Acquiring Culinary Fluency

Can a cook become truly fluent in a cuisine other than the one into which she is born? And, if so, what must she do to acquire that fluency?

These questions crop up constantly, especially when it comes to Japanese food. In spite of cookbooks by Elizabeth Andoh, the popularity of Bento boxes, and the craze for sushi, Japanese cooking as a practice seems terribly elusive for most Westerners. Many Japanese culinary students attend culinary school in France or elsewhere and acquire the skills to carve huge joints of meat and to work with cheese, something not a part of their natal cuisine. And Western chefs like Kyle Connaughton of the Fat Duck restaurant study in Japan in an effort to translate this nebulous (to Westerners, anyway) cuisine.

Focused on Japan, the 2010 World of Flavors conference at the Culinary Institute of America (Greystone) prompted the questions again. Mitchell Davis, of the Cook and Eat Better blog, speculates that instead of fine chefs [cooks] learning to cook Japanese food, it might be better if people just ate it and then developed into “fine eaters.”

And that comment brings me to the latest book on offer about Julia Child. As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, edited by Joan Reardon, brings up those two questions again. The answer to the questions, it seems to me, lies in total immersion, not unlike the best method for achieving fluency in language.

That immersion ideally should be in the country or region where people cook the food. But there are other ways to acquire a certain degree of fluency:

  • Read, read, read cookbooks.
  • Practice, practice, practice the techniques.
  • Watch a lot of YouTube videos on the cooking in question.
  • Marry a person from the country or region and learn from that person or their mother or grandmother.
  • Keep a pantry filled with ingredients specific to that cuisine.
  • Eat, eat, eat.

Of course, these questions also raise the issue of cultural diffusion and other matters that would take entires tomes to dissect (and do).

And I’ll end this brief, and highly incomplete, commentary with another question:

Would Julia Child have achieved culinary fluency in French had it not been for her husband Paul’s assignment to Paris? [And would she have wanted to? Maybe another epiphany would have driven her in another direction.]

© 2010 C. Bertelsen