A Chef’s Point of View on Cuisine and Culture

Simón A. Crespo Pérez

August 9th, 2019

A Chef’s Point of View on Cuisine and Culture

Abstract

            For my final research paper, I have decided to conduct a deep ethnographic interview on a chef. The purpose of this paper, similarly to our class content, readings, presentations, and assignments, is to investigate the relationship between humans, cuisine, and culture. The most important aspect in my paper is to understand the present conceptual trend in cuisine: it is way more than just about nourishing us, it is about transmitting ideas, like art, and of doing effective business with it. The structure of the paper is built, so the reader can understand this.

Introduction

            It is a sunny and windy afternoon in Guayaquil, Ecuador, when I had the amazing opportunity of visiting Juan Carlos Nehme, a twenty-one-year-old Ecuadorian chef, in his beautiful home filled with exquisite national art and colorful gardens. He receives me with a relaxed look and a warm smile. His outfit seems typical of a chef: red Crocs shoes, socks with donuts print, black jean pants, black t-shirt from the famous Koy Shunka restaurant in Barcelona, trendy glasses, wild hair and beard, and a body full of tattoos. As I contemplate the art collection in his home, he prepares me a delicious French press coffee. For the next couple of hours, we engaged in an ethnographic interview, that seemed like a passionate conversation about his origins and motivation, his life as a chef, and his views on cuisine and culture and how they affect our future.

Origins and Motivation

Juan Carlos loved cuisine since he was a little kid. For him, food creation and consumption have always been related with family and sharing. This idea is embodied in his childhood memories with his paternal and maternal sides of his family. On his paternal side, which migrated to Ecuador due to the Lebanese Civil War, he has important memories of helping his father with assisting him in barbecues, and of helping his grandmother in preparing grape leaves filled with lamb, a traditional dish from Lebanon. He gets nostalgic when he remembers he cannot cook any more with his grandmother due her health issues. On his maternal side, which migrated to Ecuador due to the Spanish Civil War, he learned how to appreciate the pleasure of good eating from his mom and grandmother even though both of them didn’t cook. On both sides of his family, he was inculcated the love for cuisine, but on his father’s side he was also instilled the love for preparing it. Additionally, cuisine can break socio-economic barriers. Olivia, which was his childhood nanny, was from the coastal towns of Ecuador, and when he went to visit her in vacations, Olivia’s family would prepare him humitas, a Native American dish from Pre-Hispanic times. Not only did cuisine meant sharing with his family, but also with people from different socio-economic status. Cuisine made him more human. Do the beautiful experiences with his family and nanny made him remember these delicious dishes? Or do the delicious dishes made him treasure these beautiful experiences with his family and nanny? From what we talked about, and we will discuss later, it seems it’s the first option. A particular dish can be delicious, but the full experience is the factor that makes it memorable.

            Juan Carlos didn’t always want to be a chef. When he was in high school, he wanted to play professional basketball. He was in the school team and had played in international competitions in Argentina and in the United States of America. At that point in his life, his plan was clear: he would go to the United States and be a student-athlete in a university. He didn’t even think about what he would study because that was secondary. The main point was to go professional. Sadly, he suffered a devastating injury in his junior year of high school that stopped his dream of making basketball his career. It was a terrible experience but looking at it from the present perspective, it was probably the best thing that could happen to him. Since the basketball dream was over, he started searching for a new passion in the summer of his junior year going to senior year. He tried architecture, engineering, and law. None of these careers seemed to spark joy to him. Until one day, he went to a nearby restaurant from his home, called La Pizarra, with his family, where he was friends with the chef, Juan José Morán. Juan Carlos talked to the chef about his struggle to find a new passion, and the chef offered him an internship. He accepted. In the first day of the internship, Juan Carlos worked for twelve hours and forgot about the physical pain caused by the injuries. It was love at first sight.

Becoming a Chef

After doing the internship in that restaurant, he was convinced that cuisine was the path he wanted to follow. His parents were fully supportive since they don’t care what their children do as long as they strive to be the best. Thanks to some business contacts of his father, the creator of contemporary Peruvian cuisine, Gastón Acurio, recommended him to attend the Basque Culinary Center of Mondragon University in San Sebastián, Spain. The other options for studying were Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Following the advice of one of the best players in the gastronomic game, Gastón, he went to Spain and join the team of four hundred students in the Basque Culinary Center in search for a Bachelor’s Degree in Gastronomy and Culinary Arts, which offers three specializations: chef, industrial, and management. Juan Carlos went for the chef specialization. The interesting thing of this institute is that you can arrive with zero knowledge regarding cuisine since they don’t care if you know or don’t know. What they care about is your passion. They teach you from how to properly crack an egg to oenology, which is the science of wine. Grades are based on accomplishing objectives, not by courses. The school has alliances with the best chefs worldwide, so he has done internships in highly prestigious places, like in the Hilton Hotel of Guayaquil, in the Bajamar Brewing Company in Guayaquil, in the restaurant Singular by well-known chef Iñigo Lavado in Irún, in the restaurant Koy Shunka by well-known chef Hideki Matsuhisa in Barcelona, and in the restaurant Geranium by well-known chef Rasmus Kofoed in Copenhaguen. In a couple of months, Juan Carlos will graduate.

