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.

Final Project: Noddle Narrative by Simón A. Crespo Pérez

Simón A. Crespo Pérez

August 4th, 2019

Final Project: Noodle Narrative

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmZrZFGEjIw

In Guayaquil, Ecuador, there is a tight Italian community where everyone knows each other. When I was asking around who can I interview regarding Italian culture and cuisine as immigrants, the name of Rosa Perasso-Miraglia was repeatedly mentioned. She is the great-granddaughter of Giovanni Perasso and husband to Mario Miraglia, both Italian immigrants. She received me in the apartment she shares with her husband, we talked for a little while, and then I proceed with the interview. It was a blast!

Mrs. Perasso-Miraglia, who is now 58 years old and a real estate agent, is an excellent cook that learned the art of cooking Italian food when in college at Syracuse University she went abroad for a full year to Florence, Italy in the early 1980’s. She described how her father Carlos Perasso encouraged her to take that opportunity because they were feeling that the Italian traditions that Giovanni Perasso brought from Italy were being forgotten. She strongly believes that the reason the traditions were lost was because her great-grandfather married an Ecuadorian, not an Italian. Consequently, through the years, the Hispanic side had more force. During her time in Florence, she not only learned to master the language of her ancestors, but also all the secrets and techniques of Italian cuisine, particularly of antipasto, pasta, and dolce, from a professional cook.

In 1988, she married the love of her life Mario Miraglia. They call each other l’amore della mia vita. When she married her husband, she also married his family. Especially, her mother-in-law and the nonna of her children, Teresa Orabona, widow of Vittorio Miraglia. Teresa was her second school in Italian cuisine and a more important one since she not only taught her the secrets and techniques of it, but also the personal side of it that were the traditions around the food. The two more important traditions she recalls are the family recipes of the Miraglia-Orabona ancestors and the tavola.

Until this day, Rosa keeps the hand-written recipes in a locked drawer. Her favorite recipe is how to make the fresh pasta of gnocchi that Teresa taught her. It is special because her father-in-law, Vittorio, was allergic to potato, and gnocchi is made of potato, flour, egg, and water; consequently, Teresa had to find a way to alter the recipe without losing the flavor. So, Rosa makes gnocchi without potato, which is a family secret that she has the responsibility to protect. The next tradition was the importance of the tavola, which is the table where everything revolves around. She misses when her children were kids and the nonna would yell: “bambini a la tavola!”. In that table, they ate, laughed, argued, and even cried. Everything that families do together.

Rosa and Mario cook pasta, specifically noodles, in their own household at least once a week. They obtain the noodles from an Italian brand they buy in the grocery store, but the sauce is always made by Rosa. Her favorite sauce is pesto, which is from the Italian city of Genoa where Giovanni Perasso was born. She doesn’t associate different kinds of noodles with different socioeconomic levels, but she remarks that stuffed pasta can be more expensive than non-stuffed pasta due to ingredients, like ricotta and spinach. But, still very accessible.

Noodles, and food in general, have influenced Rosa culturally in a very particular way. Food was the means and the end in feeling like home for her. Pasta was a medium to arrive home, but also the final destination. Pasta, which includes noodles, was a mean because it was a tool to connect back with her origins. Rosa’s family was losing their touch with their Italian origins since decades had passed since Giovanni Perasso migrated, so Rosa used cooking, both in Florence and with her mother-in-law, to connect back with her origins. Through food she learned the customs of this social group that she wanted to reincorporate. In addition, food acted as an end in feeling like home. Once she learned the culture through food, she used it constantly to feel a part of it. She doesn’t have to go to Genoa to eat pesto, now she can make it to by her own. Food is a home that you can take everywhere. She says, “the noodle is a pillar of our culture”.

According to Rosa, the changes in Italian society are reflected in the noodle dishes and diets. For her, the major factor of change reflected in food creation and consumption is communication. The logic of this is that thanks to communication more and more people can be a part of something. In ancient history, each region of Italy was associated with a particular food. In the present, you can eat it anywhere. For example, the Genoa pesto sauce that she loves, can be found in Napoli too. Similarly, the brand of pasta she likes, can be found in Ecuador, Italy, and the United States. Another example of modern communication is social media, like Instagram and YouTube. Via her phone, she can be aware of new recipes and trends. In modern times, she probably would not have traveled to Italy for cooking lessons since she could do it from the comfort of her own home. She says that the Mediterranean diet can be found everywhere now. Communication is highly important in letting culture evolve and attract more people.

Rosa strongly believes that American culture has manifested itself in the noodle’s cultural DNA because for her just like China and Italy have their own versions of noodles, the United States has it too. She gives the examples of macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, and fast food pizza. Just like China started the noodle (most likely), then Italy embraced them and give noodles their own identity, now it is the turn of the United States. She believes that the American noodle identity is heavily influenced by its capitalistic culture of living fast and not wasting time cooking.

