The art of cooking used to be firmly rooted in local traditions.
In Culture and Cuisine: A Journey Through the History of Food, Jean-Francois Revel writes:
Cuisine stems from two sources: a popular one and an erudite one…In the course of history there has been a peasant (or seafarer’s) cuisine and a court cuisine; a plebeian cuisine and a family cuisine prepared by the mother (or the humble family cook); and a cuisine of professionals that only chefs fanatically devoted to their art have the time and the knowledge to practice.
According to Revel, great food arises from a contest between regional cuisine using locally grown ingredients, “based on age-old skills, transmitted unconsciously by way of imitation and habit”, and professionals who are self-consciously seeking innovation and creativity for its own sake.
Since the 18th Century,and the emergence of a well-off middle class with access to media, these two cuisines have been mediated by a “bourgeois cuisine” which “retains the heartiness and savor of peasant cuisine” while introducing some of the subtleties and innovation of hautecuisine. (This mediation accelerated in the 20th Century with media figures such as Julia Child.)
Both were necessary. Without professional innovation, food traditions would stagnate and endlessly repeat mistakes. But without everyday cuisine, professional cooking risks creations that are “pointlessly complicated” and “at once extravagant and dull”, enlivened only by the importing of incongruous ingredients that eventually create a uniform international style.
Revel’s attempt to make sense of culinary history was written in 1982—before the Internet, the Food Channel, the growing role of science in the kitchen, and 30 years of increased population movements around the globe accelerated the fragmentation of traditions.
I doubt that his account of how great cuisine is created still holds.
Today there is a continuous circulation of culinary ideas which pays little attention to geographical borders. Every meal is a mash-up. Chefs are in the driver’s seat deciding what should be prepared and using new forms of media and their celebrity to instantaneously transmit it across the globe where it can be copied and circulated again and again, with simplified versions filtering into “bourgeois” cuisine until it all becomes quickly obsolete and replaced with the new sensation.
Although a sense of history is often used to promote these new creations, history is itself constantly reinvented and re-contextualized so it functions only as a nostalgic symbol not as a standard. Thus “novelty” is never quite novelty. Since everything is always new, the new doesn’t mark a new direction but only a difference to be noted and then discarded to make room for the new difference to take its place. There is lots of movement but no direction.
My worry is that without tradition we cannot understand what is an advance and what is a regression. Traditions provide a context that enables interpretation. They provide meaning and direction to innovations that give rise to the judgment “X tastes better than Y”. There is something that a particular dish is supposed to taste like that can be shown to be inferior when supplanted by innovation rather than simply different.
Tradition is the handmaiden, not the enemy, of novelty. This is what makes Redzepi’s work at Nomi so fascinating. He focus intensely on Danish cooking and that focus enables him to find new things for Danish cooking to be.