In Lucky Peach, British Chef Margot Henderson marks a distinction between two kinds of cooking:
But today, in the food industry and in the restaurant industry, I think the male approach dominates and the female one is overlooked. In a lot of kitchens, food is treated as a problem to be solved, something to dominate—something that has to give up its secrets. Kitchens are turned into laboratories, filled with tools and weapons: vacuum packers, sous-vides, probes, and all the other stuff. Sometimes the instinctive part gets lost. It almost makes me weep to be told that to confit a duck leg in plastic underwater is just as good as to confit in duck fat…
I can’t help noticing the food that women love: regional, instinctive cooking that is not being celebrated in the top-fifty lists. Where is regional cooking going? It needs to be celebrated. I feel we will lose the old ways—the delicious, simple ways. I worry for all the young men who want to be superstars with a probe in their pocket, and have forgotten what their grannies cooked.
There is indeed a tension in contemporary cuisine between high-tech innovation inspired by the explosion of scientific knowledge of food and more traditional cooking styles that employ time-honored techniques. Henderson is focused on what it feels like in the restaurant kitchen and she may be right from that perspective that an intuitive, tradition-bound style of cooking is being replaced by an approach that depends on technology.
But from the end-users point of view, the one I occupy, I’m not seeing it. Perhaps I’m not choosing the right restaurants to sample (I haven’t been to New York in many years and have not visited London) but regional cuisine seems to be flourishing around the U.S. and what is on the plate resembles traditional dishes but with creative twists. I’m pretty sure the chicken wings at Portland’s Pok Pok require deep frying as well as mixing in a wok but a deep fryer is hardly revolutionary. The three moles at Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill were classic dishes and their open kitchen was no chemistry lab. The light-as-air mayonnaise surrounding the white asparagus at Katie Button’s Cúrate in Asheville was clearly infused with air. Perhaps some new device replaced a traditional egg beater but beating air into a condiment is nothing new. Perhaps the glazed pig’s ear at Charleston’s Husk required special equipment to get the glaze to adhere to the cartilage. But again it’s just a glaze.
I could go on but my point is that these flourishes are not creating alienated food so cut off from traditional sources that regional cooking is in danger of disappearing. What appears on the dish are refinements of tradition; not its abandonment. If traditions are going to survive they have to change; otherwise they become ossified. What I’m seeing is very creative people maintaining a passion for regional cooking by figuring out how to add new dimensions of flavor. If these innovations are driven by technology then so be it.
As to the gendered reading of this tension between styles of cooking, I don’t doubt there is something to it. The macho culture of the kitchen will not disappear overnight and men do love their toys. But I doubt that as more women enter the chef’s profession they will be content to do things like Grandma did.