Were the good old days actually bad days?
There’s no room for nostalgia in this industry, writes Victor Liong. The good old days were not so good and the quicker today’s chefs realise that, the better.
I’m glad to have worked in kitchens at the tail end of nouvelle cuisine and also to be in the kitchen cooking at the start of the modern era.
Nostalgia is overrated. How things used to be was terrible. It was a world of hoping things would set, be smooth, or be cooked to the right temperature. It was a world of salty white purees, which were really just white mirepoix, cream, butter and root vegetable (celeriac, cauliflower, parsnip, Jerusalem artichoke) … that poor Vita-Prep.
Everyone remembers working with chefs who used to scream at you because the frustration of uncertainty was so overwhelming they didn’t know what else to do but to yell. This whole cooking game used to be one big guess.
Everyone remembers being a junior chef trying to decipher a recipe that included scribblings of more units than the Roman legionary: one onion? 5cm of ginger? A kitchen spoon of olive oil? A big pinch of salt? Then there was the anxiety and frustration of these recipes sometimes working – even the chef creating them had no idea what went wrong when it didn’t work. And when it did work it probably needed a pinch more salt.
The good old days were actually really long, bad days in cuisine. Yet, there are those still terribly sentimental and nostalgic about the kitchens of yore, wishing we were still pressing cuts of meats with our fingers to guess their degree of doneness. Or wiping our fingers across the back of the wooden spoon to see if the crème anglaise is ready (because apparently that’s the best way to tell if custard has cooked to a temperature range of anywhere between 70◦c and 87◦c – a precise 17◦c variation). While all this is going on, you’re also hoping the ice-cream won’t turn out grainy or icy once you churn it. Those fingers you’re using to wipe the wooden spoon? Maybe you should cross them too.
And “more salt”. How many times has that been the go-to solution for improving the flavour of an ingredient or dish? Let’s all just add more salt to food and ignore the rest of the seasoning spectrum, condiments and additives that we have at our disposal to make food delicious. It has to be salt, and more of it.
I’m relieved 65◦c has replaced the firmness of my chin or nose as the indicator of a well done steak. I’m glad that’s what apprentices are taught; not only in cooking school but at work and not by some angry wannabe acolyte of Marco Pierre White (nothing against Marco, but for the true White Heat fans, I urge you to report success after cooking the pomme puree recipe – it’s on page 121). I’m glad we’ve finally arrived at scales, probes, timers and science (cheers, Heston). Now I’m just hoping that the world will embrace the metric system – what an amazing time we will all have as chefs then. What a time to be alive.
Victor Liong is chef and co-owner of Melbourne’s Lee Ho Fook.