A Chef’s Mythology

Chef PellaccioUsually when chefs talk about their “philosophy”, it amounts to a few platitudes about using fresh ingredients or locally-sourced ingredients—admirable and tasty but calling it a “philosophy” is a bit inflationary.

But Chef Pelaccio, owner of Fish and Game in Hudson, New York really does have a philosophy and an intriguing one as well. Concerned about the amount of waste and spoilage that results from restaurants having to stock ingredients for dozens of dishes that customers may or may not order, Palaccio designs his menu around only a limited number of locally-source ingredients he has on hand, buying whole animals and integrating various cuts into the dishes as needed. Each customer gets a slightly different meal depending on what’s available.

Fish & Game runs a single, set menu each night that we’re open. All the meat and produce (and dairy, excluding cheese) that we use comes from the Hudson Valley itself, with a strong emphasis on the products of Columbia County. The seafood comes from the North Atlantic. The menu changes every week, and sometimes even night-to-night, changing with the seasons, and what is available locally.

Prix Fixe menus are neither new nor remarkable. But what is different is the philosophy behind it.

The steps we took thus involved what may at first glance seem like two opposing ideals: presenting dining as entertainment, while simultaneously embracing the possibility  that a customer comes to a restaurant to discover our food myths, not to impose her own. At Fish & Game, we are the curators of the evening’s experience; we determine what will be served and how it will be cooked.

Customers don’t choose what they want to eat; they come to experience what the chef has in mind for the evening.

To establish our own mythology (read: a culture of cuisine and the lore surrounding it) we had to set our own parameters. Any rigorous practice (spiritual, physical, aesthetic, what-have-you) tends to have “constitutive constraints”–parameters that both constrain and enable that practice. Ours are geographic: we rely on the Hudson Valley and the North Atlantic for our seafood. All mythologies are born out of the earth, sky and water–and when we conjure our flavors, fire is our most important tool. We are developing a cuisine of our region, informed by what grows well here, and what we brought to the party from our past lives. My Hudson Valley cuisine may be vastly different than my neighbor’s, but so may be our life experiences. Our hope is that this could also be an interesting proposition for diners.

There is air-tight logic behind this approach to dining.

…it might be useful to think about dining out as akin to going to a show. A member of the audience doesn’t ask to omit obscenities from the script of a Broadway show. Nor does one offer his version of the desired set list when going to see a concert (though I’m sure we’ve all encountered the guy in the front row shouting the title of one song, over and over again, to the annoyance of both performers and the rest of the audience). Nor, however, is the artist in a solipsistic bubble in which she only considers her own preferences. The art is both inspired by and at the service of the community that fosters it. But not on the model of “choice”-driven production or consumption.

This is what is revolutionary about Pelaccio’s approach. We would think it absurd for Picasso to consult with his fans before deciding on a color palette for a painting.  It is Picasso’s vision we want to see; not the averaged preferences of his patrons. Why are chefs different? If this philosophy were to sweep the fine-dining business, we would have lot more unique restaurants with something original to offer, instead of countless “wanna-bes” trying to please everyone by following the latest trends.

I’m not optimistic that this will succeed. Americans love their choices even when they are disadvantaged by them. But I hope it does well; it would be good for the culinary arts.

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