Trying not to kill with food.

There are tragedies that hit families around the world every day, though some seem more tragic than others. One such case is the recent passing of Scott Johnson in Minnesota from an allergic reaction after eating out. I imagine only a pop-culture definition of a psychopath wouldn’t be horrified for such a loss, but it especially caught my attention. Such a thing is my absolute nightmare, but not because I fear for my kids – I don’t have any – but because I am a chef, and actually harming people can be a constant threat.
This is a case that is going to court, so we can’t say for certainty what exactly happened at this point; the summary is rather brief. In the end, this could be a case of gross misconduct by the restaurant – they were wrong about the batter, either because they didn’t double-check the recipe; the server didn’t properly notify the kitchen which table it was, a cook grabbed the wrong batter… there are plenty of reasons the restaurant would be at fault and those responsible need to face consequences.
However. However, I do want to say this as a general lesson to be taken away from this loss. Having severe allergies, especially to a common ingredient, dining out carries risks, and one should really consider the risk before eating out in those cases.
Take a look at boxes of food or just ingredients at your local grocery store. They’ll almost always note which major allergens are in the packaging. ALLERGENS: SOY, MILK. That sort of thing. But on many, you’ll also find something along the lines of “This product was processed at a facility that also processes tree nuts.”
We are used to lawyer speak and over-warning of dangers. But this is one to be sure to take note of, because it is telling us something. No matter what precautions we are taking, food contamination can happen, and it is very difficult to swear to 100% certainty that none occurred when items are in somewhat close proximity.
Take Gluten-Free items. I’ve worked places where the pastry department made their own gluten-free items. They scrub down the area well and work with freshly cleaned equipment before baking. But I’ve always been slightly nervous about it, because there is flour used in the kitchen. Pre-packaged gluten-free items? I’ve felt much more secure about that, and it has nothing to do with extra precautions or the like. It is because those companies that produce that do not ever use flour – there is no reason for it to be anywhere in the facilities, and thus, so, so much harder to cause any contamination.
With a dairy allergy, in any of my kitchens, there are a lot of the products – milk, cream, butter, cheese, sour cream, pastries and so on. Tell me there is a dairy allergy, and I will double check the recipes. Even if I created the recipe myself, I’ll look it up to be sure. And I’ll check with the cook who made that batch to be sure they didn’t use any. And I’ll ensure only clean, non-contaminated equipment is used. And then I’ll say one more thing – “I cannot absolutely guarantee it.”
I suppose saying so is, in a way, covering my ass legally. But at the moment, I really am not thinking that. I’m simply stating that I can take a lot of precautions, but there is no way I can state that there is no way anything bad can happen. I’ll be open and honest about it. Peanut allergy and ordering a pasta? “Peanuts are not an ingredient on that station; in fact, the only peanuts in the kitchen is peanut butter, and that’s always kept about 70 feet from where the pasta is cooked.”
I am dubious of cases where such trace amounts can cause such problems – if I had to put money on it, something happened where dairy contaminated the young man’s dish. But that is a real risk one is taking. Cooks are human. We have not been replaced by robots, much less robots with some sort of spectrometer that can check for any allergen contamination. Doing a task enough times, a mistake will be made. The key is to limit those risks.
If one is dealing with such a severe dairy allergy, consider when eating out bringing one’s own product that you know is safe from experience at home – not just because the product is known to be safe, but handling it in the kitchen will get even more attention and have much less chance of being contaminated. Or consider vegan establishments. As with the mass-produced gluten-free items, dairy is something that wouldn’t even make it in the back door of such a place, again reducing risk of contamination.
In the end, those in white will do whatever we can to ensure when told of an allergy that we provide a dish that is safe and tasty. But none can really say it is 100% guaranteed, unless the allergen never comes into the kitchen. We are human, and mistakes go get made. The key is to do everything you can to limit both the chance of getting exposed, and the fallout when you do.

