I think about food constantly
July 24, 2016 2:55 PM   Subscribe

In fact, I’m much stronger at thinking about food than I am at cooking it. And recently I started seeing patterns in our most successful dishes that suggested our hits weren’t entirely random; there’s a set of underlying laws that links them together. I’ve struggled to put this into words, and I haven’t talked to my fellow chefs about it, because I worry they’ll think I’m crazy. But I think there’s something to it, and so I’m sharing it now for the first time. I call it the Unified Theory of Deliciousness.

Is David Chang's cooking a strange loop?
posted by hilaryjade (46 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
Surely a unified theory must address thou's preferences towards the taste of butter and pretty dress?
posted by leotrotsky at 2:59 PM on July 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


What an interesting article. The pleasures of the intellectual mind are usually ignored in the appeal of yumminess.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 3:03 PM on July 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


Fried Chicken and Caviar:

Grrr, pretentious celebChef struggles to justify high prices. Notices that there are similarities between cultural foods, context of personal experience is significant, and you need to keep adding salt until just before the soup is ruined. Take that salty uncertainty, mix a bit of hofstadterish misappropriated jargon; ergo: a theory that remains ambiguous.
posted by sammyo at 3:22 PM on July 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


How do i know you didnt read the article? Guess.
posted by JPD at 3:25 PM on July 24, 2016 [32 favorites]


I had a faint, Oedipa-an, Crying of Lot 49 -like dread at the idea of reading what a famous chef had to say under a heading of "the Unified Theory of Deliciousness" -- and the really chilling thing is, he kind of delivers!

And not only that:
This probably sounds absolutely ridiculous, but the theory is rooted in a class I took in college called Advanced Logic. A philosopher named Howard DeLong taught it; . . .
I've been looking for a copy of DeLong's Randomness and Mathematical Proof since before I got on the internet; but come to think, I don't remember looking for it since I got on the internet.
posted by jamjam at 3:27 PM on July 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


...this was a fascinating read, don't get me wrong, but I thought the last word in the universality of human culinary experience had already been established in the fact that you can find some kind of meat-in-dough dumpling in almost every culture on earth.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:27 PM on July 24, 2016 [7 favorites]


Fried Chicken and Caviar:

FTFY. If it aint broke...
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 3:31 PM on July 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Chang is basically making a case for reconceptualizing fusion cuisine for the 21st century, and importantly, how to do it effectively. Food and philosophy? I'm in love.
posted by polymodus at 3:38 PM on July 24, 2016 [12 favorites]


This is a great piece that everyone should read.
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:38 PM on July 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


On second thought, I take that back - he's not talking about universality in food structure, he's talking about universality in TASTE. Totally different.

Huh.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:47 PM on July 24, 2016


To those dissing the KFC and caviar; don't knock it until you've tried it. It's exactly those crazy combinations which can be so delicious! And if you knock it before you tried it, don't even pretend you know anything about food. What the hell are you doing in this thread anyway?

A Michelin-star chef friend of mine made some insane combination dish using just muscles and two other ingredients. I'm not such a fan of muscles, but this was freaking DELICIOUS. And he thought it up just by thinking about tastes and how they can combine. Just like the chef in the article.
posted by MacD at 3:51 PM on July 24, 2016


don't even pretend you know anything about food. What the hell are you doing in this thread anyway?
I think that attitude is exactly the problem.
posted by phlyingpenguin at 3:58 PM on July 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


I have a bone to pick with the article. He describes his mom making a stew from kimchi about to go bad. Kimchi never goes bad. NEVER. (5 year old kimchi is delicious by the way).
posted by spamandkimchi at 4:01 PM on July 24, 2016 [6 favorites]


Try it for yourself. Set out a few glasses of water with varying amounts of salt in them. As you taste them, think hard about whether there is too much or too little salt.

No.

Actually I'll participate in this experiment if you do the same with Cool Ranch and Nacho Cheese Doritos, eaten from the bag on the sofa in your pants.

Let's just be realistic about what people actually eat.
posted by adept256 at 4:02 PM on July 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think of salt as the power source for your tastebuds, based on some deliberately unexamined ambient knowledge about how nerves work, and I figure about 1% salt by weight is around neutral for making a lump of food fully tastable. Then the desirable swinging between "salty" and "undersalted" comes from the distribution of the salt.
posted by lucidium at 4:09 PM on July 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


I've thought about this before, and have been trying to make dishes in the same way he had Josh McFadden (hey, one of my best friends works at Ava Gene's!) construct that dish, but I simply do not have the expertise to do such an undertaking. My experience with taste profiles is limited, especially compared to these chefs. I'll have to experiment more.

