which has since ruffled many feathers, is a comment Michael Ruhlman, author of many cookbooks and the highly-regarded Making of a Chef "trilogy" (one that I'm currently enjoying), made in response to Karen Page's assertion that some people don't have time to cook. Portland's own Nick Zukin caught the action on camera:

Ruhlman then took to the Huffington Post to clarify his "bullshit" response, as he was certainly getting heat from Twitter and the general blogosphere for his comment. In short, he's asserting that people who claim they don't have the time to cook are merely making excuses or are simply lazy. "Working 12-hour days is a choice," he writes, as he explains how quite simple it is to throw a chicken in the oven for an hour while your kids joyously set the table and you "enjoy some carnal exertions with your partner during that hour".

One of my favorite foul-mouthed women and one of the most badassed chefs I know, Janis at Tanuki, responded in kind in a way that only she can. The blogosphere, of course, quickly picked up on the back and forth. Janis further clarified her point on Here's a snippet:

For the record, what I objected to was the blanket statement nature of the claim that anyone who says they don't have time to cook is "making excuses".

In the insular world of foodies I'm quite sure it is true that the people Mr. Ruhlman knows who say they don't have time to cook are pursuing other things that are choices. Entertainment, the gym, blogging, etc.

But how blind do you have to be to ignore the fact that there is a whole class of people in this society who raise kids while piecing together multiple part time jobs while using unreliable public transportation to support themselves?

First of all, can I emphasize again how much I love this lady? She doesn't give a shit what people think about her and her views, and despite the fact that I'm certain I skew far too liberal for her taste, and I disagree with some of her strong stances, we see eye-to-eye on many issues, this one included.

Besides the fact that I'm pretty certain Michael Ruhlman's attempt to bully or guilt lazy people into cooking won't work, and I have a certain distaste for his condescension, I want to explore a little more an aspect of this conversation that hasn't really been touched on too specifically: The fact that it's not just a time or a laze issue. Cooking is something that a lot of people, working-class or otherwise, are intimidated by, and the addition of mouth-breathing chef groupies, world-class food travelers, Food Network reality shows and the age of the celebrity chef certainly isn't helping. I have friends who do quite well for themselves financially and still cook rarely to never, not because they don't have the time or energy, but because cooking has become this deity, complete with a vast list of how-to's that it seems one must master before making a simple meal at home.

Cooking has evolved from an everyday necessity into a fun hobby; something that foodies can list on their internet profiles as a personal interest. Without knowing it, in their well-meaning attempts to make cooking accessible to everyone, I think the Michael Ruhlmans, Jamie Olivers and Alice Waters of the world have inadvertently made home cooking into something bigger and more intimidating than it ever had to be. I think about bicycle enthusiasts in the same way some people think about cooking and food: I do it because it gets me to where I need to be, but the whole culture surrounding it frankly intimidates me. I want to get a better bike but I'm afraid I'll pick the wrong one and get laughed at by people who actually know.

Any time we put emphasis on a necessity and dress it up seven ways to sundown, something that could (and should) be simple becomes a 12-step process. Organic, all-natural, biodynamic, sustainable, mise en place, low-fat, low-carb, no preservatives, free-range, artisan, Atkins, Whole Foods, New Seasons, paring knife, chef's knife, Wusthof, Swiss peeler, Microplane, Robot Coupe, Boos Block, Viking, Wolf, Escoffier, Reichl, Keller, Waters, Ruhlman... see what I mean? To an everyday person just trying to get by, the bombardment of accoutrements that comes with cooking is too much to handle. Sometimes it's too much for me to handle, and I do this for a living. By saying, "See how easy this is?" and "All you need is this!" to someone who gets frightened by the mere thought of touching a raw protein, the message inadvertently becomes a challenge, or even a taunt. The message of "You're doing it wrong" is everywhere, and the Lean Cuisines and rotisserie chicken in a bag start to look mighty appealing.

This is not to say I don't agree with what the aforementioned cooks and food writers are trying to do. The way people eat has become a health crisis, no doubt about it, and my bleeding liberal heart hopes against hope that Jamie Oliver will turn public school lunch systems on their heads and stop counting french fries as vegetables. But I can't force my peers to think the same way about food that I and my fellow cooks do: It's something that feels right, that I enjoy doing, that makes me happy. Bear in mind this is coming from someone who just mixed a can of garbanzo beans and a can of tuna fish with parsley, lemon and chili flake and called it lunch. I'm no food elitist, but I would love to see more people skip the McDonald's dollar menu and pick up some veg at the farmer's market instead. I won't, however, talk down to people for not wanting to try their hand at a simple roast chicken.

All I'm saying, really, is simplicity is almost never that simple.


The Guilty Carnivore said...

Great post!

For the record, last night I made my daughter some seared salmon, with a side of sauteed green beans and buttered orzo. Then I made my wife her favorite whole wheat pasta dish. Then I worked on the computer, and when I got hungry after the kid and wife went to bed, I opened a can of sardines and ate it with some leftover rice. Then I nuked a frozen salisbury steak.

Brian Lew said...

Great Post Ingrid!!
You hit it on the head... It is now the fear of doing it wrong more than just having fun and cooking. Your analogy between cooking and cycling is spot on!!


cathy said...

Wow. That's a really insightful take on the Ruhlman/IACP discussion.

I've been wrestling with Ruhlman's thoughts for a few days. I agree in part, but I'm not so willing to call people who don't cook lazy.

I'm a stay-at-home mom, and my husband is unemployed so cooking healthy food is essential and challenging to do on a budget, but I have cooked professionally, and I teach cooking classes sometimes now.

I agree with you that the current food-obsessed culture has made cooking seem like a fine art instead of a simple, natural way of taking care of ourselves.

The closest I could get to the IACP last week was via twitter, and that is how I found your blog post here. I'm grateful.

Ingrid said...

Thanks, guys! Gotta love the frozen steak styles, GC.

@cathy: Thanks for the kind words! I agree in part with Ruhlman too, but his tone of accusation and his approach is so completely off-putting that he's dug himself into a bigger hole, IMO. Love your blog and your mission, by the way!

Josh said...

I certainly don't agree with elitism in any form, but I do agree with Ruhlman's arguement that companies who produce the quick food have convinced people that they are too busy to cook. This doesn't apply to everyone but there is a vast portion of the general population who have embraced the idea that they are too busy to cook their own food.

Anonymous said...

The average family DOESN'T have time to cook anymore.

What people fail to recognize/admit is that working wages have continually been going down since the 1970's while costs and consumption have continued to go up. In a 2 parent household, frequently both parents HAVE to work and daycare has become the rule rather than the exception. Sometimes one of the parents works 2 jobs not just 1. And single parent families-no idea how they do it.

In addition, companies and advertising have convinced people they can't cook and shouldn't cook. My favorite(granted I don't see a lot of tv because I won't pay for it) is a commercial for pre-made mashed potatoes where they show a lady STRUGGLING to PEEL the potatoes. Seriously. Advertising wizards have now made making mashed potatoes a difficult, intimidating, and highly time consuming task.

I don't know the whole solution, all I know is that this shit food is killing us and it tastes like crap.

Boogie Man Montoya said...

That is beautifully stated. A true statement on what can inspire a person to cook without throwing a slew of pretty pictures and equipment recommendations at them. Kudos.

Anonymous said...

Well sure Ingrid, I guess you could decide to be all articulate an' shit instead of just spewing profanities on twitter.

I guess that's a valid lifestyle choice.

mrjeffmccarthy said...

"dropping some Saved By the Bell science" was classic. Nice bit o' writing girl.