I was listening to an older, slightly wiser David Chang on NPR talking about food and cooking and yet again apologizing for statements he says were taken out of context decrying the lack of innovation and creativity in Bay Area restaurants several years ago, and I just had to laugh.
The thing is, that if nobody maintains benchmarks, nothing makes much sense after a very little while. It’s hard to do a flip flop (or hip hop) version of a time-honored dish if those classics aren’t carefully guarded and lovingly maintained in the first place. That stalwart position is a huge part of why the Bay Area remains at the forefront of food and cooking. We so often get to taste and smell, see and feel, some well-prepared foodstuffs at the height of their season.
In fact, I’ve just come from a three-day exposition that exemplifies what I’m talking about, and a whole lot more. The 2nd annual National Heirloom Exposition just wrapped up its extravaganza in the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa. Actually, the extravagance belongs to nature. The set-up itself was like one sweet farmers’ market after another, each with its own theme and community, each reaching out to the next. The organizers were suitably modest enough to hold this enriching gathering mid-week, so as to not interfere with the many activities always planned for weekends this time of the year. The place was consistently filled with school children, families, chefs, farmers and food fans. In short, everyone.
The hits? A river of tomatoes, myriad rare apple varieties, a heart-stopping BLT, fresh fruit and herb popsicles — the familiar, but with more flavor and depth towards a richer present and future.
There’s a farmer slash restaurateur out our way who wants his chef to toss the leftover veggies out every evening and begin anew with fresh daily riches. It’s like some gastro-arteeests worldwide who formulate 200 bogus spheres of stabilized gasses and the froth of something that is best roasted — all in order to get that perfect 20 for tonight’s high-paying guests. To me that’s called waste. Occasional whimsy in cookery can be pleasing. But for the most part, real innovation is slow and deep, with real respect given to benchmarks along the way.
You don’t have to be first to be good and you don’t have to be best to be worthwhile. True innovation is based on real foundation, not just burning talent.
I love some of Chang’s cooking and look forward to our growing awareness that paying more slow and gentler attention to what’s at the core of things might just be helpful to everyone.
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