Sunday, December 13, 2009

on the meaning of names

When is a chowder just a soup? How far can you go from an original dish and still keep the original name? I was having a discussion about food with another chef last night and it turned into a rant about the naming of dishes on a menu.

I am all for inventive cuisine. I am all for pushing the limits. I love the twists on classic dishes that creative chefs engage in. But i wonder how far you can stray from that dish and still use that name. Do dishes have an essence that must be preserved?

Let me explain. Beef carpaccio is thin slices of beef served raw. A simple drizzle of olive oil, some sea salt, fresh cracked pepper and maybe parmesan or capers sprinkled on top. Creative chefs can dress it up with arugula or shaved fennel, drizzle truffle oil, maybe a gastrique whatever they want. Any funky riff on the classic and it is still carpaccio. I think you can make it with bison or venison or elk and still call it carpaccio. What happens when you move away from red meat? Is thinly sliced raw tuna or salmon still carpaccio? or are we better off calling it sashimi? But it gets really dicey when we start talking about fruit or vegetables thinly sliced. Thinly sliced beets, or tomato, or cucumber is not carpaccio, its a salad. Thinly sliced watermelon, i don't care how you dress it up, is just watermelon.

Another favourite is bisque. Bisque is a rich, creamy soup made of crustaceans. What makes bisque interesting is that the shells are pureed and added to the soup. Bisque is traditionally thickened with rice. If you made a creamed soup with salmon and pureed it should you call it a bisque? If there is no seafood, can it be a bisque. Is a pureed tomato, mushroom or squash soup a bisque? Is it fair to call it that?

What about chowder? My definition of chowder is a soup which contains potatoes and bacon. It can be creamy (new england) or not (manhattan). It is traditionally clams, but i've made mussel chowder, crab chowder, corn chowder and my new favourite, cauliflower chowder. But the essence, to me, is potatoes and bacon.

Chicken cordon bleu is chicken stuffed with ham and swiss cheese. Is it still cordon bleu with prosciutto and fontina? Is a caesar still a caesar if you grill the lettuce or leave out the anchovies? Do latkes have to contain potato?

I encourage chefs to go crazy! Do whatever. Combine flavours that have never been combined. Use techniques in new ways, or invent completly new techniques. Just don't stick it with an old name. Leave the classics intact. If you are creative enough to invent a new dish, you are creative enough to give it a new name.

I am not talking about deconstruction here. Deconstruction in the culinary world is the technique of dismantling a classic recipe and re-assembling the components so that the diner can experience the essence of the original dish as they enjoy the different components separate and then recombined. (For all you literary critics and english majors out there, don't start getting all technical and start quoting derrida on me. This is a culinary movement that has little to do with literary criticism) Deconstruction, done right, is all about preserving or even celebrating the essence of dishes.

I am talking about moving so far from a dish that you lose the essence of that dish. What makes beef carpaccio interesting, is that you are eating an item that you usually eat cooked (beef) and serving it raw. If you serve tomatoes thinly sliced, it might be pretty, but it really is not that interesting, and it is definitely not carpaccio.

Roast Cauliflower Chowder

1 head cauliflower
2 tbsp canola or olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 red pepper, diced
6 slices of thick cut bacon (cut into 1 inch peieces)
1 clove garlic, smashed
4 potatoes, diced
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
sprinkle of parsley

1. cut cauliflower into flourettes, toss in oil. on a cookie sheet spread out cauliflower and roast at 400F for about 20 minutes. ( it should be nicely browned)
2. Sautee onions and peppers with bacon. add garlic.
3. add potatoes, cauliflower and stock. Bring to a boil and simmer until potatoes are tender.
4. add cream, check seasoning and serve with a sprinkle of parsley.



  1. I couldn't have said it better myself

  2. I just wanted to comment on your last blog about "Small Time" production. I own Saucers Cafe on Academy, and I love your place. My wife and I go there because of the food you make and the way you prepare it. If you happen to buy you lamb from New Zeland, I don't think the purists of the food scene should expect any more. We use lamb from there as well when it's on our menu. We also like to do our part, in the season's that grant us the harvest we need to do business. Otherwise we go to people like Marcello as well to get our local fix.

    There was a comment about what would happen if you were to grow as a business, or expand. Would you still uphold the same level of virtue for local business that you do now? I hope to expand in the near future, as all business does. In those plans I do not find it difficult to incorperate the local aspect. In fact I find it easier to manage, both on the financial side, and the side of my own passion to cook. I quess I've just heard alot of concerns about the subject, and not had anyone really address it from our point of view. I for one hope that you do venture into another realm of the culinary market, as I enjoy your work very much.