In Time for the Holidays: Star-Chefs Keep it Simple

Most of us prepare traditional, time-honored, often-complicated recipes during the holidays as a tribute to the slavish hours put in by our mothers in years gone by. These elaborate dishes are the culinary equivalent of a photo album, honoring not only our ancestors but what they ate around a shared table. But what if we were “given permission” by today’s star chefs to keep-it-simple? Then maybe we would! During the holidays, when too many people are in the kitchen, too many meals to prepare, and expectations that are exalted, this approach allows the harried cook to have as much fun as their guests. The idea? To fulfill the promise of abundance without the burden. This year, some of the world’s most revered chefs inadvertently satisfy this need in new cookbooks coming out this season.  Many of the most illustrious --  Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Marc Vetri, Daniel Humm, Heston Blumenthal, and Ferran Adria – share some of their simpler ideas  in titles such as “Home-Cooking with Jean-Georges,” “Heston Blumenthal at Home”, Vetri’s “Rustic Italian Food,”  Adria’s “The Family Meal,”  and Jacob Kenedy’s (from London’s hot restaurant Bocca), approachable tome, “Bocca.” Even Daniel Humm, in his uber-sophisticated book “11 Madison Park,” presents some do-able, holiday recipes. If you look hard enough, you will find them. I have had the pleasure of browsing these inspiring books and found recipes that meet "radically simple" standards: not too many ingredients, simple procedures, with an existential trade-off of time and effort. These are the dishes that one craves during the busiest time in our lives. Sporting the colors and flavors of the season while they infuse the spirit of tradition with a shot of modernity. Crafting a holiday meal from these collective works would look something like this:

Jean-Georges’ Crab Toast with Sriracha Mayonnaise Heston Blumenthal’s Creamy Leek and Potato Soup Daniel Humm’s Almond Vinaigrette on a salad of endive, watercress & Roquefort Jacob Kenedy’s Duck Cooked Like A Pig Ferran Adria’s Catalan-style Turkey Legs Heston Blumenthal’s Slow-cooked Rib of Beef (1 ingredient/new technique) Daniel Humm’s Extreme Carrot Puree (two ingredients) Marc Vetri’s Fennel Gratin Heston Blumenthal’s Beetroot Relish Jean-George’s Fresh Corn Pudding Cake Marc Vetri’s Olive Oil Cake Heston Blumenthal’s Potted Stilton with Apricot, Onion & Ginger Chutney

Some of the above tomes are intimidating indeed. But if you are lucky to get any of these books as holiday gifts, you might have fun looking for radically simple recipes to call your own. And before too long, as lights alight on Menorahs and Christmas trees everywhere, look no further than here for this year's radically favorite holiday dishes, including some of my own.

Chocolate Dirt: Is it Art or is it Dinner?

A few years back, an unknown chef, at restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, created a strange series of tableaux on his dining room tables, using tree bark, pine needles, lichens and other things normally grazed by reindeer. And so it was that in 2010 the Nordic forager René Redzepi (sounding much like an acid rock band) displaced the Spanish chemistry wizard Ferran Adria (for whom he once worked) as the world’s numero uno chef.

Since last year, molecular gastronomy hasn’t exactly evaporated, but now you might get trampled by dozens of upscale chefs who are rushing to harvest dinner from the underbrush and under rocks – or assembling dishes that looked like they might be untamed gardens. Although many chefs preceded Redzepi, dozens of acolytes are now making pilgrimages to Copenhagen for a chance to stage at his stoves.

In the US, “wildcrafting” is largely, but not entirely, a West Coast trend.  Forerunner to Redzepi, Jeremy Fox created a global stir with beautifully composed plates at Ubuntu, in Napa, years ago, and Daniel Patterson at Coi in Los Angeles and David Kinch at Manresa in Los Gatos are masters of the style. You’ll find similar efforts at the restaurant McCrady’s in Charleston where chef Sean Brock lists farmers and foragers on his menu; at Toqué in Montreal, where chef Normand Laprise’s website lists his kitchen staff as “artists” and its suppliers as “artisans”; and at Castagna in Portland, Ore., where chef Matt Lightner, who’s been rooting around woodlands for years, produces still-lifes-with-leaves and calls them dinner.

Perhaps the most “florid” exemplar is Dominique Crenn at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco (her restaurant is subtitled “Poetic Culinaria”), whose vegetable  presentations look like bonsai gardens and who claims she is reliving her childhood food memories and fantasies.

These chefs’ horticultural foodscapes appear to have been assembled with tweezers and dental instruments. Their foraged dishes might contain upwards of 20 plants and herbs, and they’re sent to your table on slabs of slate, miniature rock slides, primordial wood shapes and thrown glass instead of plates. They come with lyrical names such as Ocean Creatures and Weeds, A Walk in the Garden, Into the Vegetable Garden, Summer Bids Adieu, or Le Jardin d’Hiver.

