The Kitchen Existential (an existentilal chef explains)

Culinary Existentialism

My daughter, like most children has a propensity to be actively inquisitive despite being somewhat apathetic as to my responses. Its something that comes natural to kids starting from the finger pointing “What is this” to “are we there yet” to “can I have some more money”. Now that she is a young adult her questions are more simplistically complex. The simple question she posed to me was “what is an existentialist and why are you the Existential Baker? A simple question perhaps, but it entails a complex explanation. Existentialism is often confused with Nihilism or Atheism as it shares many of the same philosophical concepts, but they are from being clones.
For starters while many existentialist do not believe in God, or any gods, existentialism is not Atheism. Actual Existentialism is a philosophy that embraces some of the aspects of Buddhism, some aspects of the Karmic Wheel associated with both Buddhism and Hinduism, and the faith in Kismet associated with some Turkish and Persian philosophies. Many existentialist will put forth a strong scientific argument that God as it has been taught to us does not in fact exist, but its not as simple as God vs. Science. It’s not a matter of whether an existentialist does or doesn’t believe God exists, its more that by the nature of the philosophy any organized religion or faith and its profound belief in an omnipresent master or masters is of no consequence to the living of ones life. A true existentialist views both the big bang and the creationist version of the essence of everything to be competing hypothesis‘. The existence or non existence of God is an argument for faith and science, neither of which can prove their point. I do good deeds, I treat people right, I accept people for who they are, and I try to never judge anyone. I do this without the assistance of any religious nudging because I choose to be this way. On the other hand I recognize that many people need constant reminders of how to behave in order to co-exist and for them religion, at least in theory, works well. To an existentialist bliss is achieved through love and companionship and we choose to either live a good and prosperous life or an evil and consequential life. We understand that consequences do accompany our choices and we accept both the good and bad that are attached to them. We chooe how we live our lives and we deal with issues as they arise.
Many people view existentialism as a philosophy of despair but its the exact opposite. It’s a philosophy that has you grab life by the hand and take it out for a romantic walk every day. To run barefoot with it while singing an laughing or allow it to transport us into all the magnificence it offers.
Take words for instance. I type words out but what are they really but symbols of how I feel or what I want you to know. I use these symbols to express my emotions to you. Your eyes pull these symbols from the screen and transfer them into words that your brain is charged with deciphering. In your brain they are analyzed and arranged into thoughts that make sense to you. If done correctly my words will coax an emotional response or two from you and have you fully understand what I am thinking in my own warped mind. This shit happens so fast that it’s impossible for us to even take the time to appreciate the profound exchange of thoughts that has transpired. Yet the messages are received thousands of times a day and ironically we give it nary a thought to the process.
The core belief of existentialism is that existence or the self precedes the essence of life. In other symbols it means that the me inside, the who that I am and how I integrate an react in the world around me is far more significant than how we came to be a a species. Not that I don’t care or don’t wonder where we came from and if there is a reason we are what we are, but being me, a good person who cares about other peoples dreams and desires is far more relevant to living. An existentialist does not need to be privy to the secrets or the meaning of life in order to live it. The meaning of life in a religious belief system on the other hand is determined by some form of deity or deities. A specific set of rules designed I suppose to explain to followers how they should live their lives and how the should express their gratitude. They make laws not telling people how to live, but telling people what not to do. They create consequences for any violation of those laws. Existentialists worship only life and the beauty it radiates as opposed to a specific entity who may or may not have created life. A nihilist believes life has no meaning or purpose at all. Nihilism embrace doctrines of hopelessness, despair, and eminent death. I have a hard time drawing any similarities between this and existentialism but many people for some reason seem to think they are alike. The existentialist is in contrast to other philosophies believe that there is no meaning necessary and reality is determined by the inner self, or individual. As in Buddhism one should accept that we are here, appreciate it, love life, and move on. Perhaps because they are so often confused with nihilists and challenged by Christians existentialists are sometimes misconstrued as religious combatants with disregard or even distain for life, faith, destiny, and even hope. It has become “hip” to be an existentialist and many use it as a way to gain coolness or appear intelligent. Many people envision existentialists as snooty intellects sitting in cafes in Europe discussing the important issues of the day. Personally I find those who are conveniently existential to be boring and chronically mediocre.
