Plates with Integrity

Mike Cook

The culinary arts are like football. If you understand the scoring you can enjoy a game of football, the same way taste buds and a little hunger are all it takes to enjoy a meal. If you want more, however, football offers a lifetime's worth of strategies, from the simplest Xs and Os to theories on the repercussion of the wildcat offense on quarterback ratings. In the same way, you can spend many lives learning about cooking. There's complex chemistry to learn and sociology to understand. The culinary arts even have their own high theory.

            I began thinking about this because of a beef short rib Wellington. It triggered the desire to pass on what hints of culinary theory I've learned from chef friends and other sources.

            My dish had been deconstructed. While beef Wellington is usually filet mignon wrapped in duxelles (finely chopped mushrooms, shallots, and herbs) and prosciutto or ham and cooked in pastry dough, this version was a short rib topped with the duxelles, a ham-like pate, and a decorative square of pastry dough. The original dish had been taken apart, like a car engine spread out on a tarp. Deconstruction is just one of the theoretical ideas chefs use to construct their plates.

            There's a heady world of theory out there. Often chefs will talk about the integrity of the plate. A plate has integrity if it doesn't contain extraneous items and if the things on it fit together. Restaurants that want to be fancier than they are will sometimes drizzle various colored sauces all over a plate. It looks more artistic, but it has less integrity. A simpler example: you order pasta and it comes with a side of cornbread. Why another carbohydrate? More importantly, why this one, from another type of cuisine? The plate has low integrity.

            One method of keeping a plate's theme tight and logically related is the theory of keeping together the animal and what it ate. Using this theory a chef might pair a roast rabbit with a salad of field greens, or a pork chop with wild mushrooms or apples, the kinds of food wild hogs love. This theory automatically keeps a dish locally integrated. In fact, pairing an animal and what it ate is really a subset of eating locally.

            Chefs will even slip in to language that sounds more fitting for a design school. The rule of three and the way odd numbered items make a better, more organic presentation are both ideas taken from traditional design and diced into our meals by creative chefs.

            These ways of designing meals aren't just for chefs, though. They can be useful for all of us when faced with the overwhelming options at a grocery store. Entering a grocery store without a plan is almost as bad as entering it hungry. We wander clueless. By focusing on a theory, we can guide our shopping on the fly. Does mango make sense on this steak? Probably not, since cows and mangoes rarely live in the same areas. Sticking to ingredients from the animal's neighborhood will increase the integrity of your plate, help keep it locally sustainable, and keep you from going crazy in the grocery store.

            This is just a start. As anyone who watches ESPN knows, there are more stats to football than any one human could remember. In the same way, there are more facts and theories in cooking than we'll ever be able to learn. That doesn't mean it's not fun trying, though, so get into the kitchen and get theoretical, and let us know: what are your favorite culinary theories and ideas?

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