In truth, if you substituted gems for the food, these presentations would look perfectly at home Tiffany’s display windows.  Caravaggio might have painted them.

You’ll be eating roots, stems and petals of plants that used to be discarded or that you might step over on the sidewalk.  One chef famously quipped, “Not the sidewalk. We’d never use stuff from there!” Which makes one wonder whether this chef has any idea what bears do in the woods.

As this trend of “food as naturalistic art” takes hold in upscale restaurants around the country, you’ll find lots of new ingredients slipping onto upscale menus:  White acorns; tips of fir needles; “dirt” made of dried and crumbled mushrooms, pumpernickel breadcrumbs, black olives, bulgur wheat, or sprouting grains; aloe vera, eucalyptus leaves, chickweed, wild ginger, wood sorrel, yarrow, pineapple weed, and sumac. Dirt is so hot that Crenn cooks her potatoes in the stuff before washing them clean.  You’ll find a similar plating style at just-opened modernist Korean eatery Jung Sik Dang in New York, where you’ll need to bring lots of money. Next up:  Dessert assemblages growing out of chocolate “humus” (as in dirt, not as in chick peas).

All of this comes at a price, of course, which is why you’ll only find these goings-on at fancy restaurants.  Some restaurants actually have foragers on their payrolls, and others need to hire artistically talented cooks to plate dishes so that each leaf, each carrot stalk, each nasturtium flower, each pod of immature sweet peas, is placed just so – a serious challenge when tonight’s wild harvest contains a surprise crop of newcomers. You won’t be stumbling across such food at your local Olive Garden.

But is it food?  Is it art?  Or is it merely extravagantly imitative horticulture?  Some critics have complained that taste is taking a back seat to artifice, but they said the same thing about earlier shenanigans of molecular gastronomy without recognizing how new laboratory trickery might be transformative in the kitchen.

In this case, I think we’re witnessing a reaction to cooking-with-chemistry with a romantic return to naturalism, or, to coin a word, “gastro-naturism.” It is a way for high-flying chefs to differentiate themselves from the rest of the herd and it is guaranteed to get a thousand bloggers and their cameras into these restaurants.

I Dream of Cooking with Ferran

Several weeks ago, I went to the premiere of a movie (that is soon to open at the Film Forum) called El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, about the life and times of cooking in the kitchen at El Bulli in northern Spain (in the Catalan province of Girona). El Bulli, and its maestro, Ferran Adrià, have been awarded the best restaurant in the world status five times (by the S. Pellegrino "World's 50 Best Restaurants" award) and as the 2010 "Chef of the Decade," respectively. After seeing the movie, remarkable in some ways as it was (sometimes repetitive in others), I decided that Adrià and I had nothing in common -- that his brilliance as an innovator in the orbit of molecular cuisine was truly part of his psyche and soul. It was a world that I dare not enter. That style of food, for me, sorely missed the swoon factor.  Never did it make me hunger.  Just curious.

Other chefs have also ventured there and have made big names for themselves -- Wylie Dufresne, Grant Achatz, and most spectacularly, Nathan Myhrvold (you must read this amazing article about him, written by the brilliant writer Jerry Adler -- in a recent issue of Smithsonian magazine.)  But an article in the New York Times Magazine two days ago, about the "real Ferran Adrià," in fact, did make me swoon, as did the simple recipes he shared.  According to Mark Bittman, the writer of the story, Ferran's "own preference (for food) lies in the realm of extremely simple fare." And it was surprising (if not heartening) to learn that Ferran's upcoming cookbook explores the realm of "cuisine simple" and "cuisine traditionelle" -- styles he warmly embraces and cooks for his staff. Ferran seems to love authenticity as much as the next guy, wavering between dishes that are radically simple (steamed mussels with garlic, parsley, flour!, and paprika) to others that have only three ingredients!  Those include the dishes of his favorite restaurants in the town of Roses (the next town over from El Bulli), that specialize in nothing more than "impeccable local shellfish, olive oil, (salt), and occasionally lemon. And like me, "he's in love with the transformation you can force on ingredients to make them change shape and form." I want to believe this reference was about simplicity and not the avant-garde cooking for which he has become known.

How I would love to go to Ferran's new "laboratorio" and create three-ingredient recipes side-by-side.  Or merely explore the realm of radical simplicity together. How could you not love a guy who grills bread, grates chocolate on top of it, then drizzles it with olive oil and salt?  Now that's my kind of cooking.

Bread With Chocolate and Olive Oil (From Ferran Adrià)

Time: 15 minutes

6 thick slices country-style bread (about 10 ounces total)

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate (preferably 60 percent cocoa), coarsely grated. (A Microplane is not essential, but it helps.)

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sea salt.

1. Heat the oven to 325. Put the bread on a baking sheet and bake until golden brown on both sides, 5 to 7 minutes total. Spoon the chocolate over the toast in a thin, even layer. Drizzle the toast with the oil and sprinkle with the salt. Serve.

Yield: 6 servings.