Thursday, July 7, 2011


Ever since I wrote about Ricky Jay, Herman Boaz, and Charles Dickens and his trick of cooking hot pudding in a hat, I’ve been thinking about magic and cookery.  They both involve some of the same things: transformation, surprise, delight, the question “How the heck did they do that?” 

Of course this doesn’t fit with “the freshest ingredients simply cooked” trope as popularized by Alice Waters et al.  Many of us like to think that given a great piece of sea bass we too could cook it simply.  We want our chefs to have skills and dexterities that we don’t. 

As it happens Wylie Dufresne, in conversation with Anthony Bourdain and David Chang in the launch issue of Lucky Peach magazine, seems to agree with me.  “Ingredient-driven food.  What the fuck does that mean?  … Get good ingredients and cook it.  It’s called cooking.  Are you crazy?  Who’s like 'I’ve got some shitty stuff let’s cook it?’ … Ingredient-driven doesn’t mean anything.  That’s what good cooking is  ... Come on, do something to it!  Cooking is a skill.  It’s a craft.  It involves a lot of steps.  At restaurants of a certain caliber, all the ingredients are going to be good.  So why don’t we talk about what people are doing with those ingredients?”  

Well in fact I think I have been in some restaurants where they said I think 'I’ve got some shitty stuff let’s cook it?’  But his point is sound.  I think he’s saying we should talk about the magic, not about the hat.

I’ve also been thinking about Arthur C. Clarke’s line, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” which for some reason is described as his “third law.”  It strikes me as a remark rather than a law, and in any case I think it not exactly true. Technology’s resemblance to magic isn’t based on how advanced it is, but rather on how ignorant the perceiver is.   If you know about light and lenses and exposure and pixels, then a camera isn’t a magical instrument.  If you don’t, then maybe it is.  If you absolutely don’t know how to boil an egg, then a boiled egg is going to seem astounding.  And I admit that the very idea that beating eggs and oil together will eventually give you mayonnaise still strikes me as just amazing.  The fact that even I can do it seems more amazing still.  Though admittedly I use a food processor which Julia Child sneers at, and says requires no culinary skill whatsoever.  But somehow for me that doesn’t make it any less magical.  Of course the best-known food processor in Europe is the Magimix.

I can only imagine what Julia Child would have thought about cooking with a sous vide machine.  I imagine she’d be against it.  But here’s David Chang celebrating the joys of sous vide in his cookbook Momofuku, “If you know what temperature you want the thing to be, just cook it at that temperature for long enough to bring the whole thing up to that temperature and presto! It’s like magic: you’re not sitting there poking or prodding the meat or worrying that it’s rare or raw or overcooked.”

Of course you might argue that the poking and the prodding is where some of the magic lies.  In this case the magic may be in knowing what temperature you want the thing to be.  Certainly sous vide machines doesn’t seem very magical in themselves, just a hot water bath with a damn good thermostat.  The vide (vacuum) part simply involves sealing the ingredients in an airtight bag.  Or maybe the magic is in thinking to do it in the first place.

I see that earlier this year, for Pancake Day, my boys Bompas and Parr, the Jellymongers, launched a magic kit (described as “a box of food and magic”), in collaboration with Tate and Lyle Golden Syrup: exploding and levitating cans, glowing and gilded pancakes, that kind of thing.  And they did a performance at the Magic Circle HQ, which seems a bit surprising.  I thought the Magic Circle were a bit sniffy about outsiders encroaching on their patch.  But apparently not.

Not having access to the magic set, and frankly not being that big a fan of Golden Syrup, I searched for some magical food I could make for myself.  The easiest seemed to be to make food glow, not least because all it requires is a black light and a bottle of tonic water. Tonic water contains quinine, though not nearly as much as it used to (fear of hairlessness, I guess, and a very reasonable fear given my own experience with anti-malarial tablets), but that’s the magic ingredient, and it does indeed glow under ultraviolet light without you having to do anything to it whatsoever.

But in fact what you're actually looking at above is jellied tonic water. With Bompas and Parr in mind I made some jelly, using tonic water and Rose’s lime juice, and once it was set I sprinkled a few blueberries on top.  I may be easy impressed but I thought this looked pretty cool.  You could of course argue that you’d have much the same visual effect with a gin and tonic and a black light, which was precisely why I added the blueberries.

Flush with this success I boiled some potatoes, imagining I might end up with a plateful of glowing spuds, and to me they did look pretty amazing while they were boiling.

         But once they were cooked they looked pretty much like any other potato, even under a black light.  I did wonder if they’d taste incredibly bitter because of the quinine but in fact they tasted rather sweeter than usual, and were perfectly edible.

         Next I tried boiling rice in tonic water.  Disappointment ensued.  It looked like nothing while cooking, didn’t glow when cooked, and tasted pretty much like vomit, so much worse than you’d imagine a mouthful or rice and tonic water would taste. 

         One could spoil a lot of food this way, but I’m thinking a bit more experimentation with absorbent vegetables mightn’t come amiss, something that really soaks up water; mushrooms, courgette, boiled onions.  The possibilities aren’t quite endless but I haven’t given up yet.

Finally something else from David Chang.  The first issue of Lucky Peach is the ramen issue, a subject that evidently fascinates him a lot more than it does me, though his fascination is in itself fascinating, and I’m certainly a good deal wiser having read the issue. The magazine contains recipes, and in some ways reading a chef’s recipe is a bit like discovering how a magician does a trick.  Chang gives his own recipe for salt cod omlet, as cooked in Roxario’s, a restaurant in San Sebastian.  He has to guess how it’s done because the eponymous Roxario wouldn’t let him into the kitchen to see exactly how she did it.  She evidently wanted to keep a few tricks up her sleeve.

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