My Foundation Doesn’t Require a Foundation

I am, I am told, a heathen.
Immoral, directionless, doomed to burn in hell for all eternity.
Because I am a – gasp – atheist.
And the thing we atheists get told by people who, frankly, don’t really know us, is that we simply cannot have morals. I’ve tried calling myself a “secular Christian”, since I do believe in the philosophical teachings of what I believe was a historic figure, Jesus of Nazareth. But that just seems to piss everyone off, and I’ve been told flat-out, if you don’t believe in the divinity, if you don’t believe Christ rose from the dead or that a cracker is a slice of his flesh like it was cut off in the Andes mountains, then nothing else matters.,
It is an attitude I find puzzling, though seems to fit in with some of the more vocal Christians I know or see as public figures – as long as I believe in the divinity, the actual message is secondary. Though it seems to me that we’re losing the real message of the alleged resurrection (I’m sure using “alleged” is going to piss people off, but I’m talking about an event I don’t really believe happened as if it did, so… there we are). It wouldn’t have been the message that Jesus was bringing to the people, it was the underline and exclamation mark, the “See? Kind of a big deal, here, perhaps you should pay attention to what I had to say!”
But while they’ll put the moral code he teaches in a secondary category of importance, they also assume that without it, I must be completely immoral. Which has a certain circular illogic to it – I believe in the moral teaching’s but not the divinity, which means I’m not a true Christian, which means I must not be following the moral code he taught us. How heads don’t literally implode on such sort of reasoning I will never understand.
But I have a moral code. I do not lie; I used to, but found it too troublesome and never worth it – honesty is easier. I do not believe in harming other people; no one should be harming anyone and doing so is wrong. And especially, I don’t believe in killing others.
Now, are there exceptions? Certainly, I do not think any rule or moral holds up in black and white in every single situation. In defending others, doing harm may be necessary, though I believe in quick, contained action to do so.
This is where I tend to get tagged with a “relativistic morality” label, that I can’t hold onto any rule firmly, so I must not have any rules at all. But that is, frankly, a complete load of crap. Because while I have small exceptions to it, the people who chose to judge me tend to have much bigger ones. How many Christian leaders openly have called for military actions in the past decade? How many find excuses to find the death penalty morally correct?
This past weekend, when SNL did a parody of a Toyota commercial of a dad dropping his daughter off at the bus station for college, but it turns out she’s going off with ISIS, many people complained about the immorality of such a joke and those who found it funny. “When so many Chrisitans were just killed over there.” Fair point, I suppose, but in my book, MANY people, mostly Muslim, have been getting killed in that struggle, and my personal outrage over the atrocities that are going on have to do with PEOPLE getting killed; whatever their religion may be is a secondary concern. But that’s the sort of person I’m supposed to be listening to that I don’t have morals? The ones who open the Bible to “Thou shalt not kill” and see a dozen asterisks after it for all the exceptions they’ve imposed?
There is such a thing as a moral fact. Nearly every religion can be boiled down to a simple caveat – “be nice to each other” (even the Church of Bill & Ted). They may differ on who brings us that message, on what their tale of how the universe came to be is, etc. But the underlying moral message is the same, because they are based on truths that we have found as self-evident. But people lose focus on the message, get caught up in tribalism, and act like those who don’t follow THEIR book in the way that THEY think it should be done, there is no way we heathens can have any moral framework.
To quote the comic Rick Reynolds, “Has anyone really flipped through this book, ‘Geez, I wanna fuck my neighbor’s wife, don’t know if I should!’?”
The real key is to be open about the world, and your place in it. If you only see yourself as part of a WASP tribe, that you identify as white, as Anglo-Saxon, as Protestant (or other Christian sect), then suddenly the “rules” you are told to follow suddenly only seem to apply to your group. Other people, since they believe differently than you ((and look and live differently, too), it seems alright to treat them differently.
Even though there is no indication that Jesus ever saw a white person in his corporeal form. Or that his message was for a small group of people to only apply to each other. No, in word, many Christians will say that Jesus’ message was universal, but in their implementation, act like it was very narrow lesson.
There is no need to worry about my morals. I won’t lie to you, cheat on you, steal from you, hit you, kill you. I hold those morals to be self-evident, and I didn’t need a book to tell me that. To those who want to question my morals, you can go ahead – it will be a waste of your time. Perhaps that time would be better spent looking at your own morals, and your book, and questioning if you are really following what you preach.

