I love to cook. I hate to bake. If you’ve spent any time doing either, you’ll very quickly realize that though they may appear similar, they are two completely different things for very different people. A chef and a baker may inhabit the same room but they are from very different worlds.
Like most writers, I am a man of passion. Impulse. Prone to getting carried away in the moment. In order to do well in our craft we must feel on a grander and simultaneously more minute scale than most people. We have to feel the very rhythm and emotion of the earth in the smallest nerves of our body so that we can distill every external and internal inspiration into cohesive physical thought and word. Such is the task of the chef. My cooking largely depends on my mood and the inspiration I draw from within and without. A chef’s emotions can largely affect the taste of a dish. If he is having a particularly bad day and is angry, you may find more hints of pepper and spice than normal. If he is in a happy mood, you will taste more sweetness and perhaps freshness. The stereotype of the troubled emotionally erratic chef in the kitchen is not so far off from the real deal. Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsey, and David Chang, all culinary idols of mine, all have reputations of being particularly volatile in the kitchen. It is this fiery personality that pushes towards boldness and innovation. It is the tortured soul that breaks down barriers and constantly chases new frontiers. A creative spirit that needs consistent feeding. Confidence and insecurity also broadcast into the dish. I notice that when I attempt something for the first time, often it is…’unfinished’. Perhaps lacking in seasoning or not fully matured. I am unsure of myself and therefore am more hesitant to carry through with a dish. This is in contrast to dishes that I have made time and time again. My ‘go-to’ recipes that always guarantee satisfaction. I can move through those dishes with ease and confidence and so the flavors are boldly pronounced and vibrant. They are aggressive and complex.
Never try asking a Filipino for a recipe. It’s not that they won’t share with you, it’s that they won’t know how to. See in the Philippines we cook by what we call ‘tantsa’. One of my more regular readers and commenters, a native speaker and incredible writer in both languages, can probably speak better to the translation, but to me it equates most similarly in cooking to the phrase ‘cook by taste’. ‘Tantsa’ is more than a method, it is a culinary philosophy that purports that cooking is done not by calculated measure but by cooking with the eyes, the nose, the tongue, but most importantly the heart. There is no measure to how much of any one ingredient you need to put into a Filipino dish. You know it when you recognize it deep in your soul. We all grew up with these dishes and you’ll notice that most provinces have their own take and without any need for formal instruction or procedure we all gravitate to being able to replicate those dishes ourselves. It’s this wonderfully interactive and reactive dance of taste and adjust and feel that ties you so deeply and personally to your food. I love garlic. To me it is one of the best ingredients around. Sauteed. Simmered. Roasted. Fried. As part of the dish or just garnish, I cannot exist without garlic. So my dishes oftentimes feature a bit more garlic than recipes call for. Certain areas in the Philippines are known for a characteristic preference towards spice and so their dishes all have some level of heat usually more than is customary or the norm in other parts of the country. My aunt makes the best dinuguan (a native dish similar to blood pudding) I have ever had but she makes it unique to her style and no restaurant or Filipino cookbook would have ever thought to do what she does. My mother’s callos is hands down the finest example but that is from years of tweaking the recipe to the very distinct and selective taste buds of my family. So your chances of getting a callos like my mother’s are pretty rare unless you come by one time! Five different restaurants can have five different interpretations of adobo, arguably the Philippines’s most notable, significant, and hard to define unofficial national dish. Every house has a different take, and all because the spirit of the dish may be the same but the heart, the ‘tantsa’, is fiercely unique. When I cook I may have all the ingredients but I certainly don’t have all the measurements. I move with the dish as it transforms and speaks to me and there is this two-way communication that I think is unique to this cooking. If I feel particularly garlicky (clearly not cooking for a date) I’ll run with it. If I’m feeling eggy I’ll crack a few more shells.
But do you know what happens when you feel particularly eggy when baking? Your whole dish changes. You balance the fine line between a souffle and an omelet. Your bread changes all of its characteristics: texture, smell, taste, crust. Your cupcakes and muffins blow up. You don’t mess with a baker’s recipe. Unlike the ‘tantsa’ that is a literal roll of the dice, baking is an exact science. The best, most efficient and effective methods, measurements, and modes have all already been established. The mark of a good chef is his ability to create. The mark of an expert baker is his ability to replicate. Consistency is key. Capturing the exact precise moment that cooking becomes more science and alchemy than improvisation and art. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way disparaging baking or trying to claim one over the other. Like I said, they inhabit the same room but different worlds and if anything, I am in awe of how difficult and unforgiving and inflexible baking is. My friend is the baker of the group and I am constantly amazed and impressed by what she is capable of. It’s very interesting when we are in the same kitchen doing our thing. She sees me flying by the seat of my pants, constantly adjusting and readjusting, while I watch her careful and exacting, knowing exactly what to expect when and how and why even before she adds the ingredients. There is a very clear and vivid picture in her mind at the start whereas I am chasing an emotion felt on the breeze. I have a very realistic image of myself; I know what I am and am not capable of and so I recognize talent in things I cannot achieve myself. I admire bakers. I could not inhabit their world. I don’t have the patience or the ability to absorb the vast knowledge base needed. They are artisans and scientists and craftsmen all at the same time. I am a whirlwind of impressions.
I am happy though in my world. It speaks to me as I speak to it. My emotional state characterizes more than just my cooking, it speaks to my relationships, my writing, and my perspectives. I need to feel when I cook. I need to feel when I write. I need to feel when I’m with someone. And in the meanwhile, I’m perfectly content buying my cake from the store.
Man: 46 Loneliness: 16