The Theatre of Ideas (Part One)

Posted: March 20, 2012 in In my opinion...
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Recently my best friend Aimee visited from New Zealand for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.  One of the events we attended was “The Theatre of Ideas.”  The MFWF website describes The Theatre of Ideas thus:

“In an exclusive set of afternoon sessions at the Melbourne Convention Centre, the world’s most forward-thinking chefs reveal the big ideas and small inspirations behind their approach to cooking and eating, now and in the future.
Prepare to have your beliefs challenged and your imagination stretched. Feed your mind, not your body, with insights and ideas from the world’s finest.”

Oo-er!  Aimee is a qualified chef, and I’m an avid foodie (or at least, I thought I was…), so between us, we should have been across this.

But it was not to be.

First up was David Chang, “Michelin starred serial restaurateur and pioneer of truly excellent cross-cultural cuisine” and owner of a small chain of highly acclaimed restaurants in New York called Momofuku.  Never heard of him?  No, neither had I, although it seemed that Aimee and I were the only ones in the theatre who hadn’t.  As the attendees filed into the theatre, an endless loop of promotional footage featuring Chang played on various large screens while the man himself slouched nervously around the kitchen set, waiting for his introduction from Masterchef judge Matt Preston.

Chang spoke for about an hour about his new restaurant in Sydney and the process of creating a menu for it.  He lost me in the first five minutes when he rattled off the names of several top chefs involved in the collaborative process.  Everyone in the audience nodded sagely, while Aimee and I looked at each other and shrugged.  Apparently, it is an excruciatingly painful creative process to step off a plane from New York, arrive in Sydney, and design a menu that will induce patrons to shell out $200 a head. Everything is different in Australia, Chang claims.  The variety of available seafood is different.  The vegetables taste different.  Making their world-famous-in-New-York pork buns in Sydney was problematic, because the flour is different. Even the water is different.

Pffft.  Try shopping and cooking for a family of five, three meals a day, seven days a week, attending to their nutritional needs and various tastes, without thanks or acclaim (in fact, with the guarantee that at least one meal a day will begin with somebody screwing up their nose and saying, “I don’t like that!” despite the fact that they’ve happily eaten it once a week for the past year) and then talk to me about painful processes.

Chang spoke about imposing rules and limits on the chefs when creating the menu as a way to focus their creativity.  For example, they decided to have no chocolate on the menu, (OK, you’re losing me again) nor use any premium cuts of meat, opting instead to do fancy things with cheap cuts.  I could kind of relate to that – it’s a bit like writing a piece of flash fiction to a given theme.  Limit your tools and your scope, and you’re forced to think and stretch your creativity.  He talked about balancing the need to provide the customer perceived value for money against his decision to avoid premium cuts.  He talked about his Jesuit school training and defining God using negative theology, or via negativa, and extending that way of thinking to define what Australian food is by identifying what Australian food isn’t (and…I’m lost again).

Throughout the presentation we were treated to images of the dishes featured on the degustation menu of Chang’s Sydney restaurant.  It reminded me why I don’t usually watch cooking shows – if I can’t smell the food and taste the food, I have little interest in looking at the food (I also don’t understand men’s preoccupation with strip clubs, for similar reasons).

Matt Preston returned to the stage to briefly interview Chang, then it was Question and Answer time.  One woman said that she and her friends were planning a David Chang party, and in light of what he had said about the difficulties in replicating his pork bun recipe in Australia, did he have any tips for her to get her homemade pork buns just so?

It was at this point that I decided that I didn’t like David Chang.  His response was dismissive – oh, look, he said, you can make pork buns from scratch if you wanna, but really, why bother?  Just go down to the local Chinese supermarket and buy some and save yourself the hassle.

It was at this point that I decided that I didn’t like David Chang.  The woman was obviously a fan.  She’d taken the trouble to purchase his cookbook and had spent $65 to come hear him talk.  The existence of said cookbook implies that the home cook can create the recipes contained therein, yet here he was telling her it was too hard, don’t even try.  It begged the question – why put that recipe in the book at all if it’s too hard?  I thought his response was condescending and disrespectful to his fans.  It’s a bit like a writer saying to a reader asking for clarification, “Look, if you didn’t understand that story, then I’m not going to bother explaining it to you.”

Next up was the afternoon tea break.  The refreshments served were uniformly excellent – individual bacon and egg pies, raspberry and almond friands, little pottles of Rutherglen fig and honey ice cream, a selection of flavoured mineral water and freshly brewed coffee quickly served by an efficient production line of baristas.  Now, that I could relate to.

(Next blog – Part Two of The Theatre of Ideas, featuring the insane genius of Massimo Bottura).


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