On Chefs as Artist

“With my food, I’m really trying to tell as story.”
Ugh! There is probably no sentence that will make me cringe nearly as much as that one. From cooking shows to newspaper articles, that seems to be the phrase every chef is expected to say, and say it they do. And many, I suspect, believe it.
I’ve long rejected the notion of the chef as an artist. An artist makes a one-of-a-kind work. Sure, it can be reproduced endless times, like postcards of the Mona Lisa, but DaVinci only created one, and that’s the one people clamber to see. No, I’ve tended towards likening chefs to artisans – skilled craftsmen who know the material they are working with, and can create something beautiful out of it. And do it again and again as demand warrants. It is a comparison I first thought of in culinary school, 7 years into my career and already with a lot of impressions.
But, firm distinctions do soften as one ages. Two things led to me making an exception – I dated a girl who was into art, so I was re-exposed to it in a way that was much better than the required “appreciation” classes in high school. I started to see art as often just posing a question or a challenge. Take the famous Campbell’s Tomato Soup print Andy Warhol did. It was an ordinary object, something people passed day-in and day-out in the aisles of their grocery store. By blowing it up and putting it on a wall, a challenge was posed to reconsider this item, its look and aesthetics. He is posing a question. (of course, we’re dealing with art here… that’s my interpretation of what the artist was trying to do, I’m sure there are those that will disagree).
And then I saw “Decoding Ferran Adria”, an Anthony Bourdain special that was filmed to be part of a series that was canceled, and later incorporated into his “No Reservations” series. He was, if not the father of, then the popularizer of, molecular gastronomy, using science and techniques and chemicals to manipulate food into whole new ways. We’d seen some version of that trickle over to the United States, people like Wylie Dufresne and Grant Achatz who popularized it State side, and were followed by hundreds of copy cats. It seemed like a nice trick with the food, but nothing more than that.
Then, in the middle segment, Adria took Bourdain to his lab, where he would work for 6 months on ideas and concepts and try to make them workable in the kitchen. And one that he was working on was with a peach, trying to manipulate it to create a sensation very much like foie gras, the fatty, rich duck liver. And he explained (through a translator there and my memory here), “If I can make this work, then the question is why is foie gras ‘better’? If I can take a 10 cent peach, and make it just like a $100 lobe of foie gras, is the foie gras better just because it is more expensive?”
Bingo! That was the moment. He was posing questions, trying to use his food to challenge the preconceptions of the diners about what it is they are consuming. I finally found it, the chef who was an artist.
It also made me appreciate the whole field of molecular gastronomy, or at least see it in a different light. When Adria and Achatz and Dufresne create something, they are posing a challenge. But like with Warhol, once it is out there, it is out of their hands, and many, many people try to copy it without fully understanding. Putting up a giant Progresso Chicken Noodle soup can is in no way doing the same thing as Warhol; a can of soup wasn’t the point. But that’s the sort of thing the imitators end up doing. They take the cool trick they see one of the leading chefs do, like apple “caviar”, and redo it over and over again, not with any real thought behind it than “hey, look what I can do.”
And so, there are a couple chefs, the highest-of-the-up-on-high chefs, who I might call an artist. But that list is slowly being added to, not because more people are cooking like Adria et al., but rather I find my vision for what is a challenge growing.
Currently, the big names, the trend-setters, are Scandinavian chefs. As a half-Swede, this certainly catches my attention. One I’ve been fascinated with is Mangus Nilsson, through Anthony Bourdain’s “The Mind of a Chef” PBS show (there he is again, A.B., pushing my assumptions about chefs). His restaurant, Faviken, is on my bucket list, an overnight trip up to the northern areas of Sweden. Everything is as local as can be, from the farm or down the street. Some from a little further, but all of the land where one is eating. And he’ll create a dish of crab leg, a touch of butter, and a burnt cream, and that’s it. Or baby new potatoes boiled in water flavored with leaves that had been decomposing under snow all winter, with a touch of butter. Pick it up with your fingers, crush the potato and eat. The aromas and associations from the dish are the challenge to the guest. The food is of a time and a place, very separate from the way people in the modern world acquire their food and consume it.
Hopefully this will be a trend that keeps on growing, or at the very least sustains itself. If this, this surge of chefs who really think deeply about their food and how they can use it to change, or at least challenge, the thinking of their guests, if it is all just a fad, that would really depress me. I’m not one to have a lot of faith that people will gravitate to items that are challenging, especially with food. The vast majority’s focus, in the West at the least, is on immediate gratification and satiation. And there are plenty of chefs out there who make a good living giving people that very thing. But hopefully, there are enough of us out there who can, on occasion, see a chef as and artist and put ourselves into their hands. To say, show me what you have to say, I’m open to it.
Just so long as what they’re saying isn’t called “a story.”