by Eric Damkoehler
As published in The Montague Reporter
Inspiration comes from many different avenues. The most important is from simple ingredients. Anyone can make a steak. Any cook, whether a master chef, an aspiring culinary student or a homemaker, can put a piece of red meat in a pan or on a grill and wait for the magic to happen. That, my friends, is nothing special. What makes a dish something special? It is the one thing that separates a cook from a chef. It is the inspiration.
I walk the aisles of the grocery store with a slow and methodical pace searching for nothing in particular. This slow walk is a part of the process of creating food and menus that I have long been a part of. It always starts with one simple ingredient. Blood orange vinegar, or gooseberries, or a can of cashews. That is where it starts, never with the steak. The steak is a given, a necessary catalyst for the rest of the meal. It is the canvas, the cashews or the vinegar are the paint.
There is the cliche. Cooking is an art. Yes, figuratively speaking, cooking is an art. Barry Sanders was an artist on the football field. A well landscaped property is aesthetically pleasing. An antique rocking chair is a nice compliment to the best interior design. But, what good is it if it isn’t comfortable or sturdy? If the plants don’t have fertilizer or water they will die, and the artistic landscape will be a shabby grove. Without the fundamentals and training, who is Barry Sanders? So there you have it, the art of cooking is the end result of a scientific process. We have three basic rules when grading a dish; Does it taste good? Is it hot? Does it look good? By that formula, cooking is only one third art.
Add a fourth, equally important rule—is it safe to eat? Now, your artistic value drops again.
Yet another, in the professional world—is it profitable? Twenty percent art, twenty percent accounting, sixty percent science.
With this formula in mind, one can see the restrictions on the creative, the inventive aspect of culinary arts. Without limitation, without rules and restrictions, any bucket of pureed ingredients would be praise worthy. The more restrictions and scientific laws governing any artistic endeavor leads to all the more brilliant discoveries.
Part of the artistic process—which you now see is a very small part of the meal—is the inspiration. As I walk the aisles of the grocery store I remember a TV show, filmed in a horseradish factory, at the end of which was a two second screen shot of cranberry horseradish sauce. I want to try it. I buy a can of cranberry sauce and a jar of horseradish. Now I have two ingredients to build a four course menu from. I spend a long time in the produce aisle. There are plums, pears, fingerling potatoes and small but ripe hot house tomatoes. I love brussel sprouts, and will use them whenever I have the chance. It all goes in the cart but I still have no idea what I’m going to make.
Then, as I stroll along I see some brown rice. I taste it with my eyes, and I look back in my cart and have a stuffed tomato adorned with a clam and chiffonade of basil and drizzled balsamic glaze, and it tastes good. The brussel sprouts have already prepared themselves, with red onions sauteed in butter, bacon and red wine vinegar. The fingerlings suddenly became braised with chicken stock and scallions, and the pears and plums turned into a shortcake topping.
The only thing not to move and turn itself into something was the cranberry and horseradish. Soon enough. I buy some red meat, and head home.
As I begin to prepare this meal for my wife, my guinea pig wife, she laments that I never cook for her, unless it is for some trial, never romantic. I insist that she get a large group of friends together to come to this special event which I am researching. (Here you see that ratio of twenty percent accounting is always on the mind of a chef.)
Finally, as the bulk of the cooking is coming to a conclusion, I concoct my cranberry and horseradish sauce—and it’s disgusting. It is downright putrid, singes my nose hairs and offends my tongue. Luckily, there is one remaining clementine on the counter. I zest it, then squeeze it in, add some sugar, honey, and it now tastes edible. Sweet, bitter, and unlike anything I’ve had before, except it has a distinct similarity to cocktail sauce. I think, sweet cocktail sauce, sweet shrimp. That’s when it hit me—coconut shrimp with cranberry cocktail sauce. A few minutes later I figured it would taste better and be more marketable with some blood orange.
I am not the creator, or inventor of this thing. To invent something in the food world is near impossible. People have been eating forever. What food exists today, in some form or another, was there when dinosaurs were there. When all of the scientific and artistic parts combine, and it tastes good, and it was inspired, and someone is willing to buy it, then you have something special. Then you serve it, and you tuck it away, perhaps in a recipe index or cookbook or perhaps, in the case of most chefs, somewhere in your mind. You draw on this reservoir from time to time and you change it, or as you are exposed to new ingredients you expand upon it, but it will never be as good, at least on your pallet, as the first time inspiration struck you.