EP: This post will differ from my usual in terms of content and style. I typically jot down these sorts of thoughts on Twitter, but figured this might be a better venue.
Cooking is a passion of mine. For a long while, it was also an occupation. I started the way most do in that world: washing dishes for minimum wage at the ripe age of 15. My CV was bare for a complete lack of experience, save for vague promises of being a quick learner and such. As it happens, I would live up to that claim. I had climbed and, at times, stumbled through the ranks to earn a job at one of Canada’s foremost gastronomic destinations before I had finally had enough. Despite my divorce from cooking as a profession, it remains part of my life and story. It’s common for people to discern connections between various elements important to their lives, and I’m no different. Lately, I’ve become increasingly aware of such parallels between cooking and hockey.
Gastronomic groupthink has consistently rejected new trends in a manner similar to the mainstream’s refusal to embrace analytics in hockey. Most recently, so-called “molecular gastronomy” has been met with resistance, and often laughed out of the proverbial room. Rewind an era, and it’s Nouvelle Cuisine threatening the strictures of traditional French cuisine. Nearly all major movements in cooking took time to gain traction, but at no point in history have you been able to eat better than now. Hockey is cooking over open flames, insisting instruments and cookware will attenuate the essence of fire.
Countless times, I’ve watched pundits like Anthony Bourdain contradict themselves over the topic of modernized cooking. Seeing him rave about a meal at El Bulli only one episode removed from lamenting “tweezer food” over a rustic bowl of stew would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. And, of course, there’s the simple fact all cooking is molecular gastronomy. There’s no escaping this. Yet we make distinctions based on imaginary thresholds that are prone to shifting depending on the mood we happen to be in. In hockey, analytics have been employed in the higher leagues since stats have been kept. It seems to me the definition of analytics has narrowed to the point of synonymity with Corsi, gaining a strong negative connotation along the way. This same phenomenon causes people to conjure images of pizza-flavoured ice cubes when molecular gastronomy is mentioned. All the while, the dessert you’re eating happens to be vegan because alternative gelling agents were used in place of the traditional gelatin. Rejecting modern methods can only serve to limit what you do. You mustn’t use an immersion circulator to cook everything, but you might find it makes a better tenderloin.
The problem is that people fundamentally misunderstand cooking. Too often, cooks operate under assumptions and principles that are misconceived or even mythical in nature. People appeal to abstract intangible qualities in cooking just like they do in sports. Even at the highest level, you hear how you must sear meats in order to “seal the juices,” a concept that has been debunked time and again. Some even cling to this idea despite awareness to the contrary. I don’t believe that the concept there are factors in cooking that cannot be measured is off-base. Eating and enjoying food is a subjective, emotional experience after all. A loaf of bread you baked yourself from scratch may indeed taste better than the exact same loaf purchased from a store. The quality of a chef, though, is measured by the enjoyment they bestow on their customers, not the sum of their cooking skills. I think people struggle with this concept as it pertains to hockey, over-emphasizing input traits rather than the bigger picture. Does it matter that you foraged your own ingredients if the meal you prepare is not enjoyable?
I don’t doubt for a second there are many obnoxious molecular gastronomers out there. They have that in common with every single cooking sect. But I think people tend to forget that when such a cook comes home from another long shift delicately stacking funny shapes and ladling seawater foam onto plates, sometimes he or she just feels like a scarfing down a hot dog.