The Future: Cuisine and Culture

            Juan Carlos explained to me that the current trend in cuisine is to understand it as a way of transmitting ideas, just like art. In certain ways, cuisine has always transmitted ideas, but it was not its main purpose, it was a secondary consequence. Currently, vanguard cuisine focuses mainly on transmitting ideas. It wasn’t always like that. In ancient times, food’s main purpose was to make us survive, and, then, as humanity developed, we focused on using it to survive and also invested time in making it taste and look good. Finally, in contemporary times, we are focusing on its deepest aspect: the power of transmitting ideas. Just to make it clear, someone can argue that food has always transmitted ideas, and they might be right. The thing is that now we are appreciating and being aware of it more than ever and making it a central pillar. If you read different dictionaries, the most common definition of art is the expression of human creative skill and imagination in order to create works that can be appreciated for their beauty and power of transmitting ideas that have an effect on us. Cuisine has entered the category of art. Just like cuisine has undergone through a historic process during millenniums, Juan Carlos went through a similar process in his years of university. First, when he just arrived, he focused exclusively on making dishes that taste and look good. As time passed, he discovered the deeper meaning of cuisine and his approach changed by first coming out with a concept or idea, and then worrying about the aesthetic side of it. Now we have an answer to the question of the third paragraph: do the beautiful experiences with his family and nanny made him remember these delicious dishes? Or do the delicious dishes made him treasure these beautiful experiences with his family and nanny? The answer seems to be that the dish becomes memorable due to the idea of sharing through the human experience of being with his family and loved ones, like his nanny.

            Juan Carlos provided two real life examples to support his claim that food is currently based on transmitting ideas trough experience: one of them is the Peruvian chef and businessman Gastón Acurio, described earlier as the creator of contemporary Peruvian cuisine, and the other is the American chef Grant Achatz. When Gastón entered the culinary world, he knew that Peruvian food tasted good and had rich history, but he saw the weakness it had in transmitting ideas in the international scale. Consequently, he decided to give identity to it. How do you give Peruvian cuisine identity? By transmitting it through the experience. Consequently, he designed an ambitious business plan, which consisted in opening Peruvian cuisine restaurants in international locations, like Chile and Spain, and in Perú too. Besides serving delicious dishes, he made sure to transmit the idea of Perú’s identity through the restaurant’s experiences. Additionally, he commercialized Peruvian culinary inventions like Huancaína sauce, focusing not only on the quality of the product, but also on the experience side of it, or the marketing. Through his restaurants and products, he told the story of Peruvian cuisine identity and culture. The effect was making international people to fall in love with Peruvian cuisine in their own countries, and then traveling to Perú to try it locally too. It is a genius plan. Differently from Gastón, which focused on transmitting a country’s identity, Grant Achatz focused on transmitting his own personal identity. Similarly to how Beethoven lost his hearing, Grant lost his sense of taste due to cancer. He didn’t want to stop cooking, so he focused on the texture and experience of the food, which were things he could manage, while he left to his assistant the job of the taste. Under this plan, he created Alinea, which has been named the best restaurant in America four times. Just like his life, the experience is based in texture; consequently, he serves dishes like helium balloons made of sugar, which means you have to suck the helium, which makes you laugh and talk funny, and then you can eat the sugary material. What a wonderful way is to start a meal with a laugh! He created a restaurant that focusses on transmitting his personal story through experience. Luckily, through the years, he has recovered the sense of taste.

Conclusion

            Clearly, a particular dish can be delicious, but the full experience and idea that it is transmitting is the factor that makes it memorable. Juan Carlos lived this with his family and nanny, Gastón made a genius business plan that gave special importance in the marketing of the restaurant (the decoration, the menu, the music, etc.) to transmit an idea, and Grant captured it through his strange dishes. The plan of Juan Carlos is to copy the business model of Gastón in Ecuador not only because it will most likely make him rich, but also because it fulfills his ultimate goal of creating an international culture of Ecuadorian cuisine. It is a win-win situation: he does what he loves and earns money while being supportive of his country’s culture and people. When you elevate the cultural status of your cuisine, even the farmer who gathers the grains of rice or coffee starts to feel the improvements in their life. This happens because the chefs and owners of restaurants are obligated to invest money in their suppliers, like farmers, so they can get the best ingredients to work with. For example, if you own a seafood restaurant and are gaining international reputation, you would most likely pay more to your local fishermen, so they can get you the best seafood. His long-term plan is to invest his money and time in that project. To sum up, contemporary cuisine is heavily influenced by the concept of transmitting ideas, like cultural identity or personal stories, and creating effective businesses.

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