photo by Andrea Godshalk of www.azumera.com

The Power of Touch

By Daniel Patterson,
Daniel Patterson, an F&W Best New Chef 1997, is the chef and owner of Coi in San Francisco and the co-author of Aroma.
Food & Wine Magazine, June, 2007
Throw away your tongs and toss your food processor. Chef Daniel Patterson believes that in the kitchen, nothing can replace human hands.

Recently, I was sitting in a friend’s kitchen, watching her toss a salad with a pair of restaurant-issue metal tongs. I had picked the wild greens just hours before, lovingly washed and dried them, and now was horrified to see her crushing the delicate leaves between the tongs and bowl. I asked her why she didn’t use her hands to gently toss the lettuces with the vinaigrette. After all, fingers are much more effective at this task than tongs. My friend made a face: "I don’t want to get my hands dirty."

At first I thought she was in the minority, until I called Maria Helm Sinskey, a chef and cookbook author who has plenty of interaction with home cooks. "Oh, yes," she laughed. "It’s true. No one wants to touch their food. You should see people trying to cut up a raw chicken with a knife in one hand and a fork in the other."

It could be that restaurants bear some responsibility for this sad state of affairs. When open kitchens became ubiquitous, cooks seemed to use tongs for just about everything. There was always some guy wielding them like a prosthetic limb, casually flipping a steak here and grabbing a piece of fish there, using the tongs to stir his sauces and then guide the food from sauté pan to plate. This was ostensibly more hygienic than using hands—except for the small fact that the cooks generally wiped off the tongs with a greasy towel, twirled them a few times like a six-shooter and then jammed them into the back pocket of their dirty chef’s pants. But it looked pretty cool. So people watched—and then they went out and bought some tongs of their own.

Of course, other factors are more to blame for the hands-free approach to cooking. Consider the rise of equipment like bread machines. And pasta machines. And food processors. Just pour in the ingredients and poof!—instant gratification. Things that once required hands could now be done by machine. This was compounded by the problem that somewhere along the way, people lost their connection to real food. In the 1950s, processed foods soared in popularity, and supermarkets began to sell meat and fish as disembodied, plastic-shrouded parts. "In the ’60s and ’70s," reminisces cookbook author Paula Wolfert, "the only people close to food were hippies and vegetarians."

But slowly, our food culture has been evolving back toward the primacy of ingredients. As interest in farmers’ markets and natural foods has exploded, the way chefs handle those ingredients has changed as well. Tongs, for example, are nowhere to be found in today’s best kitchens. "A turning point for me," says chef Graham Elliot Bowles of Avenues in Chicago, "was when I was flipping meat on the grill with a pair of tongs while working at Charlie Trotter’s, and the chef de cuisine grabbed the tongs out of my hands and threw them across the room." Many other chefs have similar stories to tell. They now use hands, spoons or a thin, flexible metal spatula, all of which damage the ingredients as little as possible and allow the closest connection to the food.

When you think about it, Americans’ aversion to touching their food is an aberration compared with much of the rest of the world. In countries like Morocco, India and Ethiopia, people eat with their hands, not just with utensils. Southeast Asian cooks pound ingredients by hand with a mortar and pestle to make the chile pastes and purees that form the basis of their cuisine.

erhaps no other food culture is more famously linked to the sense of touch than Japan’s. "Hands are like a cooking tool in our cuisine," says Ryuta Sakamoto, co-chef and co-owner of Medicine restaurant in San Francisco. "With touch we can actually tell not only freshness and condition, but the taste of a fish." I know this sounds absolutely crazy, but it’s a function of repetition and paying attention: Chefs can touch a piece of fish, then taste it and remember the connection between the two. The next day they’ll do it again, and then repeat ad infinitum until they have built up an extremely accurate sensory database that informs them of what a fish will taste like simply by its feel.

I often tell my cooks that the onion on their cutting board is a specific onion, not a generic representation. If the layer underneath the skin feels leathery, they need to peel it off and throw it away—it will never soften no matter how they cook it. The same is true for meat. Before cutting it, cooks will often run a hand lengthwise along the surface. They’re feeling the grain, the tightness of the fibers, and seeing where the natural separations of the muscles are, which is especially important when trimming larger cuts such as leg of lamb. How a piece of meat feels can make a big difference in determining the best way to cook it: A softer, looser texture might mean more tenderness, so perhaps a shorter cooking time is in order, while a tighter, denser feel might suggest slow roasting or a braise. And pulling meats gently apart makes it easier to see where to cut, as with that ever-tricky joint between a chicken’s drumstick and thigh.