Interviewing Mrs. Rosa Perasso-Miraglia was truly an enriching experience.  This is the story of an Italian immigrant that fought to preserve her culture, and the most wonderful aspect is how food was a pillar of it. After the interview, she proceeded to cook for me the most delicious spaghetti with pesto sauce I have ever tried. To sum up, if we take time to ask questions and listen, we can find wonderful food narratives in everyone, in this case a noddle narrative of an Italian immigrant.

 

Journal #4: Under the Basque Sun by Simón A. Crespo Pérez

Journal #4: Under the Basque Sun by Simón A. Crespo Pérez

In the summer of 2018, I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to visit Spain with my extended family. It was a beautiful trip which center and main point was food; consequently, we went to different cities in different regions: Barcelona, Córdoba, Granada, Madrid, San Sebastián, Sevilla, and Toledo. Among the various destinations, food was especially extraordinary in San Sebastián, which is one of the major cities of the Basque Autonomous Region in Northern Spain.

According to our tour guide in San Sebastián, Basque cuisine is among the best in the world for two main reasons: its taste and its meaning. Regarding its taste, he explained to us that the city has one of the highest numbers of Michelin Stars per square meter, and that they have their own style of tapas, known as pintxos, for 1 to 3 euros each. Regarding its meaning, he explained to us that for them, eating is a way of socializing. Meeting with family or friends practically always means eating in a restaurant or cooking at home.

Pintxos consist of small slices of bread upon which an ingredient or a mixture of ingredients is placed and fit together with a toothpick, which gives the food its name (pintxo means toothpick). I will proceed to describe the ingredients of the very best pintxos I tried, which always go with a bread and toothpick.

Gilda: it is considered the first pintxo in the city, and it is made of olives, anchovies, and pickled pimento.

Txuleta: it is made of grilled steak made from aged, grass-fed beef.

Kokotxas: it is made of hake cheeks with pil-pil sauce (salt cod, garlic, and olive oil).

Foie Gras: it is made of fattened duck liver and marmalade.

Spider Crab: it is made of crab with tart (flour, butter, and sugar).

For this journal entry, I have decided to imitate Winter Kitchen Notes – Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. The reason I chose that piece was because it mixes beautifully the first part, which describes the author’s emotions, with the second part, which are delicious food recipes. Principally, I learned, about the Tuscan culture and about my own culture, the importance of geography in the creation of food. Something that Tuscan, Basque, and Ecuadorean cuisine have in common is their dependence of their landscape, especially since they both are heavily inspired by both their access to water and access to vast land. Even though they are three completely different countries, they both have fish presented in different ways: in San Sebastián, they have kokotxas pintxos; in Italy, they have pici with quick-tomato-cream sauce (taken from Mayes’ text); and, in Ecuador, we have our classic fried fish. The style is completely different, but the key ingredient is the same.

I would say there is cultural DNA present in both the piece I read and the one I created because there are clear examples of the social characteristics of each group. In the Mayes’ reading, we can see the ingredients which are based on geography and the importance of order (antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti, contorni, and dolce). In my piece, we can also see the ingredients which are based on geography and the importance of Basque cuisine in differentiating their tapas from the rest of Spain. After all, they take their autonomy very importantly. In these little details, for those who analyze carefully, cultural DNA is present.

Journal #2 Simon Crespo

Simón Crespo Pérez

July 15th, 2019

Journal #2: La Cocina de Mi Mamá

  • Establish who you are and why you are conducting this study.

I am Simón Antonio Crespo Pérez, soon to be an alumni of Emory University majoring in political science. The reason I am conducting this study, specifically an interview and observation of my mother, her dining room and her kitchen is to describe and understand on a deeper level the anthropological side of food creation and consumption in my own household, which is affected by our Ecuadorian and Spanish origins. Consequently, the title of the journal, which translates to My Mom’s Kitchen.

  • What interests you about the table that you have chosen to write about?

I have a close friend who is a chef, particularly specialized in desserts for big events, like business cocktails and weddings, but the idea of researching in my own household was more interesting to me since it made me realize that I eat here almost every day and have never taken the time to analyze the creation and consumption of food in it. This journal is the perfect opportunity to do so.

  • What anthropological methods have you employed to study this kitchen table and why did you choose them?

For this journal, I have used what anthropologists would call ethnographic fieldwork since it is based on “empirical and descriptive results, and participant observation” (Crowther in Eating Culture). I used the method of ethnographic fieldwork because it was the most accurate method I have learned to answer the prompt of the journal.

  • What have you observed or learned?

All the following information was gathered via interviewing and observation.