As an existentialist my time is never wasted to focus on circular or unanswerable questions, I just accept that some things simply exist. I have the freedom to choose what is important or meaningful to me and without restraints placed by any doctrines. I can freely use my time to appreciate that which I find beautiful. For instance when I see a waterfall I am free to contemplate it’s beauty. My not knowing why it is there or how it got there has no effect for me in its beauty. I accept an appreciate, the rest is insignificant. All of us witness millions of things daily that have deep rich histories and we barely even notice. How many tree’s did you see today? I can’t remember either, and I didn’t take the time to ponder the life of those tree’s or the trials and tribulations of their long existence, but it is wondrous none the less. The generations of birds that may have nested and raised families in the tree, the various squirrels and chipmunks that resied in it, the massive storms it endured, an the constant attacks from insects and bacteria. An old tree had a long arduous existence to become what it is today. There are so many amazing things with amazing histories and stories around us and as an existentialist it is not my responsibility to discover the value but rather the option to. I don’t lose sleep wondering who or what put them there or why they are there. What matters for me is that I take every opportunity to enjoy them. Free to choose what to place value on as it pertains to me as an individual. To this existentialist there is only one reason we are here. To enjoy and appreciate life during our existence and to interact with the things that come through my path. My responsibility is make as much of my life as possible be a positive experience. This philosophy focuses on inner search to discover how the self and the world can interact. Self actualization through meditation and an understanding of the complexities of life. It’s about how I integrate myself into the big picture. How I exist with the spinning orb of life we call Earth. Nothing organic ever leaves the earth because it’s a circle of life. We are recombinant beings made of matter that has been around longer than we could ever imagine. When something has reached the end of its life cycle it decomposes and feeds millions of tiny and some microscopic organisms which in turn contribute back to earth. These compost diners become food for larger beings and the circle goes on. So how does any of this relate to cooking and food? Let’s have a look.
Most people give little to no thought about what they are eating. Oh sure, we like what we like and we choose to eat what we like, and many people contemplate the nutritive or caloric value of their food, but they don’t really make an attempt to understand the food outside of what wine may or may not go well with it. An existentialist sees much more in the foods we eat. Food has history, is deeply embraced by cultures, is effected by weather and natural disasters, and has life cycles. Food was once a living organism. Very often foods are trained for our benefit to live its cycle for consumption. Whether farmed fruits and vegetables or farm raised animals these foods enter our body to be transformed into energy. Beyond that, as an existentialist baker (and formerly chef) we use our understanding of food and its interactions with human emotions to create foods that not only tantalize our taste buds, but bring out emotions in us. Joy, comfort, ecstasy. Words often used to describe how we feel after eating something especially delicious. It’s not just flavor, its preparation. As a chef or baker we understand that the emotion we put into our preparations will come through in the finished product.
Food has always been a major faction of world history. Famines and droughts have had major impacts on societies and countries, wars have been fought over food, and food was the very first form of monetary exchange. Whoever controlled the food had the power. Why the so called cradle of civilization only evolved us to a higher level of existence because humans learned how to control our environment and maximize the growth of food. The agricultural revolution. But these things are always taken for granted when we eat, even by me. That’s not where I take an existential approach, its more in the understanding of how foods interact with other foods, spices, beverages, and process of denaturization that occurs be it the cooking, agitation, cutting, or freezing to change the nature of the food.
For the sake of discussion I have chosen to deconstruct this meal. Sautéed chicken breast with crimini mushroom sauce, roasted asparagus spears, and mashed potatoes. Sounds delicious and relatively simple but lets see how much of a deeper appreciation we could have of this dish.