When I first started dating my wife, she would test the doneness of a piece of meat by taking a knife and making a jagged cut halfway through its center. If the meat was undercooked, back it went into the pan, leaking juices that spattered everywhere. A few minutes later she would remove the meat and subject it to a second mauling, at which point it began to resemble an outtake from a low-budget horror flick. I never said anything to her, but eventually she began to watch me feel meat with my fingers when I cooked, and then feel it herself, until she learned how to judge doneness by touch. If you don’t happen to live with a chef, a good rule of thumb is to feel your earlobe—that’s rare. The tip of your nose resembles medium, and your chin is well-done.

Alain Passard of L’Arpège restaurant in Paris goes so far as to have his cooks prepare whole chickens entirely on the stovetop, in a large pan with butter. They constantly turn the birds by hand for an hour-and-a-half or so, the movement and modulated temperature keeping the butter golden brown without burning, creating a supremely succulent result. His cooks don’t just prod the surface of the chicken as they move it around—they’re feeling the muscles underneath and the way the proteins are slowly setting, which will tell them when it is fully cooked. I should mention the obvious, however: Cooks have skin like lizards and a high tolerance for pain. It’s probably not the wisest technique for a home cook.

The same can be said for a lot of new cooking methods floating around restaurants these days, used to create things like warm jellies, foams and savory sorbets, often requiring highly specialized equipment. But unlike in home kitchens, the machines that chefs rely on supplement, but don’t supplant, their sense of touch. Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, cooks pork belly sous vide, slowly poaching it inside a vacuum-sealed bag in a warm-water bath, then finishes it on the stovetop, using the back of his hand to press the meat into the pan so that it crisps evenly. (This technique also works well for fish cooked with the skin on: Pressing gently on the top of the fillet prevents the skin from curling up at the edges.) Johnny Iuzzini, the famously innovative pastry chef at Jean Georges in Manhattan, says, "Touch is important on so many levels, beginning with the ingredients. We constantly have our hands in mixes to check the springiness of gels, or to feel the development of egg whites in meringues. When combining fragile ingredients, I’d rather do it by hand than use a machine, which might deflate the delicate mixture."

Ironically, as chefs’ understanding of complex cooking processes has deepened, the care and sensitivity with which they handle their ingredients has brought them closer to traditional home cooking, or at least the way home cooking used to be. I had an extremely fine, elegant version of hand-rolled couscous recently at Aziza restaurant in San Francisco, where the chef, Mourad Lahlou, told me a story about his Moroccan grandmother, from whom he learned his technique: "She was blind, and she rolled the best couscous. She would throw it up in the air when it was formed, and feel it as it landed on her hands. If she felt jagged edges, that meant that it was too dry, and if it stuck, then it was too wet. Other family members started to close their eyes when they made couscous to try and replicate the results."

I remember vividly watching my own grandmother’s hands as she rolled out dough, peeled apples and crimped piecrusts when I was young. I have a feeling that she would be baffled by many of the dishes being served in top restaurants these days, but she would understand the chefs’ primal desire to connect with their food. The resurgence of handmade food is ultimately about a movement toward a more intimate connection with what we eat and where it comes from, what Paula Wolfert calls "the essential taste" of food. As she told me, "Without taste, smell—and feel—nobody can cook well."

Daniel Patterson, an F&W Best New Chef 1997, is the chef and owner of Coi in San Francisco and the co-author of Aroma.

Photo: Jim Franco

Greetings From the Non Bar-Code People, Michael Pollen, Mother Jones May/June 2006
reprinted in The Viand Zine, Issue 2, 12 May 2007