I think one of my favorite David Chang things is when he did ramen-encrusted skate. I wasn't able to find the fish so I did ramen-encrusted chicken breast instead. It was magnificent. On a similar note as that, Matty Matheson (another white, tattooed, "hipster" chef much like Action Bronson (I say that because I know a lot of people are sick of these Vice-endorsed celebrity chefs, although I personally like both of them) does a baked mac & cheese dish with ground cheetos on top. I have been meaning to try this as it looks delicious and heart attack inducing.

As for my favorite Action Bronson thing, that narrowly involves David Chang, is when he had his aunt made baklava, which he then took to Milk Bar and him and Chef Christina Tosi made a baklava milkshake with a little bit of bacon fat in it, along with soft serve. I need to make that as well.
posted by gucci mane at 4:27 PM on July 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Chang had always more of an impresario than a great creative mind in the kitchen. Almost all of the great momofuku dishes were created by the talented peoole he attracted. Remember his rep in fine dining only came about because he started a failed chipotle ripoff that he needed to find away to generate some revenue from at night.

But he is very very very good at what he is good at.
posted by JPD at 4:44 PM on July 24, 2016


Actually I'll participate in this experiment if you do the same with Cool Ranch and Nacho Cheese Doritos, eaten from the bag on the sofa in your pants

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that you don't know a lot about Chang.
posted by middleclasstool at 4:49 PM on July 24, 2016 [20 favorites]


This is a man who was filmed on his own food show sprinkling the seasoning packet on a fifty-cent brick of uncooked Top Ramen and eating it like a rice cake.
posted by middleclasstool at 4:52 PM on July 24, 2016 [13 favorites]


I think this is a useful way to think about fusion cuisine, which can be AWESOMELY DELICIOUS (see: Korean tacos). I mean, so much of "American" cuisine is just the fusion cooking of decades ago (thinking of the distance between "Chinese" food and Chinese food, or "Italian" food and Italian food-- we've been recombining for ages with interesting tasty-but-not-necessarily-locked-to-the-original results). Lately I have been in love with grilled cheese and kim chee sandwiches-- the cheddar and the kim chee work so well together, I am loathe to ever eat a regular grilled cheese again. Line me up with some haggis samosas, man.
posted by Capybara at 5:00 PM on July 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


Hmm. That's are argument for diaspora food or something rather than self-concisely trying to fuse cuisines. It's Chang's mom making Korean food with ingredients from Safeway, not the fermented chickpeas driven cacio e pepe riff - which he acknowledges doesn't really work.
posted by JPD at 5:07 PM on July 24, 2016


This is a man who was filmed on his own food show sprinkling the seasoning packet on a fifty-cent brick of uncooked Top Ramen and eating it like a rice cake.

That was a thing at school in the 80s. 10c pack of ramen with sodium bomb was Thursday. Apparently we were all prescient culinary prodigies.

Of course, it was due to poverty. The bread from the last shop had gone stale by then, it was for toast.

But thanks for telling me what I don't know.
posted by adept256 at 5:11 PM on July 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yeah, in high school when I went to night school classes because I had failed math class we bought packs of ramen from a vending machine, bashed it into pieces, sprinkled the flavor packet in then shook up.
posted by gucci mane at 5:13 PM on July 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've been amazed at how well Lebanese and Mexican food fuse. I've been making Lebanese food since I was old enough to stand on the stool, and after learning from Mexicans how to make real Mexican food, rather than texMex, I was fairly astonished that I didn't really need to add many ingredients to my normal (albeit extensive) spice rack. I make a dessert that is a flan baklava fusion thing, like a spicy frangipane in phylo dough that is amazeballs. And leftover khibbi tacos. So good.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 5:14 PM on July 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


That flan sounds fantastic.

I don't completely disagree with Chang's thing, but I kind of dislike him and it all seems like he's so awed by his awesome whatever that I just find myself kind of rolling my eyes.
posted by glitter at 5:21 PM on July 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've been amazed at how well Lebanese and Mexican food fuse.

Seriously!
posted by dubitable at 5:32 PM on July 24, 2016 [8 favorites]


So, literally overthinking a plate of beans?
posted by Sing Or Swim at 5:41 PM on July 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


But thanks for telling me what I don't know.

I took your comment to be calling him an ivory tower food snob who has no idea how "real" people eat or what poverty is like. If that is what you meant, I was telling you that you couldn't be more wrong on both counts and maybe should learn about a guy before lobbing those kinds of insinuations at him.

