“Perfect food is born of perfect order.” – Daniel Patterson, Coi
I have written previously on this blog (see culinary arts posts) about connections between cooking and music. To add to that mix, I recently read Daniel Patterson’s excellent Coi cookbook. The book is structured around a series of short narratives that provide context for his recipes. For me, the narratives steal the show insofar as they engage with the themes of perception, taste, memory, style, and creativity.
Patterson makes a distinction between being able to perceive and distinguish among different tastes, and having the know-how and experience to understand what these perceptions and distinctions mean. They key, he says, is having a well-honed sensory memory: “Sensory memory is the most important attribute of a cook. Without a database of experiences to contextualize flavor, a good palette means nothing” (142). Patterson’s dishes grow out of his experiences–many of them fleeting, by now only traces of a memory of an experience. One dish, “Summer, Frozen In Time” (plum, frozen meringues, yogurt), he describes in terms of references that seem more experiential than specifically food-related:
“This is a dish of memory triggered by form and smell, with points of reference that are so varied that they defy easy categorization. I created it thinking about the way time seems to move differently during the warm months–one minute lasting an eternity, the next passing in a rush” (146).
Drawing analogies with writing and music, Patterson also discusses style in cooking–that combination of elements that add up to a recognizable imprint: “In writing, it’s called voice. In music, it might be called sound, the combination of tone and rhythm that makes a performance unique” (180). In Patterson’s case, some of his style, his voice, is the result of removing the non-essential from his dishes, or distilling his ingredients down to their essence. In a passage on what makes minimalism (in cookery or the arts), the chef quotes the architect John Pawson: “The minimum could be defined as the perfection that an artefact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve it by subtraction” (242).
Ultimately, what makes Coi so interesting is how poetically it describes the varied sources of Patterson’s creativity. Chefs are like composers and writers and artists in this regard–they receive inspiration and ideas from all over. The techniques of their craft are ways to reign in and organize this inspiration and these ideas, but the creative process remains fickle–always an open-ended, ever-shifting flood of sensations to pay attention to, distill, and make sense of. And the smallest details matter. Patterson: “sometimes the hardest part of the creative process is finding that one grace note, that little twist of technique, seasoning or texture, that lifts a dish, making it extraordinary” (198).
Near the end of his book, Patterson recalls San Francisco when he first arrived there from the East coast in the late 1980s. One evening, a cab driver tells him about a time in 1968 when he saw the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk standing alone by the roadside, looking up at the sky. Patterson, who plays piano, recalls listening to Monk when he was a kid:
“[Monk] was my hero, with his jerky syncopation, idiosyncratic voice, and harmonic dissonance that would resolve, when you couldn’t stand it anymore, into the sweetest melody you’d ever heard. His sense of balance was perfect: complexly wrought, deeply human” (282).
None of this seems to have anything to do with the book’s final recipe on the facing page. Or does it?