Cocina sin autor: Rock Star Chefs With Writer’s Block

Should Rock Star Chefs Do Oldies Shows?

What happens when rock star chefs lose their creative mojo? What happens when people defined and elevated by inventiveness can’t and don’t write great new songs (rock stars) or create great new dishes (rock star chefs)? In Spain they call chef-specific food, cocina de autor, author’s cuisine. In this country we call rock written by a single band, rock and roll, i.e., musica de autor; anything else is bubble gum. In short, rock-star chefs have been and must be autores, authors of their own work.

So what happens when chefs’ new work can’t surpass or even meet the standards of their signature creations, when writer’s block sets in? Batali’s mint love letters, Ming Tsai’s Miso-Sake cod, Gray Kunz’s braised short ribs, Bouley’s Welcome to Chiang Mai, Louiseau’s frog lollipops? Jean-George’s checkerboards? They were amazingly inventive dishes and are musty museum pieces. When Mid-market Muzak versions flood B-towns, or worse, Top Chef, it’s time to move on.

It’s time for something new, or at least an exciting variation (Balanchine always said there are no new steps, only new combinations). The Beatles did it with every album, Dylan with every decade. Zeppelin managed to do so right up to when they lost their beat-keeper, and then they went silent rather than blow their legacy. U2 added world philanthropy to rock and roll, but still lard their albums with catchy hooks.

What about the rock star chefs? Batali seems to launch new restaurant concepts rather than create new dishes, Jean-Georges the same. Ducasse now makes pretty picture books. Gray Kunz lets us in on the action, and it’s beautiful, but I want something fresh.

And if the muse were to return? Who would get Batali’s newest offering? Del Posto, Babbo, Esca, NASCAR? Whom would Jean-Georges bless? Vong, Spice Market, Mercer Kitchen or his eponymous 4-star? Would Bouley give his best to Danube, his flagship or his Miami operation?

And if nothing comes? Should the chefs take refuge in the past, executing cover band versions of their own work? Should they reject mediocrity, retreat, regroup and reinvent themselves? Dylan’s had an amazing renaissance doing just that.  Adrià tears it down before we can. It’s a mad dare and yet he pulls it off year in and year out.

Perhaps a third route should be considered, the fashion house model. De la Renta, Balenciaga, Cardin and Blass let young turks pitch ideas tuned to their vision then placed the best under their imprimatur. Ducasse-like, Bouley-like, Batali-like dishes,etc.  could roll down the lines and through the passes for years, authorized, approved slightly disguised mutual plagiarism: Star chefs borrow from their disciples who borrow from the chefs’ older works. This may make great couture, but it sure isn’t rock and roll.

Jagger said he’d rather be dead than singing “Satisfaction” at 50. He passed that milestone ten years ago. So will Mario still be doing beef cheeks in 2010?


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