The following is an excerpt from “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. For the complete article, go to motherjones.com May/June 2006 issue
I might never have found my way to Polyface Farm if Joel Salatin hadn’t refused to FedEx me one of his chickens. I’d heard a lot about the quality of the meat raised on his “beyond organic” farm, and was eager to sample some. Salatin and his family raise a half-dozen different species (grass-fed beef, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and rabbits) in an intricate rotation that has made his 550 hilly acres of pasture and woods in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley one of the most productive and sustainable small farms in America.
In Joel’s view, the reformation of our food economy begins with people going to the trouble and expense of buying directly from farmers they know—“relationship marketing,” the approach he urges in his recent book, Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer’s Guide to Farm Friendly Food. Joel believes that the only meaningful guarantee of integrity is when buyers and sellers can look one another in the eye, something few of us ever take the trouble to do. “Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?
I met several of Polyface’s parishioners on a Thursday in June as they came to collect the fresh chickens they’d reserved. It was a remarkably diverse group of people: a schoolteacher, several retirees, a young mom with her towheaded twins, a mechanic, an opera singer, a furniture maker, a woman who worked in a metal fabrication plant in Staunton. They were paying a premium over supermarket prices for Polyface food, and in many cases driving more than an hour over a daunting (though gorgeous) tangle of county roads to come get it. But no one would ever mistake these people for the well-heeled, urban foodies generally thought to comprise the market for organic or artisanal food. There was plenty of polyester in this crowd and a lot more Chevrolets than Volvos in the parking lot.

I asked Joel how he answers the charge that because food like his is more expensive, it is inherently elitist. “I don’t accept the premise,” he replied. “First off, those weren’t any ‘elitists’ you met on the farm this morning. We sell to all kinds of people. Second, whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that, with our food, all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water—of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.”
When you think about it, it is odd that something as important to our health and general well-being as food is so often sold strictly on the basis of price. Look at any supermarket ad in the newspaper and all you will find in it are quantities—pounds and dollars; qualities of any kind are nowhere to be found. The value of relationship marketing is that it allows many kinds of information besides price to travel up and down the food chain: stories as well as numbers, qualities as well as quantities, values rather than “value.” And as soon as that happens, people begin to make different kinds of buying decisions, motivated by criteria other than price. But instead of stories about how it was produced accompanying our food, we get bar codes—as illegible as the industrial food chain itself, and a fair symbol of its almost total opacity.
TO TALK TO THE CUSTOMERS and farmers working together in Joel Salatin’s corner of the country to rebuild a local food chain is to appreciate it is a movement and not merely a market. Or rather it is a novel hybrid, a market-as-movement for at its heart is a new conception of what it means to be a “consumer”—an attempt to redeem that ugly word, with its dismal colorings of selfishness and subtraction. Many of the Polyface customers I met (though by no means all of them) had come to see their decision to buy a chicken from a local farmer rather than from Wal-Mart as a kind of civic act, even a form of protest. A protest of what exactly is harder to pin down, and each person might put it a little differently, but the customers I met at Polyface had gone to some trouble and expense to “opt out”—of the supermarket, of the fast-food nation, and, standing behind that, a globalized industrial agriculture. Their talk of distrusting Wal-Mart, resenting the abuse of animals in farm factories, insisting on knowing who was growing their food, and wanting to keep their food dollars in town—all this suggested that for many of these people spending a little more for a dozen eggs was a decision inflected by a politics, however tentative or inchoate.

Why should food, of all things, be the linchpin of that rebellion? Perhaps because food is a powerful metaphor for a great many of the values to which people feel globalization poses a threat, including the distinctiveness of local cultures and identities, the survival of local landscapes, and biodiversity. When José Bové, the French Roquefort farmer and anti-globalization activist, wanted to make his stand against globalization, he used his tractor to smash not a bank or insurance company but a McDonald’s. Indeed, the most powerful protests against globalization to date have revolved around food: I’m thinking of the movement against genetically modified crops, the campaign against patented seeds in India (which a few years ago brought as many as half a million Indians into the streets to protest World Trade Organization intellectual property rules), and Slow Food, the Italian-born international movement that seeks to defend traditional food cultures against the global tide of homogenization.