The kitchen of my mother, María Teresa Pérez de Crespo, is an industrial one, which means it is made of stainless steel, and it was equipped by a German company that sets kitchens for restaurants in my area. She decided to do an industrial one in her house instead of a regular one because she only spends her money in what she truly likes. Cooking and serving food to family and friends are one of her favorite hobbies, so having a kitchen that not only looks like the one’s in movies about chefs, but also works professionally was a great investment. The kitchen is composed of different elements made with stainless steel: sink, dishwasher, stove, refrigerator, and pantry. All these elements surround a counter in the middle, which is also made of stainless steel. In that counter is where all the cooking magic happens. There are no cabinets and drawers therefore all the cooking tools and food are exposed since she likes to see everything and make sure they are clean. The dining room of my mother, which is right next to the kitchen and connected by a swinging door, so people can open it without using their hands since they are probably transporting food and other elements, like dishes and glasses. The dining room is composed of a big glass table that seats twelve people in leather chairs. The table and chairs were bought in Ecuador. The walls are decorated with four big paintings of a renowned painter from Bolivia, Mr. Pepe Luque, that portrays a party in a Latin American wealthy household in the 1920’s. For her, the kitchen is the technical part of the matter, so it is made of stainless steel and very organized. On the other hand, the dining room is the social part of the matter, so it is decorated with art. She finds joy in the two rooms. In simple words, in my household, we have two tables for food: the kitchen table or counter were food is created, and the dining room table were food is consumed.

  • What are your conclusions about the function, and practices associated with the kitchen table you studied?

From my interview and observation, I conclude that the situation regarding kitchen and dining room in my household is totally affected by the globalized world we live in: the kitchen and utensils were made by Germans, the dining table and chairs were made in Ecuador, the art was made in Bolivia, and the food comes from everywhere, from  imported American meat, imported Spanish cheese, and imported Chinese soy sauce. This last example is “foodscape”, the flow of ingredients and cuisines across the globe. Using “comparison”, the arrangement of that part of my house is not that different that an American household with a similar socioeconomic status. Not only has food gone global, but also where it is made and consumed: the kitchen and dining room.

Journal #1

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I submitted it via email in time because I couldn’t figure out how to do it through here. Thanks to Professor Hong help, now I am uploading it here. I am uploading the word document, in which you can see it way better.

Word Document: Journal #1

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Simón Crespo Pérez

July 7th, 2019

Journal #1: Llapingacho

Paragraph #1: Why do you like this dish and what is the significance of it for you?
Llapingacho
, which consists of fried cheese potato pancakes served with rice, sausage, avocado (or salad), fried eggs, fried plantains, and a special peanut sauce, is a dish that is important to me since it represents my cultural and family background. It represents my cultural background because it is originally from Ecuador’s Andes Region, my home country, and it represents my family background because it has been a favorite of my family all the way from previous generations to mine. I remember since I was a little child that we will meet with my whole extended family in the house of my grandmother every Sunday. We would proceed to engage in highly entertaining conversations until around 2:30PM when lunch was served. The menu variated each Sunday between yapingachoand ceviche, which is another delicious dish from my small part of the world. The way the dish is made in my grandmother’s house was so good, we never got tired of it. Sadly, she passed away, but I will try to find her original recipe and frame it because every time I eat a yapingachoI am reminded of her. It would be amazing to hang her hand-written recipe in my room. Clearly, llapingachobrings taste to my mouth, and nostalgia to my heart.

Paragraph #2: Include a photo of the dish and a photo of yourself or family. Please provide the source of the photos if you don’t own the copyright.

Paragraph #3: Research the history, culture, or geographic information relevant to the dish.
For this part of the assignment, I contacted a family friend and also llapingacholover, well-known Ecuadorian historian, José A. Gómez-Iturralde. According to him, the plate is original from Ambato, Ecuador, which is a city in Ecuador’s Andes Region, one of the four regions of Ecuador together with Galapagos Islands, Ecuador’s Coastal Region, and Ecuador’s Amazon Region. It originated in Ambato, or as he calls it the Garden of Ecuador due to its variety of species. All elements of the llapingachocan be found in this region. According to him, it has so many species that there is a Festival of Fruits and Flowers every year to commemorate the anniversary of the earthquake that destroyed the city in the late 1940’s and killed around 6000 citizens. It originated there thanks to the Native Ecuadorians of the region, who made the fried cheese potato pancakes component of the dish even before Columbus arrived to America. The name of the dish comes from the Native Ecuadorian word llapin, which means mashed, just like the fried cheese potato pancakes.

Recipe (Not Included in Page Count): I don’t cook, but I found the best recipe in the following website, https://www.myrecipes.com/recipe/llapingachos-ecuatorianos-ecuadorean-potato-and-cheese-patties.