One of London’s greatest restaurants has a very simple interview process for jobs within its hallowed kitchen. Prospective candidates are simply given a pan, some butter, and some eggs and are asked to make an omelette. Nothing could be a more revealing test of culinary skill.
An omelette is quick to make-you could probably make one in the time it took you to read the first paragraph- but the interview is not primarily a test of the dexterous manipulation of some eggs in a pan. No, omelette-making is about knowing when to intervene and when to leave well alone. The temperature of the pan must be gauged and the eggs allowed to set for just the right amount of time before a flick of the wrist or spatula sends them tumbling into a pillow-like shape, complete with a perfect baveuse center. My first head chef used to delight in making omelettes with just three touches of the pan, and the results were sublime.
The single greatest mistake of most novice cooks is sheer overeagerness to handle their food: the impulse to turn, poke, and fiddle constantly. When one watches skilled and experienced chefs cook, the striking thing is not the nimble grace of their fine motor skills but, rather, their economy of movement. The sight, sound, and smell of the food in the pan tells them everything that they need to know, and judicious interventions are kept to a minimum.
Considering the machismo of the professional kitchen, it is perhaps appropriate that the best model for this behavior was initially developed for the analysis of fighter planes. Colonel John Boyd of the USAF (1927-97) did not suffer fools gladly. His involvement in internecine political fighting within the Pentagon cost him further advancement within the military, but his work from the early 1960s on the physics underpinning aerial combat (he is regarded as the father of the F-16) has had lasting impact on military and business strategy. Above all, he wanted to be able to model how best to direct one's energies to survive and defeat one's adversary. According to Boyd, decision-making happens in a recurring cycle of observe, orient, decide, act-the OODA loop. To gain a competitive advantage, we must be able to process this cycle more rapidly than our opponent. In the context of an aerial dogfight, the implications of the cycle favored aircraft able to outmaneuver an opponent, but the same process can readily be applied to cooking or winemaking. The superior chef gathers and processes better information before acting. There are-aside from knife skills-very few specific physical talents that distinguish differential culinary prowess. Cooking, we might say, is all about the OOD.
If gathering and processing information is key, it sheds new light on our ambivalent relationship with food technology. There is a temptation in the worlds of both food and wine to fetishize naturalness at the expense of consistency and even over quality. We make the product, and it turns out as it does, and how it turns out is inherently right and part of life's sweet mystery.
As one winemaker friend remarked satirically of an unsulfured wine of strictly limited charms: "Ah, it tastes of the truth. And the truth tastes bad." Reflexive technophobia is unsurprising given the relentless industrialization of technical knowledge. Monitoring food through anything that might be reductively quantifiable suggests that you might cynically be eking out profit margins for industrial concerns or be subservient to the garish conventions of the molecular gastronomists' search for novel flavor and textural experiences. Technology seems antithetical to gastronomic honesty.
But there is an alternative, and wine and winemakers are leading the way. With wine-uniquely for a tiny-production, high-end gastronomic product-we expect enologists to have a sophisticated technical understanding of their fermenting musts. Indeed, as prominent an exponent of technological winemaking as Vinovation's Clark Smith also makes really fascinating unsulfured wine. Like the chef standing still before his eggs in the pan, it is possible to gather information and make the positive decision not to intervene simply because it is unnecessary.
It is, I think, the future for really interesting chefs and food producers. Already, the most positive development of all the attention given to fashionable exponents of culinary modernism is a new interest in understanding the science behind the cooking. As access to the equipment becomes cheaper, so we are seeing cheesemakers buy data-logging pH meters, baristas using refractometers to check their brews, and everyone using thermometers for everything. While the product is still made by hand using methods that reflect generations of accumulated wisdom and experience, its progress might be monitored on a laptop. And there is a hidden bonus: With more quantifiable data, it is easier to communicate skills.
Where before I could give you a rough indication of how long you should cook your steak, or tell you that you should cook it until the flesh has the same resistance as a soft-cooked egg, now I can just let you know that you should cook it until the core temperature reaches 129°F (54°C)-easy and repeatable. It is in information rather than labor-saving gadgetry that we will see the technological revolution.