Masterchef (2)

In the last few years, it seems, cooking and food in general has become a fast selling item on almost any kind of medium.

To give you an idea of what matters most to people, a simple google search on the keywords « food » and « sex » (yes, almost any kind of research can be founded on a bit of ‘googling around’) gives a clear advantage for « food » in number of web pages. Furthermore, the population of blogs on cooking and food has increased steadily in the last few years, as the very phenomena of blogging itself has significantly lowered the barrier for people to start throwing their recipes online in an organized way.

There’s no problem in that, of course. Recipes are part of our cultural DNA, and making them freely available to the community is comparable to publishing the human genome. Yes, alien civilizations would really appreciate our open-source cuisine, as it would teach them a lot about cultural and regional differences, just as it would teach us a lot if we ever found an alien cookbook describing Slime Soufflé (no, wait, we have that on Earth. It’s just called sea cucumber).

The increase in interest in cooking has led people in other media to believe that people really care about food so much that they would be willing to watch hours and hours of television shows about the subject. The annoying part about it is that they are probably right. The last few years have given us show like Masterchef, surfing on the seemingly everlasting wave of reality television, with various spin-off, shows on starting restaurants, how to boil an egg, and how to peel potatoes, each having their so-called professional jury’s of top-chefs.

Yummie!

Flanders, a region with only 6 million inhabitants, has an outrageously large number of ‘famous cooks’ and people with a ‘vision about food’ (one being that, when you start enjoying your food, you should stop eating it. If the French ever find out, they’ll have their secret service blow up her house Rainbow Warrior style, i’m sure). As if digital TV wasn’t enough on its way to give each inhabitant their own pay per view channel, a new channel entitled ‘NJAM’ (Yummie! In dutch) has just been launched. (governed by the people from a production company that has previously given us talking dogs, very suspicious garden gnomes with erectile hats living in mushrooms in some kind of hippie communitie (i’m not kidding: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnppryU4IMY). Apparently those same people had a Machiavellic plan to put all those top chefs in one place on a television stage, and make lots of money out of it. Yummie…

One wonders whether being a top chef means selling extremely good food, or being extremely good at asking astronomically high prices for it. They’re usually the kind of people who think they’re creating a work of art whenever they make a dish, placing lettuce leaves on a plate following the rules of Bauhaus architecture. One thing’s sure though: television contracts make a nice additional income when your signature Lobster Thermidor isn’t selling that well. But when all else fails, (for example, when people start to ask themselves why they’re paying 40€ for a work of art they can eat in 3 minutes), you could still try the oldest trick in the PR book: confusing your audience.

Getting Molecular

Confusing your audience is the oldest trick in the book on how to sell something useless. You just put a fancy keyword in front of it that confuses most of your audience…for example “antioxidant” or “Molecular”. Once you’ve done that, you can tell them anything, even downright lies, and they won’t even care. (Even the bran of butter I buy now states that it uses “nano” technology in the packaging. Go figure why..)

Sure, ‘molecular’ cuisine exists. You can even check the original PhD dissertation that founded the discipline online. But it isn’t about ‘distillation of pure taste’ or injecting liquid nitrogen into a chicken breast..(what’s next? A mass spectrometer next to the oven?) no..it’s about how the whole cooking process works on a microscopical scale, about ingredient lifetime and most of all about debunking myths. NOT about creating new ones by performing mumbo jumbo with test tubes and cooling fluids. If you want that, try chemistry or biology (…why not ‘molecular’ biology?..)as a career.

I could go on of course.. molecular cooking is only one of those fashion trends hitchhiking on the road to Nowhere in Particular, but that at the same time generates a lot of cash flow.

If all goes well it will die out eventually, (like nouvelle cuisine did) when people will realize that you can create perfectly edible and delicious dishes with local (and normal) ingredients that don’t need pre-treatment in a Bose-Einstein condensate or cold fusion to become ‘au point’..

And if you’ll excuse me now, my alligator steak (‘au petrole atlantique’) is on the fire…

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Masterchef

A question occurred to me earlier today on my way home from work:

What would alien visitors from another galaxy, given they don’t annihilate us all within the first minutes of their arrival, think of ‘Masterchef’?

Would they spread their slimy tentacles on the sofa, and watch together in amazement how people spend ages preparing food, how they cry wet tears on television over their failure to boil an egg or ‘compose’ their ‘signature’ dish correctly? I really wonder.

After all, in their world, eating is eating: a basic need to survive. No need to boil the eggs. You just pick up an intergalactic snack from a planet near you and move on. (With some luck, the aliens will be slime mould-ish, and we can still run away while they chase us at the extraordinary speed of 1 cm per second.)

Carnal matters

Not so long ago (on a geological timescale) it was exactly the same for us: a basic need, like sex, to survive. In those days, food had tremendous trading value. Hunters would return with meat, and trade it with the women at home for mating opportunities. Trading mammoth (Or sabretooth, or whatever furry creature came within reach of their pointy spears) for genes, both parties benefited from the exchange. The men could spread their genes, and the women could be sure to give theirs to a child with a strong father who was able to dodge mammoths.

Nowadays, that habit has disappeared (Tthe trading value of fresh mammoth meat has somewhat diminished in the red light districts of our age), but food is beyond any doubt still “big business”. We don’t pay it with sexual favours anymore (things would get complicated), but we pay it with the thing that has replaced a part of our ‘survival currency’: money.

Fortune, Glory and Wonders of the Deep Blue Sea

More than ever, food is a field full of new and exciting possibilities. Possibilities, mainly, to convince people to give you their money in exchange for something they really don’t need.

People pay astronomical amounts of cash just to eat in a fancy restaurant, where food isn’t necessarily any better than that of the local tavern. The key is exclusivity, of course. Find a dish which seems strange and exotic to your continent, and you can ask any price you want. People will eat it anyway, just because it fascinates them.

Want to eat sea cucumber soufflé with a hint of Hawaiian shrimp ? Sure. You name it. They’ll drag it from the bottom of the continental plate for you, and prepare the slimy thing with ‘a trio of Parmesan cheeses’, but scratching the thing of the bottom of the sea, out of its peaceful and mucous existence, comes with a price (not to mention the environmental one). I’ve seen people in near-orgastic states at the tasting of sea cucumber on television, describing it as a ‘heavenly’ in front of the viewers, while visibly trying to repress a cold shudder at the sight of it (one solution is to make it unrecognizable in the cooking process. You could try to melt it or something. It’s proabably be worth a try).

I had the erm…pleasure of eating it in a small (and rather dodgy) seafood restaurant in a Guangzhou (Canton, China) suburb, and I must say it tastes like nothing I ever ate before. In fact, it tastes of nothing..except the thing they put in the dish with it (in China that usually involves large portions of red hot peppers). It doesn’t even taste of what it actually feeds on: ‘decaying organic matter’

By the way…sea cucumbers, when in distress, deploy their secret weapon: ‘defense vomiting’ (Do check Wikipedia, by all means. It’s fascinating literature (especially the picture captions): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_cucumber).

Part II: “Excuse me, can i have some more Liquid Nitrogen in my Soup?” online on May 20th