So much about life in a global economy feels as though it has passed beyond the individual’s control—what happens to our jobs, to the prices at the gas station, to the votes in the legislature. But somehow food still feels a little different. We can still decide, every day, what we’re going to put into our bodies, what sort of food chain we want to participate in. We can, in other words, reject the industrial omelet on offer and decide to eat another. This might not sound like a big deal, but it could be the beginnings of one. Already the desire on the part of consumers to put something different in their bodies has created a $14 billion market in organic food in the United States. That marketplace was built by consumers and farmers working informally together outside the system, with exactly no help from the government.
Shopping in the Organic Supermarket underwrites important values on the farm; shopping locally underwrites a whole set of other values as well. Farms produce a lot more than food; they also produce a kind of landscape and kind of community. Whether Polyface’s customers spend their food dollars here in Swoope or in the Whole Foods in Charlottesville will have a large bearing on whether this lovely valley—this undulating checkerboard of fields and forests—will endure, or whether the total economy will find a “higher use” for it. “Eat your view!” is a bumper sticker often seen in Europe these days; as it implies, the decision to eat locally is an act of land conservation as well, one that is probably a lot more effective (and sustainable) than writing checks to environmental organizations.
“Eat your view!” takes work, however. To participate in a local food economy requires considerably more effort than shopping at the Whole Foods. You won’t find anything microwavable at the farmer’s market or in your weekly box of organic produce from the CSA, and you won’t find a tomato in December. The local food shopper will need to put some work into sourcing his own food—learning who grows the best lamb in his area, or the best sweet corn. And then he will have to become reacquainted with his kitchen. Much of the appeal of the industrial food chain is its convenience; it offers busy people a way to delegate their cooking (and food preservation) to others. At the other end of the industrial food chain that begins in a cornfield in Iowa sits an industrial eater at a table. (Or, increasingly, in a car.) The achievement of the industrial food system over the past half-century has been to transform most of us into precisely that creature.
All of which is to say that a successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer but a new kind of eater —one who regards finding, preparing, and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore. One whose sense of taste has ruined him for a Big Mac, and whose sense of place has ruined him for shopping for groceries at Wal-Mart. This is the consumer who understands—or remembers that, in Wendell Berry’s memorable phrase, “eating is an agricultural act.” He might have added it’s a political act as well.

ON MY LAST DAY ON THE FARM, a soft June Friday afternoon, Joel and I sat talking at a picnic table behind the house while a steady stream of customers dropped by to pick up their chickens. I asked him if he believed the industrial food chain would ever be overturned by an informal, improvised movement made up of farmer’s markets, box schemes, metropolitan buying clubs, Slow Foodies, and artisanal meat-processing plants. Even if you count the Organic Supermarket, the entire market for all alternative foods remains but a flea on the colossus of the industrial food economy, with its numberless fast-food outlets and supermarkets backed by infinite horizons of corn and soybeans.      “We don’t have to beat them,” Joel patiently explained. “I’m not even sure we should try. We don’t need a law against McDonald’s or a law against slaughterhouse abuse—we ask for too much salvation by legislation.  All we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse.“And make no mistake:  it’s happening. The mainstream is splitting into smaller and smaller groups of like-minded people. It’s a little like Luther nailing his 95 theses up at Wittenberg. Back then it was the printing press that allowed the Protestants to break off and form their own communities; now it’s the Internet, splintering us into tribes that want to go their own way.”

photo from appleblossomcottage.blogspot.com

From The Viand Zine, Issue 2, 12 May 2007

North Americans measure cooking ingredients by volume, rather than weight. For example, most of the world might call for a recipe with "250 g flour" whereas an American recipe might require "1/2 cup flour". I've often wondered about the difference between densely packing that cup of flour for making bread (have you seen our video yet? http://www.viand.net/doughs.html) vs. just filling up the cup and leveling off the top. Now I know that the European's avoid the problem: no matter how densely the flour is compressed, "250 g flour" will be the same amount of flour, no matter what. In practice, though, that US measure of flour seems to work well enough, so maybe the difference doesn't actually matter. As I think back, I recall a friend of mine who was really into the gadgetry of cooking had a scale that could be reset after each item was added. So "3 cups flour" might be added one at a time using the scale to let you know when you had enough and the scaled zeroed out to then be followed by "2 tsp salt" - but now I know, though, that a different recipe would be needed for measuring ingredients. Cups and teaspoons can't be used, only a recipe in grams (or ounces/pounds) would work with that scale!

Wikipedia addresses the "densely packed" flour issue by making mention of Special Instructions commonly found in recipes like "Firmly Packed" or "2 Heaping Cups of Flour" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooking_weights_and_measures). Or in this case, just watch the bread video mentioned above to see how we do it and in 10 minutes of labor, you'll have the most amazing bread!

Duro's cooking trivia of the day:
1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._customary_units), who knew? (ok maybe you did smarty-pants 🙂

From The Viand Zine, Issue 2, 12 May 2007

…asparagus…
sweet potato slices… carrots…fennel…beets … onions…

the dark brown patches bring a caramel flavor

serve with bread, pasta, salad, or as a side dish. leftovers are great for sandwiches with any kind of cheese.