Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions

A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.

Refine tag filters

Listing posts

Elevating the American food scene

jason

Hillel of  Tasting Menu has issued a bit of a challenge to himself to elevate the average quality of U.S. dining experiences. It's a frustration I share... I know a few places in Seattle that make me very happy, but most of them are out of the reach of everyday dining prices, and it's incredibly hard to find things that do a few simple things very well, and make me want to go out of my way to get a modest lunch or dinner there.

In Japan, countless television shows will obsessively document what it takes to make the most perfect omelet, which soba places do the best job of making buckwheat noodles (a fundamentally simple, but deceptively challenging task), or which ryokan is best taking advantage of their local ingredients. In the U.S., the closest thing we have to that mentality on TV is Alton Brown, and maybe Cook's Illustrated in print. In Japan, it's pervasive.

In the U.S., we are more excited by drama than by perfection. That's why people like Emeril, unfamiliar towers of incongruous ingredients at trendy fusion restaurants, and big fat California rolls. In Japan, more often than in the U.S., the pursuit of perfection is the drama.

In my first few years cooking regularly, during college, I followed a predictably American pattern of rebelling against bland foods from my childhood and I overseasoned absolutely everything. It was an improvement over what I had eaten before, but it's not necessarily worthy of much praise. After 8 years of regular visits to Japan, I increasingly strive for minimalism, trying to find ingredients that do most of the hard work simply by being wonderful and fresh.

Often enough, when I give an example of this, it's something as simple as a blanched spinach dish with a little freshly grated ginger and a splash of good quality Japanese soy sauce. When I explain it, it doesn't sound interesting, but when it's done right, it's easy to understand its simple poetry.

To elevate the U.S. dining scene, we have to give appropriate due to small places with short menus that get the food right, and take what they are producing very seriously. I can point out a few examples in Seattle, but mostly in a liquid context: Vivace and Victrola coffee, Sambar's signature cocktails that often feature house-squeezed juices and purees, tea at Floating Leaves.

Every Japanese restaurant in Seattle seems to feel obligated to offer sushi, tempura, donburi, and an assortment of over-sized side dishes, all in the same place. Nobody does just ramen, just okonomiyaki, just soba, just kushiyaki, or just udon. It seems like there's some sort of unwritten law that, even if you've hired 3 decent sushi chefs at $80,000/year each and contracted with a first-class interior designer, the restaurant has to devolve into some sort of family restaurant style of having something mediocre for everybody.

And I can pick on most cuisines in this regard: we torture Italian food the same way, not to mention Thai, Mexican, and others. If I'm in Japan, I don't think "I want to go to a Japanese restaurant," I think "I want to go to an izakaya", "I'd like some good soba", or "I'd like to have a teishoku lunch at that little vegetable shop near the office for lunch."

We need to reward the places that are obsessive about getting details right, from perfectly cooked pasta sauced with just the right amount of liquid, to serving just the amount of food that makes you wish you had just a little more, rather than making you feel guilty that you don't want to take the inedible leftovers home. Japan does have a certain level of uniform expectations that means there's far less variation in what's considered "perfect", and the benefit of generally high population density, but in the U.S. we usually have lower rents and more tolerance for idiosyncrasy, so the restaurants can be more maverick-like if they build a passionate audience.

Japanese cooking shows typically show professional cooks as careful, serious, diligent and avoiding wasted motion, respectfully repeating orders and executing them, and the guests are the ones who get all excited. In the U.S. the same kinds of shows have clanging pots, chaotically moving employees trying to avoid bumping into each other, kitchen staff telling jokes of questionable taste, and often haphazardly tossing food onto plates, often portraying the dining room is an ocean of calm customers. We want our celebrity chefs to be exciting; Japanese would rather the food and the guests do the talking.

Restaurants also have to get better at telling their own stories, explaining why they don't have 300 menu choices and why they serve their zarusoba with just a little bit of dipping sauce and a few pickles. The story-telling is part of what makes unconventional restaurants succeed in the U.S.; they have to teach their guests to do their marketing.

We can improve the taste of average restaurants by expecting better... When one place starts making the perfect taco, stop spending so much money at the big-as-your-head burrito place. More realistically, I imagine we will have to take more incremental steps, since we might be trapped in a part of town where we don't have better lunch options... So I'll give more money to places that make me happier, even if they aren't flawless.

And hopefully the occasional web rant or rave will help people find better food, so I'll spend some time writing about the good stuff...

Food blogging: why?

jason

The Girl Who Ate Everything has a bit of a homework assignment to explain food blogging. I started writing a short comment, but it kept growing, even though I don’t think I have the “answer.” Because I seemed a little too verbose, I thought my thoughts would work better as a blog entry than as a comment.

For those who don’t know already, Pursuing My Passions is not, strictly speaking, a food blog, but food is one of the things I’m most passionate about. I cook fairly obsessively, and my business was founded in part because of how much I enjoy food browsing in Japanese department stores.

My food obsessions started fomenting when I was quite young, as I began cooking for myself, to a limited extent, as a child. By the time I was about 7 years old, I had some basic microwave oven and frypan skills, and in my pre-teen years I played with Bisquick and perused the Joy of Cooking. During my final semester in college, before looking at my student loan bills, I briefly entertained the idea of going to graduate school to study the role of food in revolutionary movements and peasant rebellions. (At the time I also wore my political stripes very loudly).

I'm not sure blogs are reactions against glossy idyllic portrayals of food, considering how much culinary celebrity worship goes on in blogging contexts, and how happily food bloggers devour "food porn."

Blogs do let relatively ordinary people connect their culinary experiences with other people who share similar passions. It may be hard to share my food obsessions with my friends in the same way I can do in a blog; many of my friends are happy to indulge along with me when I'm cooking, but are mildly amused by my ability to steer any conversation toward food topics. Online, people self-select when they want to participate in that conversation, so they are at least as interested in food as me, at least for a moment.

Blogging is, however, a kind of democratization of "cuisine." Without a “target market", unlike a food magazine or TV show, bloggers can, comfortably and without shame or bashfulness, rapidly shift focus between homemade haute cuisine and humble, lowbrow daily fare. Unless they want to, bloggers don’t have to make pretentions of healthfulness or authenticity, and they don’t have to promise easy results in 30 minutes or that your neighbors will be impressed by all the work you’ve done if you just follow some lovely focus-group tested recipes. They just have to celebrate food in an endearing way.

Instead of a traditional media priesthood of good taste (ahem), food blogging is more like a potluck. We might occasionally try to impress each other, but blogging is more about sharing the joy of little discoveries, minor food tragedies, and culinary triumphs. And sometimes guilt, giddiness or discontent.

The thing that makes blogging more real than a magazine, cookbook or TV series is the lack of editors and producers who needs to balance the interests of advertisers, the fickleness of their audiences, and the egos of their writers or hosts. We’re relatively content regardless of who shows up to the party.

As food bloggers, each one of us can wear many hats… restaurant reviewer, chef, event planner, food diarist, food stylist, cooking class instructor, co-conspirator… for most of us, our ability to shift between these roles wouldn’t be possible in other contexts.

Blogging has a low barrier to entry, but fairly powerful network effects… I once saw photos someone in Holland and someone else in Malaysia had taken after making a variation of a cookie recipe I had originally posted on my blog. Similarly, I’ve been inspired by flavor combinations I wouldn’t have otherwise thought about from people blogging around the world. That kind of global influence, even on a small scale, is just incredible to think about. I’m not likely not get my 15 minutes of fame by posting an occasional article online, but this ability to reach other people, and learn from each other, is really appealing.