First the roast asparagus. Asparagus is a plant native to Europe and Northern Africa and is known to have existed as a food with medicinal value as far back as 20,000BC. That’s some old veggie spears there. Very nutritious and has a nice crisp green chlorophyll enriched fern head. Roasting this marvelous vegetable at very high temperature for 5 minutes with a splatter of oil and a sprinkle of sea salt leaves the bright color and full nutritive value in tact, while keeping it crisp and tasty. Now its ready to play a part in the overall look, taste, and balance of our dish. On to the potatoes.
What can you say about potatoes? The average person eats approximately 7 pounds of potato a year. This starchy tuberous delight can be prepared a zillion ways. Okay, not a zillion, but they are roasted, baked, re-baked, stuffed, boiled, scalloped, creamed, gratined, fried, and any combination thereof. The regal potato first came into existence in Peru and was brought back by the Conquistadores and spread rapidly throughout Europe. It nearly decimated Ireland which became dependant on this versatile veggie. So lets not take this common dining addition for granted, it’s a lot more than just a tasty and filling starch. It has a lot more power than we realize. So the potato adds two things to our dinner, a level of comfort and a feeling of strength. In our dish we have diced and boiled the potato and mashed it up with some butter, milk, and gruyere cheese for nutrition, and some salt and pepper and minced shallots for flavor. This will not only taste marvelous but assist in lending a sense of satiety in the meal so we will not be hungry 20 minutes later.
On to the star of the dish, the chicken. Along with our totalitarian form of farming we presently and for a long time have been raising “livestock” for our eating pleasure. We love our steaks and fried chickens and we don’t really want to know about the farms and slaughterhouses that regularly bring meats to out table. When you think about it its actually a cruel practice, imprisoning another living thing only to execute it when deemed ready for slaughter. But lets face it, who has the time or the wherewithal to hunt for the family food everyday? We need to eat after all, but again, we shouldn’t just take these domesticated fowls for granted. We sneak away the unhatched eggs (ew when ya think about it) for breakfast or other preparations and raise them for our eating pleasure. The chicken gives us much needed protein in order for us to grow strong and help develop us physically. The chicken has a rather neutral taste in an of itself which has lifted it to legendary status when used to describe just about any other food from alligator, to swordfish, to bear meat. Tastes just like chicken! That’s why we prepare it in different ways and add sauces or other enhancements to it. To sauté something is to panfry it on very high heat very rapidly. Sauté is French for jump, and the pan is so hot the food actually jumps up off the pan. This technique gives the outside a nice crisp texture and brings the natural sugars to the surface. We call this carmelization and it will add not only nutrition but texture and taste.
Our reconstructed dish is nearly complete. As it is the balance is beautiful. An array of tastes, aroma’s, textures, and nutrients are mingling and creating a powerful and emotion educing meal that has history vast and important. All it needs now is the finishing touch, the piece de resistance. A wonderful sauce made by deglazing the sauté pan (once the chicken breast has been removed and pan is still hot) with some Chablis wine. This will add some flavor and it will extract the flavors in the pan from the sautéed chicken. Once reduced we add some broth made from the chicken, and some heavy cream which will add richness and a coating texture. Add to that some cremini mushrooms. The cremini mushroom is a cousin of the typical white mushroom but a darker brown and firmer variety. If left to fully mature it will one day grow up to be a Portobello mushroom and take on an entirely different culinary presence. Now that truly balances all the flavors to create a perfect compliment to the dish. An existential delight. You need only accept that it is what it is and enjoy every last morsel.
A Mono-theist cooks because it’s a gift from their god, an Atheist cooks because he can, a Buddhist cooks because he needs to eat, a nihilist cooks but doesn’t know or care why, and an existentialist cooks because he knows he can bring life to food and food to life. That is the existential approach to cooking. An understanding of the importance of each and every component to the completion of the whole experience. It’s history, emotion, flavors, textures, and any other attributes work together as a team to be a treat especially created for your enjoyment. If something we have prepared with love and positive emotion brings out a feeling in the consumer then we have completed our task. Not merely just cooks or bakers, the existential culinary scientist brings much more than just food to the table. We bring a sensation of joy and happiness via the taste buds that hopefully find you smiling and maybe reminiscing of wonderful times in your past that foods prepared with love gave you a feeling of comfort. PEACE

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