Writing About Writing About Food, and the Greatest Chef In The World
Celebrity that comes from cooking food may be a relatively new phenomenon. Without a doubt, it’s fairly new to Americans. Jeff Gordinier muses for a bit in his newest book, Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World, about how quickly celebrity has become a force in the world of cuisine. We had our James Beards and our Julia Children, who cooked and wrote about it and managed to grow into household names, but they weren’t far removed from jolly Nanas and Nonnos who were still a generation or two back in our own home kitchens.
At the end of the 20th century, though, cable television brought us Anthony Bourdain and Iron Chef. Suddenly cooking amazing food was the realm of the rebel and the rock star. The exploding popularity of food television meant that celebrity chefs soon came into their own. And now we queue up The F Word, The Great British Baking Show, Chopped, and Chef’s Table and gobble it all greedily in a Sunday afternoon. We have our new celebrities and we hunger for what they conjure up for us season after consumable season.
From this world emerges René Redzepi; by some accounts he’s the world’s greatest chef, but he’s not a rock star. He doesn’t swagger down the street with Bourdain’s signature BDE. You’re more likely to find him doing yoga with his wife before scrounging for edible weeds in his backyard. But however we’re supposed to categorize the newest iteration of famous chef, Gordinier presents Redzepi in Hungry for your puzzled observation, possibly for your edification.
Gordinier isn’t a TV producer, though. He’s a writer with nearly endless access to fine-dining experiences. Through his columns in Esquire and The New York Times, he’s spent much of his career describing to us the tastes of things that, even if we could afford them, we’d have to rub elbows with the 1% to ever be able to get a table to try.
The relevance of this perspective in a world where anyone with a Netflix password is a couple clicks away from Mind of a Chef never quite resolves throughout the course of the book. The author name-drops the best of the best in the realms of cuisine, and the modest consumer of cookbooks and cooking shows will recognize the people who inhabit his world. But few of us will really ever get a physical taste of the tales he weaves for us.
At the start of Hungry, Gordinier wakes up on a beach on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, and proceeds to follow Redzepi zig-zagging across the world. The half-caste Macedonian chef, who rose to prominence in his semi-native Denmark, has opened pop-up dining experiences in Tokyo and in Sydney. Now, in Mexico, he’s trying to reinvent what he does best. A satellite world of chefs and food professionals orbit him, devoted to the way he sees food. And he’s almost at the rank of charismatic cult leader, leading a pioneering press through the locavore approach to dining and possessing an almost comic obsession with fermenting everything he finds.
Redzepi’s charisma extends through Gordinier’s writing about writing about food. He’s crazy, you think, he has to be. But the tacos! The insanity must have a noble end. Even at the point where he’s scraping purple splotches of butterfly carnage off of a Jeep’s windshield, wondering whether he can ferment it, you stick with him. “René needs to win!” His lowest point, wallowing sadly in a magical tortilla filled with juicy cochinita pibil, will fill you with tenderness and tears. And then some more tears when you realize you will be hard-pressed to ever get to taste that pork.
Hungry is worth the read, and it did send me to Rancho Market to see whether fresh epazote is really the only way to eat a quesadilla (maybe my epazote wasn’t that fresh? B-). I’m not entirely convinced that Gordinier’s foray into the ups and downs of his personal life connect as readily with Redzepi’s journey as he seems to intend them to. He reaches for love-life redemption in the mysterious dishes of his friend the chef, and it feels a bit forced. But I’ll allow his indulgence. I enjoyed the ride, and could almost taste the world’s best sea urchins amidst the saucy meanderings he dishes out.