To me, eating has always been more than just filling up our stomach and subduing our growling hunger. It can be as enjoyable and entertaining like watching a good movie or elevated to attending an award-winning opera with the tingling effervescent taste of champagne lingering on one’s palate. But a good meal takes effort, and an exceptional one requires even much more than just planning, sourcing, and executing. Today there are no shortages of celebrity chefs out there. For them to become established figures in the industry each one of them must do more than just to make food taste good—they must have something up their sleeves that are unique which set them apart from others. I believe they are telling their stories, whether they be personal journeys or the processes of their metamorphosis. Like artists showcasing their work in the exhibitions, there exists a deeper meaning than what the eyes first perceive. And for those who are seeing with their mind and soul, they can have a deeper sense of connection with not just the food but with themselves as well.
For me, I have mentioned that food is entertainment and I often wondered if it can be much more. Unfortunately, people do not have equal standards when it comes to the things they value or are familiar with. For example, between food and movies, you would expect good acting, a good plot, and excellent CGI animations for a sci-fi movie in order to be rated enjoyable, but for food, perhaps it only has to taste delicious and fulfilling. Our needs in this area seem small and minute compared to others. At one point, just to make the food taste delicious becomes quite limiting and compartmentalized in the general sense of being fun, interesting, and memorable. Why not give it a story in the way of how I choose to tell it? I decided that I needed pointers, guidelines, or philosophies that would help guide me to touch on the essentials in this culinary labyrinth of possibilities. When I get stuck, I trek, often from the cities to the woods. And with it, the changing of landscapes is quite noticeable, too. Commonly, a variety of produce is grown in the fields, yet, inside the forest with limited sunlight, it’s a different whole world altogether. Immediately, the “rare” and the “common” come to mind. Inside the forest, it takes effort and time to locate the desirable ingredients and they never are in big quantities as opposed to the cultivated ones which are often quite accessible. In the culinary world, there is often the debate between treating the ingredients minimally to taste their pure flavors and manipulating them in complicated ways to conform to a particular taste profile. Recognizing this, it’s important to understand the ingredients well to make sound judgements as whether to present their “crude” taste, preferably best without any additional seasoning, or carry out preparations to remove the unwanted and enhance the desired. As a playful twist on both positions, I would present in addition the crude flavors and also carry out all the manipulations necessary to “imitate” the ingredients in their original forms.
Trekking in the woods is an immersive experience. You have the tall trees of various classifications lining both borders of the trail. The angle of the sun, and the light rays filtered through by the green foliage cast different ambiances on the forest floor. Responding to the physical differences of each niche, flora and fauna choose the “habitats” best suited to their needs. Each habitat is gingerly balanced and the flora and fauna support each other. Here you would find ingredients not available elsewhere; for example, a particular forest snail, and the mushrooms they feed on and the wet moss that helps flourish the mushrooms. If you step back and pause to take a still frame: the different textured soils, the muddy puddles in the trail after the rain, the fern based vegetation, the patches of bush flowers, and the tall fibrous fallen wooden trunks, you then have a particular forest “scene.” The scenes can be quite variegated, high on the plains where the temperature is low, and you have an alpine or snowy scene. Follow the creek to the edge of the landmass into the intertidal zone, you have the beach scene.
When you have the ingredients gathered and assembled, each “texture” is apparently different from the soft to starchy to fibrous to crunchy to succulent. The texture is of particular interest because we seem to love the textural feel on the palate. And texture gives weighted credential as to something tastes good or not. For example, as simple as the classic Caesar salad seems, it employs seemingly innocent ingredient combinations that are in fact quite complex. The romaine lettuce has to be as clean and plumb as possible to impart that crisp and clean mouth feel. The croutons must not be stale, but attain a proper toasted surface of each flour granule from the inside out to achieve that right dry exploded crunch. The bacons go head to head with the slightly stringy yet soft cheese, contrasting against the hardness of its moisture removed protein fibers. One salad, but deep in numerous degrees and extent of textures all packed into one. Now imagine you are eating this masterfully prepared salad. It certainly would have brought a smile to my face. Some part of me must have agreed to this flavor profile, which must have resonated my approval based on my experience of criteria on how this salad should be. My sense of taste is undoubtedly engaged. But what would further accentuate the experience of eating this salad? Move the dinner table to the field where the lettuces are grown, play the sound effect of “crunch” of biting into this salad, and drift the aroma of bacon being grilled on an open apple wood fire pit over to the dinner table. It will be a sensual experience not likely to be matched anytime soon.
Partly because you have not experienced it before and the fact that your other sensory organs of smell, sight, and hearing all participated and helped to capture that memory. As shown, the sense organs are powerful motivators that must be engaged and taken into consideration when designing a dish. Are forks and spoons really needed to enjoy a good meal? Have a picnic in the woods, pick the finest mushrooms, forage the freshest flowers and edible greens possible to add to your salads and sandwiches. The expectation of it, of being able to partake in the process of making your own meals can be a playful and triumphant one. Engaging diner interaction to the completion of their meals promotes a sense of deeper connection, belonging and appreciation for something they are about to consume.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Albert Einstein has left clues for all those who seek them; our interpretations may be different, but nevertheless it is a quest of self-discovery and to understand things better. And it is indeed rewarding to be able to trek in the woods. Just a few hours into the hike, I already feel calm and my spirit is usually lifted and invigorated. Taking what I have learned and observed in this journey, my pantry is then complete with these elements of “crude, imitated, rare, common, habitat, scene, texture, sense, and playfulness” to formulate the approach or philosophy to my cooking and to play to my heart’s content. In this era of busy metropolitan life where there is much at stake, our time for ourselves is incessantly compressed and truncated. To take a time out in the woods seems virtually impossible. So I thought if people cannot go to the woods, I shall humbly bring the woods to them, to their dinner table, to their very last meal of a busy day to relax them. The menu that follows then, at least for this season, is a journey through the woods. Picture a wooden cabin set at the edge of the forest, perhaps in the southern Provence region of France in a late summer and pre-autumn setting.The wooden cabin is easily nostalgic because it is reminiscent of the past life where people had to work for their meals from scratch, by raising the livestock and foraging whatever is available to supplement their daily diet and preserving their vegetables by pickling when the time comes.