But my retort came of way sharper than I intended it to, so I am sorry for that.
posted by middleclasstool at 5:52 PM on July 24, 2016 [9 favorites]


I was actually thinking about systematically isolating a universal taste by creating a recipe database that scores along axes like acidity, saltiness, sourness, pungency, umami, bitterness and creaminess/fattiness; then swapping out ingredients from different cultures to get new recipes. Glad to see a professional chef has similar ideas & I'm not completely crazy.
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:03 PM on July 24, 2016 [4 favorites]


I liked this article. It was interesting to see how someone who loves food and knows a lot about it thinks of the basic elements and what they mean. Thanks for posting.
posted by aka burlap at 6:38 PM on July 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


He didn't articulate it, but I think his main point was this: if you've tasted enough delicious dishes and raw ingredients, then you can dream up new dishes without stepping into the kitchen. Just take an existing delicious dish, and figure out a novel way to replicate it using different ingredients.

Any chef who can hone the skill of accurately predicting the taste of a recipe, given its ingredients and cooking techniques, is going to be successful. They'll be able to run through ideas at a rapid clip without dirtying a dish.

Reverse that equation (consistently be able to figure out the recipe for a delicious dish, and the recipe adjustments required for novel-ingredient-substitutions) and you'll be unstoppable. There's so much deliciousness-bundled-with-happy-memories on this planet that you can riff off it forever.

Though I'm pretty sure most top chefs are already aware of this? It's what they do all day every day!
posted by mantecol at 6:51 PM on July 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


it’s more powerful if I’m reminded of my mother’s roast chicken while eating a dish that isn’t roast chicken

Right out of Proust, man:
Yes, if a memory, thanks to forgetfulness, has been unable to contract any tie, to forge any link between itself and the present, if it has remained in its own place, of its own date, if it has kept its distance, its isolation in the hollow of a valley or on the peak of a mountain, it makes us suddenly breathe an air new to us [when it is evoked again] just because it is an air we have formerly breathed, an air purer than that the poets have vainly called Paradisiacal, which offers that deep sense of renewal only because it has been breathed before, inasmuch as the true paradises are paradises we have lost.
Basically, no one should complain about Chang's supposed pretension until they've actually had the spicy sausage and rice cakes, which are an unreasonably delightful dish.
posted by praemunire at 7:37 PM on July 24, 2016 [4 favorites]


BrotherCaine, its not recipes so much as ingredients, but The Flavor Thesaurus is a great place to start for ideas.
posted by bigZLiLk at 8:07 PM on July 24, 2016 [4 favorites]


One of the things I have always liked about David Chang is that, though he was born in '77 and so is skirting the edge, he's one of the few "celebrity chefs" who feels unapologetically Gen X to me. Like, not only does he have the First Gen American experience, he's also unapologetically of the American Food Commercial and American Food Shows On PBS/Food Channel Early 90s, like that first moment of American culinary globalization, and it seems to be meaningful to him as a context for food.

Ed Lee and Richard Blais are exactly my age and Grant Achatz is two years younger, but they don't feel like they watched the same cartoons I did or traded for the same canned pudding or felt like Swiss was kind of a pungent adult cheese for a lunchbox turkey sandwich.

But I had sort of assumed all of them do their conceptualizing outside the kitchen (hell, Achatz had no sense of taste for over a year and could only conceptualize and trust others to let him know if it worked); it's what I would expect from any truly talented chef. But there's still a sense that "Fruity Pebbles" are a known entity on Chang's palate more than the others.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:16 PM on July 24, 2016 [11 favorites]


I was actually thinking about systematically isolating a universal taste by creating a recipe database that scores along axes like acidity, saltiness, sourness, pungency, umami, bitterness and creaminess/fattiness; then swapping out ingredients from different cultures to get new recipes. Glad to see a professional chef has similar ideas & I'm not completely crazy.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:03 PM on July 24 [2 favorites +] [!]


You could call it Pan-dora.
posted by Sebmojo at 8:35 PM on July 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


He does admit the tastiness of Cece con pepe, just that the play on words in the title is a little bit like all those terrible short stories in English written to lead you to the answer about what the theme is. It's spoonfeeding you the answer when the experience of it should be the answer.

He doesn't say it failed as a dish, as food.

But yeah, Chang is absolutely one of the chefs I would totally expect to do that Cool Ranch Dorito thing.

I loved the essay, if only for how it integrates into both my everyday life, my upbringing, and oddly enough my academic research. Familiarity + newness is a hard balance to reach but when it has been achieved, the outcome is fantastic - food, media, text, whatever.

