Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lucky Peach Issue 1 - Ramen (Summer 2011) edited by David Chang, Chris Ying, and Peter Meehan

Lucky Peach Issue 1 — Ramen (Summer 2011)
edited by David Chang, Chris Ying, and Peter Meehan


Lucky Peach represents what can be great about the magazine industry. Founded by Momofuku chef David Chang, the publication brings together his passion for innovation and his loyalty to doing singular, often simple, things well. Issue #1 is ad-free and dedicated almost entirely to one subject — ramen. The good stuff, the real stuff, straight out of Japanese back alleys and from old-school noodle masters. Perhaps only through McSweeney's could this sort of indulgence be encouraged on a large scale. As someone who publishes a magazine composed largely of my own whims, I love what they've done.

Though I do enjoy cooking and talking about food in general, what initially got me interested in the magazine was Anthony Bourdain. I've been a major fan of his for several years, and I love that he's made a career out of being both a professional smart-ass and a romantic. He has two features in this issue — a short "joint" called "Chang: The Rise of Ramen Boy," and a conversation between himself, Chang, and fellow chef Wylie Dufresne, "Mediocrity: A Conversation."

If you think Mr. Bourdain can be cranky at times, these other two make him look sunny by comparison. The three get together, get drunk, and get vociferous about food culture and those who are comfortable not challenging themselves.

Wylie: I mean, I get in trouble over a lot of things. But I'm not equating farm-to-table with mediocrity. I'm saying that it's a symbol of the mediocrity that exists at a certain level in kitchens, particularly in New York City.

Anthony: Farm-to-table is saying right up front that it is — to use the dreaded phrase — ingredient-driven rather than chef-creativity-driven or technique-driven. It's saying the most important thing is where it comes from, how it was grown, who grew it, and not what you do with it. It's basically patting yourself on the back for being there.

Wylie: But that's not cooking. We're talking about cooking. We are cooks. We should have a responsibility to cook. The fact that we're talking about what people are doing with the ingredients is a mistake. Do something to it. That's showing that you have a skill.

[…]

Wylie: Let's encourage people to cook. I mean, what's your favorite place to have sushi?

Anthony: In New York? Anywhere, ever? (pauses) Jiro in Tokyo.

Wylie: Yeah, because he makes the best fucking rice you've ever had. That's cooking.

Anthony: He has it grown especially for him. And he cooks it, yes. He makes the best fucking rice I've ever had.

Wylie: Right. Not because he knows a guy that fishes the best fish out of the water, because he cooks the best rice. It's not about the fucking product, it's about cooking.

I support organic farming and more restaurants localizing their ingredients, but I see both sides here. There's a certain level of smugness that comes with food culture (or any culture, really) where its participants want to feel better and more important than their counterparts. It's true — what does it matter if your lettuce was grown on the roof if that lettuce tastes like shit? At the same time, as Mr. Bourdain points out, "Sometimes I don't want to think when I go out to dinner! I don't want to think. I just want to sit down, eat a crust of bread, and have a properly made pasta rather than a fucked-up pasta or a tweaked-up pasta — I just want a well-made pasta that's got some good bite to it. To me, that makes me happy."

Exactly. I don't really care so much if you lovingly spoke to your tomato plants or watered them with your Earth-loving tears — just don't make shitty sauce. Let's just get quality ingredients that make a positive impact on the community, and then spare the congratulatory song and dance.

What it comes down to is that Chang and Dufresne are a different breed of human. They do not idle well — if they are not constantly challenging themselves and the standards around them, then it is not a good day's work. To them, "good enough" is defeat, and fear of failure is abhorrent. Of course no one wants to fail, but they get off on taking something familiar and making it extraordinary. The recipes that Chang includes throughout Lucky Peach reflect that.

Just for ramen broth alone, Chang includes five different options one could use as a base beneath the noodles — the Momofuku ramen broth, bacon dashi, Tonkotsu-style broth, carrot dashi, and a good chicken soup base. I don't eat pork, so it was nice to see options that didn't require it. (However, I'm sure that if I were in Japan and presented with a big bowl of good-smelling ramen, I'm sure I'd just eat up without asking too many questions about the ingredients.) These broths would be challenging for the beginning cook, but someone with an average amount of skill could handle it. There are also a lot of different egg recipes, for those who like their ramen topped with additional gooey protein.

Also included is "A Recipe in Haikus" by Peter Meehan for corn with miso butter and bacon. It makes me want to see what other recipes can be shaped into 5-7-5 form:

I.
Render the bacon,
Add the corn. Jump and sizzle
As gold turns to brown.

II.
Miso and butter
Join'd in equal proportions
Plop! into the pan.

III.
Splash stock, then toss. Glaze.
Crack slow-poached egg to crown like
Hokkaido sunset.


The magazine has a lot of literary and artistic elements that elevate it beyond other food publications, including things like the illustrated tale "Bigger Than You: The True Story of Ryuji Tsukazaki and The Little Pleasures of the World's Biggest Man" by Matthew Volz (whose drawing style reminded me a little bit of Wendy MacNaughton). There's also some fantastic artwork by Mike Houdon depicting "Tokyo Ramen Gods," and the entire magazine has interesting illustrations and photographs from a variety of people. In the closing pages, there's even a short story: "The Gourmet Club" by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. It's a somewhat morbid tale that talks about a group of overfed, over-monied meal connoisseurs who are always looking to to impress each other with their discoveries.

Lucky Peach is a really solid, interesting collection of food talk, and I'm considering getting a subscription. As a quarterly publication, I'm curious to see what other themes Chang and company take on, and I'm always wanting to read more from Anthony Bourdain. And though I'm not so naïve as to expect less pork products in future issues, I look forward to seeing what other dishes they feature that I may want to try on my own. It's a different sort of food porn, this magazine, and it's both aspirational and reassuring. "Look, we may be working professionals," it seems to say, "but everyone — everyone — can always do better."

#31/53

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

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