Recently, I sat down for a quick meal at a national chain restaurant and had a very difficult time deciding what to order. The vast menu read like a Benetton ad — I could have had anything from a New York strip steak, butter chicken, tempura prawn sushi, chicken souvlaki or any other culturally stereotypical dish. While choice is something that we have come to equate as a good thing in a free society, it can actually be a very, very bad thing as far as food is concerned.
At first, the names Ferran Adria, Michael Phelps and Hiroshi Kato may not have any immediate connection, but they’re all outliers — they’ve spent more than 10,000 hours honing their craft, meticulously focusing on one skill.
Adria has been cooking in kitchens for 31 years, 28 of them at El Bulli in Spain, continuously honing his skills and questioning the status quo; Michael Phelps began swimming at the age of seven and gained a total of 22 Olympic medals 20 years after he started swimming; 73-year-old Hiroshi Kato has been creating knives using Japanese steel and methods for over 50 years, a trade he learned from his father who had been making knives for 50 years himself.
Because each of these individuals has dedicated their lives to pursuing a single skill without distraction, they are able to push their trade and themselves past established boundaries.
Like those who choose the path of dedication, restaurants in most other parts of the world still specialize in one thing and one thing only. Bonci’s Pizzarium in Rome, for example, serves only pizza and bread. You walk in, pick from the flavours of the day and measure out a slice. No tables, no chairs, no menus. The beer fridges have even been removed so another 15 centimetres of kitchen space could be created for the pursuit of perfect pizza.
Japan’s culture of application and loyalty predisposes its residents to this focus. The much beloved and ubiquitous ramen shop serves only ramen noodles in usually one or two types of broth. If you want udon or soba there are others who specialize in only those two types of noodles. Often, specific ramen shops will serve only a particular regional type of ramen.
Canadians haven’t entirely ignored these important lessons. In Montreal, widely held as the centre for Canadian gastronomes, we have a community of single-minded chefs and producers who intently focus on charcuterie, pork and foie. Epitomizing this is Chèvrerie du Buckland. They make and sell only one product: an amazing and unique sheep’s milk cheese.
Everyone benefits when we support chefs, restaurants and producers in pursuing one craft extremely well instead of 10 things with mediocrity. The knowledge and skills of chefs skyrocket. Quality goes up because chefs are selecting better meats or paying more attention to the quality of their sushi rice. As a result, the customer’s enjoyment of their food goes up proportionally. Business models change, and small, high quality, reasonably priced restaurants become viable, benefiting both business owners and consumers.
Instead of blindly eating out, we can encourage both diversity and depth in our industry by supporting and loving leaders who show genuine passion for the industry and our food.
As consumers, we can strive to be curious; open to the possibility that food is a malleable concept. We must create time to go across the city for a single dish, to wait for that dish to be prepared and to enjoy it in its entirety. Without passion, curiosity and time, visionaries like Adria would not have had the environment to create spherification, culinary foam or any number of ideas that have reshaped the food world.