Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Chef photo by Rina Oh
In the Kitchen
I have been lucky enough to have eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world. I have experienced firsthand the creativity, culinary expertise and, sometimes, what seem to be the bizarre ideas of many chefs - some starred, most not - all eager to create uncommon tastes. Many of these trail blazing chefs were in Northern Spain, which to my mind seems to have eclipsed France as the fountainhead of all things culinary.
I believe that the modern Spanish tapas culture, similar to the Eastern Mediterranean meze but far more elaborate, became instrumental in allowing individuals in kitchens to experiment and develop small plates full of variety, color and flavor. It was really not until the late 70s that tapas had morphed from a piece of hard cheese or a slice of salty jamón on bread accompanying a glass of wine - the original tapa was free, just something salty that created thirst so more wine would be drunk - to the current cooked small dishes; many miniature culinary masterpieces that engage all senses with their design, ingredients variety, and taste. Many bars in Spain are renowned for their special tapas, such as the bar across from the Plaza de Toros in Madrid known for a variety of different little plates of cooked wild mushrooms or the bar in Toledo, near the El Greco house, famous for its cangrejo and tsanguro tapas. Even very well known establishments, such as Boca Grande in Barcelona, are apt to create unusually delicious small plates that cause their clientèle to return time after time.
“Healthy Eating” has become a fad in the United States where public relations and marketing agencies are pushing on behalf of their clients “no fat, no gluten, no salt, no refined sugar” pre-cooked then frozen meals as healthy food! It is a very unfortunate situation that accommodates the puritanical prejudices of American society to the detriment of fresh food and good taste; unless of course you have an allergy or other medical condition that requires absence from the above. If you are healthy, don’t fall for it; these foods have NO TASTE. In reality, fat creates taste... salt adds taste... and refined sugars also add taste.
To quote Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern “The heart of good food is to start with the most delicious ingredients you can get”. Everyone can create good food... what great chefs have done is train their palate to differentiate the taste between similar ingredients. Never settle, unless you have tasted the very best of each ingredient; then you can decide which variety to use, from which region and what brand (such as in olive oil). Also, consider synergies between ingredients. Many times 1+1 does not always equal 2; synergy between the ingredients could make them equal 3 or even 4. Most times what happens in a creative kitchen is similar to what happened in a medieval alchemist’s laboratory. A kitchen might start with a recipe but that is just the foundation; understanding that ingredients and cooking techniques are the building blocks to creating something deliciously new is what great cooking is all about.
There is a “Flavor Equation” that most good cooks instinctively understand.
Let’s not forget “You eat with your eyes first”. Presentation is important in how the dish is perceived. Many of the excellent chefs that I have met use tweezers to compose a small plate or individual appetizer; similar to painters with brushes and palette knives. Each empty plate is a blank canvas and a well finished plate should be perceived as a fine work of art.
The taste of dishes depends on a harmonious combination of salty, sour, sweet, bitter and savory (the last referred to as umami). Those are the basic taste qualities that our taste buds can discern.
Even the best looking dish will be discarded if it doesn’t smell right. Smell is extremely important in the kitchen. As my mother used to say “If you can smell anything but the sea on a fish, don’t buy it and certainly don’t eat it”.
Finally, the mouthfeel. The temperature, texture, piquancy, pungency and astringency of a dish play a major role in whether it will be accepted or not. Too hot or too cold, too spicy or too bland, too sour or cloyingly sweet all these attributes, even though the tolerances vary with each individual, are generally the most important to be considered when creating in the kitchen.
So, train your palate and then go and fearlessly create exceptional meals.
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