I grew up with a chef grandmother (although she declined the title chef, seeing as they didn't like angry little women and she refused to be anything but those things, so she was a 'cook') and a mother who learned at her knee. And my grandmother spent most of her time cooking for immigrants in various ways, so I ended up with a strangely broad palate for a white rural girl. My grandmother cooked as much Chinese influenced stuff as Italian influenced as French as English. She had no problems experimenting with flavours and when we talked about her job, she would always sit with residents of those various institutions and see what they liked, what they wanted, what they enjoyed.

So from her, down to my ma, down to me, down to my kid, is this constant desire to play with things. We have standby meals and recipes (you don't change the teriyaki, the garlic cream, the scones) but mostly, we have a lively back and forth with new things. We go to grocery stores in strange little towns and in 'ethnic' centres and in different countries. Our houses are full of cookbooks and magazines and there is always a TV show playing* featuring someone cooking something. And we synthesise it. She still does, in her 70s, play with food that way. I think she'd like Chang's Theory.

I have the kind of kid who will holler at me "I believe in that man!" after watching a monk in Japan make tofu and proselytise about it (and who will shut down her less experimental family member's recital about how they just don't like tofu). I tried organising my spice shelf by cuisine but it didn't work, there are too many overlaps and shifts and places where stuff meshes.

But yeah, I liked this essay, thanks!
posted by geek anachronism at 8:51 PM on July 24, 2016 [5 favorites]


Wow, that is a great read! It's cool to read something that is higher level thinking about something I do all the time.
posted by meemzi at 9:19 PM on July 24, 2016


I would try KFC and caviar, but I mean, are we really going to say THAT teeters hypnotically on the brink of too-salty? That HAS to be too salty.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:56 PM on July 24, 2016


Chang's article reminded me of Justin Warner, who loosely codified his culinary process into a book.
posted by Eikonaut at 10:20 PM on July 24, 2016


At some point I'll actually get back into the kitchen and try to work this out, but I was thinking at one point of trying to do monthly barbecue sauces on a rotation. I never sat down to give it a try, but I have a feeling interesting things could be done with vinegar, sugar, chili, and miso.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:28 PM on July 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


He doesn't say it failed as a dish, as food.

No, I did. Nishi as a restaurant is actually kind of a failure IMO
posted by JPD at 6:32 AM on July 25, 2016


Now I'm hungry.
posted by jonmc at 8:06 AM on July 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


I believe there is an objectively correct amount of salt.

If there were only one human in the world, the above statement would be true.
posted by splitpeasoup at 8:19 AM on July 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


There are times when I've felt David Chang to be kind of a wanker but you know inspite of my baggage going into this article I liked it and I think he comes off fairly well.

Thinking about this idea of unified concept of taste reminds me of a conversation I had once with a former client of my wife's. This client was, at the time, the head corporate chef for a chain which encompasses a few different types of restaurant - a cheaper family restaurant, a mid-range "classier" restaurant with a menu featuring a lot of appetizers and a high end steak house. He personally was a very adventurous chef, we both shared a love of regional Indian food, but in his day job when creating a new menu item or revising a menu he had to stick to very close guidelines. In all three restaurant types, he had to have at least one appetizer (with potential variations) involving dipping things into melted cheese, chicken that was fried in some way (it didn't matter how it was served), and a Caesar Salad. Those three things were the hottest sellers at his restaurants and each had to be on their respective menu. The items would vary, so the dipping stuff into cheese at the family restaurant was doctored nacho cheese with spiced flat bread, at the classier app restaurant it was an Asiago cheese dip with rye bread & vegetables cut in fancy ways designed to be shared with a few people, the steak house was a blue cheese dip with strips of beef. He was allowed to have things as spicy but they needed to be not too spicy. If he wanted to have something that used Polynesian or Middle Eastern or Indian flavour profiles these had to be specials / limited time only items and had to be fairly muted spicewise and had to be very straightforward in their preparation.
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:19 AM on July 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


"This stew was both totally foreign and deeply familiar at the same time"

What a lovely description. It's also an inspiration for me in that I think I'm going to start hunting for dishes on menus that I think will give me that experience.
Delightful article & gives me something to think about on my commute home; thank you for sharing.
posted by pointystick at 9:29 AM on July 25, 2016


There are times when I've felt David Chang to be kind of a wanker but you know inspite of my baggage going into this article I liked it and I think he comes off fairly well.

Honestly, anyone who cares deeply about anything is going to come off as "kind of a wanker" at times, more or less unavoidably
posted by DoctorFedora at 12:56 AM on July 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


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