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October 14, 2006

The Mythology of Speed

My friend Kevo, who is a very talented graphic designer and web guy, often refers to this rule of business:

-Quality -Speed -Low Price

Pick Any Two.

Meaning, of course, that there are always tradeoffs - you can get a good price and good quality if you don't need it fast, and you can get it fast and cheap if you don't care how good it is, and you can get both quick turnaround and high quality, but you have to pay a high price.

Amongst line cooks, Speed is the thing that is respected the most. To my mind, disproportionately so.

The feeling is that any cook should be able to cook well if they have no time pressure. That's the easiest situation to be in. Cooking on the line requires a lot more than just the skills to cook the actual food. Some people crack under the pressure of being in the weeds. Some people just aren't efficient in their motions or procedures. Some people just don't move fast enough. Some people are easily confused. Some people hesitate or think too much. At times, I have all of these problems - but I'm getting a little better.

Cooks that can really put out a lot of food, with no decrease in quality, or perhaps just a slight one, deserve a celebrated status. Some of them go into a turbo mode, whereas some of them look like they're barely moving - but either way, the plates get to the window. They get a reputation as a badass, and will always be able to get work. They may have other problems, but they'll always be able to get work.

But even those who are fast but suffer in quality during a rush may get a lot of that same cache. Because even if the plates go out looking messy, missing a few items, not cooked as ordered or what have you, as long as the plates are good enough for the expeditor (the person checking the plates before they go out), the plates go out. The tickets get punched. People are getting their food.

Not speaking of anyone or any restaurant in particular, the chef may feel that he/she needs someone like this, especially if the restaurant gets really busy at times. The chef may have to put up with whining, showing up late or not at all, not doing his or her other work, showing up drunk or high, drinking on the job, demands for a particular schedule, stealing or giving away food, or other behavior that might otherwise be grounds for firing someone. Likewise, his or her co-workers on the line may put up with a lot of crappy behavior. All because this person is fast.

Personally, I'd rather emphasize Quality. But it's not very realistic in a restaurant setting. People have expectations of how long food takes to be served. And whether those expectations are reasonable or not, they are paying for a service, and when there's a discrepancy, customers can't feel good about their experience, even if the food is enjoyable. Even by the guideline above, to offer high quality and not be speedy, it would have to be at a low price.

Speed wins.

October 11, 2006

Why I Watch Project Runway

My overlong and unstructured ramble-

It may come as a surprise to some that I not only watch, but am hooked on Project Runway, a "reality" show about fashion designers who compete for a chance to show at Fashion Week, which is apparently a big deal. Clothing isn't that high of a priority for me. I'm pretty utilitarian when it comes to clothes, but I know what I like and what I don't like.

I actually started watching it because last season, there was a show called Top Chef. And while it had it's problems, it was about cooks and cooking, and I will watch almost anything about cooks and cooking, including shows in other languages, infomercials, and shopping channels (it's quite sad, I realize). The channel that airs both shows is Bravo, and their strategy of scheduling is to re-air each episode of their shows several times each week, I imagine to try and find viewers by a shotgun approach.

These two shows are made by the same production company, so they have a few things in common, and they often sandwich Top Chef between Project Runway to get the lead-in viewership and cross-pollinate the audience. Every few weeks, they'll run a marathon of the shows in a block so it's easy to catch up on episodes you missed.

It worked on me.

But beyond their scheduling strategies, I am actually interested in Project Runway, because at it's core, it is about the creative process. To a great degree, that process is universal. They are just using a different medium. There are many things about the outer frontiers of fashion that are easy to make fun of, just as there are many things about the outer frontiers of food that are easy fodder for ridicule. Often there are clothes that people would never wear, and food that people would never order in a restaurant, much less make for dinner on a Tuesday night.

Just as some people have a sense of style about clothing without knowing how to sew, people can have a sense of style about food without knowing how to cook. I subscribe to the idea that style and fashion are quite different things.

I think one of the challenges of being a chef in contemporary cuisine is that everything is on the table. Absolutely everything - from ingredients to techniques - is all fair game, unless they are staunch traditionalists (which is perfectly respectable, of course). Fresh fish from the Mediterranean or Australia or South America or Asia is commonplace. Fresh produce from other continents arrives within a few days of being picked. Almost anything imaginable can be gotten for the right price. Even our basic ideas of what is food and how it is presented (like the metacontext) are being challenged and expanded by some chefs.

This state of affairs sometimes makes for incredible food. But sometimes it makes for food that is barely edible. The issue becomes, how do you choose what goes with what, and by what means do you combine them?

And while food is one of the basic human needs, it also has many of the hallmarks of high art. People connect with food beyond it's nutritional value. There are elements of culture, family, psychology, emotion, business, tradition, heritage, politcs, and natural history. Food has it's own language of homages to heroes and rebellion against convention, and staking out one's own territory.

And in a comparable but different way, the same can be said of clothing. Everytime they set a challenge for the designers on Project Runway, I think they are really saying, considering all the clothing that has been made in the past, and all the associations you can possibly make or that can be inferred from it, make a cocktail dress. Then they scurry off to the fabric store and choose their raw ingredients. Each person has their own process, each person has things they want to emphasize or minimize or reject outright. Then with all that in mind, they execute - they try to Make It Work (to borrow a phrase from the show). It's the same creative process that cooks and chefs do when they decide what the specials are that day, or what's on the menu for the bar mitzvah.

In both endeavors, there are the upper level aspects - the theory, the reach, the impressions, the novelty, the freshness, etc, and also the bottom line aspect - does it work, or in cooking terms, does it taste good? Is it flattering for the person wearing the garment? Does it taste delicious to the person who is eating it?

Some people think that food is only subjective, that it's 100% personal opinion - either you like it, or you don't. But I don't think that is true. There are objective aspects to cooking - the technique, the precision, and the execution. And while imperfect, I think those things are quantifiable - that they can be evaluated, whether by numbers or ratings, or via explanation.

If you had all the ingredients in the world available to you, and knowing what you know of all the food that exists in the world, make a dish that tastes delicious and says something about you as the designer of that dish.
BTW, for the current season, I think Jeff (the tattooed guy) is my favorite, but it seems like he's going to be dinged for a rules violation. Of the other three, I'm rooting for Michael (the young guy from Atlanta), although I think Laura (the mother of 5) is the most likely to win, and Uli is great at her niche (but who wants to look like they're going on safari?).

[Thanks to Penny for pointing out some typos. ~Tad]