Whether you put much stock in the recently released list of the world's 50 best restaurants (and all signs suggest you might do well to hang on to your stock, since the methodology and ethics of the exercise are suspect), the write-ups accompanying the winners are a fairly good guide to what folks who froth over high-falutin' plates consider prize-worthy. Arzak (No. 8) is "difficult-to-pigeonhole." Steirereck (No. 16) is "groundbreaking." Le Chateaubriand (No. 27) is "innovative and gutsy."
Yet the restaurant atop this year's list, Noma, regained its perch by demonstrating "greater knowledge ... rather than the intuition and raw discovery of its earlier period."
While the current age of restaurant appreciation is still knee-deep in creativity and artistry, at least among kitchen practitioners, there is a minor resurgence of interest in memorizing facts and mastering established techniques.
Studying formulas isn't sexy - chefs are still far more likely to pose for portraits with knives and hog carcasses than textbooks and calculators - but industry insiders say an escalated emphasis on the less-showy aspects of cooking is critical to the future of chefdom. "We have a lot of people who say they want to be chefs because they really hate math," scoffs Joliet Junior College's culinary arts department head Michael McGreal, alluding to students who've been swept up by glossy food magazine depictions of chefs as solo geniuses at the mercy of their muses.
According to McGreal, prospective chefs who don't bother with book learning are likely to ultimately mishandle ingredients; lose money and infuriate their employees, assuming they're able to open restaurants at all. In his role as the American Culinary Federation's Culinary Knowledge Bowl task force chair, though, he gets to deal with students at the other end of the spectrum.
"We've all been in restaurants where you don't want to see what the kitchen looks like," says McGreal, who last week emceed a qualifying competition in Charleston. "These are students you'd never have to worry about. Everything is attention to detail with them. Whether it's food waste or something related to food safety, they're dotting their i's and crossing their t's."
'Brown water' doesn't cut it
It's not just tuition-paying kids who've lately fallen under the spell of rote knowledge. The Charleston Brown Water Society, an exclusive whiskey drinking club that draws most of its members from behind the city's top bars, last month staged an event that was designed to bolster the brothers' data stores. (The nearly all-male group proudly uses fraternal lingo.)
As group spokesman Dan Latimer, general manager of Husk, explains it, organizers selected two ryes and four bourbons (including two heavily wheated bourbons.) Bars affiliated with the group, as well as "a couple of places with good friends of the society," offered the chosen whiskeys in three-shot flights. In preparation for a blind-tasting challenge, members were urged to sample the flights until they'd developed a familiarity with the featured spirits. Whether they liked the whiskeys was immaterial: The only goal was correct identification.
"We hadn't really heard of anyone doing blind bourbon tastings for fun," Latimer says.
In the past, society members entertained themselves by nosing esoteric whiskeys and coming up with descriptions that grew more, and then decidedly less, poetic as the night wore on. Returning to the same whiskey and assessing it clinically was "pretty novel."
The tasting wasn't as rigorous as the double-blind tastings that are a staple of sommelier training: The members knew the names of the six whiskeys poured, and they were permitted to discuss their guesses before filling out their test sheets. "We just can't bring ourselves to being that pretentious," Latimer says.
But even with assistance, all but four of the 29 tasters failed to accurately name more than two whiskeys. A few of the tasters got every whiskey wrong. Only Craig Nelson, owner of Proof, scored a perfect six out of six.
"A lot is yet to be learned by all of us," Latimer says. "It seems even more repetition is needed."
Managing the tough questions
Participants in the American Culinary Federation's Knowledge Bowl are well-acquainted with repetition. In order to succeed, McGreal says, "they have to basically memorize their textbooks from front to back." Students are quizzed on everything from the yield of a head of broccoli to the components of Sauce Robert.
The team competition is structured something like College Bowl, with teams of five conferring on answers to questions, and something like Jeopardy!, with a similarly formatted board. There aren't any audio daily doubles, but the board is seeded with "sensory" questions that call for props kept stashed in the emcee's podium, such as Arborio rice or a mushroom.
"To identify it, they have to know every possible mushroom variety, because it won't be a button mushroom," McGreal says.
At last week's regional qualifier in Charleston, competitors were dealt categories ranging from Nutrition 101 to Egging It (which is apparently a culinary student's idea of a gimme, since the teams blew through the questions, sometimes even before they were fully asked. "Albumen," a team member said decisively as soon as he heard the word "clear." By contrast, an Escoffier-themed category languished on the board.)
Guilford Technical Community College, a Jamestown, N.C., school, won the right to represent the Southeast in national competition. But McGreal says all of the competitors, many of whom are slower with their knives and clumsier with their garnishes than their originality-oriented classmates, are poised to land great jobs after graduation.
"As (cooks) get promoted and move up, technical skills are taken for granted," McGreal says. Not so the managerial skills that Knowledge Bowlers gain by learning how to calculate costs on the fly and how to properly outfit a kitchen. Alums of the program are especially popular with hotels and catering companies.
"You can imagine how many banquet facilities have a recipe and just roughly guess at what they need," McGreal says. "If the banquet manager is not trained, they'll say, 'Well, we need about 250 pounds of prime rib, but let's just figure 300.' Fifty pounds of prime rib is not cheap. You might be talking $1,000. Then the banquet staff is eating prime rib; it could bankrupt a mom-and-pop in a few months."
Although the Knowledge Bowl is an excellent training ground for chefs, McGreal says not every participant ends up in a kitchen: "We see a lot of people who love this so much they become culinary educators."
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.