I live in a near vacuum. Not in a dark, consuming solipsistic view of my existence, but that my world is quite small, if not simple. And while I, too, have my set of black rectangles with glass screens that I lug around (one for constant phone interaction and electronic messaging, one which captures high resolution images of incredible clarity, one that delivers the musical works of perhaps 1,000 people's careers at the tap of its screen) which incessantly stream information towards me, it is rather easy for a kitchen that you have emotionally attached yourself to to become the only true reality on a day to day basis. I bring this up not to lament the time I spend at work, nor to make a chest thumping statement about how singlemindedly dedicated I am to my profession, but rather to open up the thought of what influences one's cooking in an age where information is so readily and freely available.
As a young cook, the availability of information on fine dining restaurants was far more sparse and slow than our current day. I very distinctly remember first opening a copy of the French Laundry Cookbook at a Border's bookstore located in the northern suburbs of Baltimore. I had absolutely no idea that cooking could be so elevated, so elaborate without losing it's basic sense of humanity. It was a decided turning point in how I viewed cooking and what I wanted to do with my life and my career.
This book was a culmination of work that began in 1994 when the French Laundry opened, the book being published 5 years later in 1999. The food presented in this book was immeasurably influential and soon many "variations" of Thomas Keller's food would be aped throughout the late 1990s to early 2000s. Here was a chef, in a remote location (at least in relationship to distance to a city, however, Yountville isn't exactly Iowa) who had crafted a very personal and unique cuisine in relative seclusion. Certainly he had his influences (namely the French country Auberge as a model, Nouvelle Cuisine era chefs, and classic French cooking principles to draw from), yet he created a style of food within the classic framework that was very much his own.
Today, I only need to type in the name of a restaurant into an internet search engine and I can not only find that day's menu, but photos and up to date critique or praise of that day's menu. Bloggers, Flickr, Twitter, etc. all give us nearly instant coverage of just about everything and anything you would want to know about a particular restaurant no matter where that restaurant happens to be located on this earth. And while I believe that society as a whole has profited greatly from the quicker dispersion of information, I am concerned that it also dilutes that information just as quickly. In terms of fine dining in the modern day, it is hard not to notice just how similar everyone's food has become as a result, more homogenous and interchangable to one another in terms of astetics of plating, ingredients, and methods. Off center plating, edible soils, obligatory micro greens on every plate, the incessant use of purees or liquid gels, the thought that it somehow represents nature to randomly throw components on to the plate, but I digress... It all begins to look the same. Furthermore, the recent leaps in technology regarding communication coincide with a boom in technology of the physical cooking of food, now rendering the actual cooking, and hence, the taste of food more similar than ever before worldwide.
I'm certainly not the first to notice the globalization of our cultures, and hence our food culture. I am also a bit suprised at myself at how conservative my own point of view has become regarding contemporary cooking. It would also be hypocritical of me to speak of the topic as if I have avoided the use of all of these modern trends. I will say though that because I have a natural tendency to inherently dislike anything that is "a la mode" or has momentarily gained mainstream popularity, that our cooking at L2o has a different feel to it, as we are less influenced by the outside. This is not to say that we are daringly, shockingly original but rather that we cook by drawing from our past experiences, and then find something in it that is our own. I think of cooking as a continuation of a craft, like a carpenter or watchmaker. It is with our experiences as cooks at diffferent restaurants at different periods of time, that we can then apply that foundation in small steps forward in our own direction of cooking, yet we are firmly grounded in what has come before us. It is with these ideologies in mind, that I personally find better results for myself and my own cooking as an effect of our relative isolation.