These days, thanks to America’s undying love of dining out, being a professional chef is sometimes akin to being a celebrity. Well, minus the money and fame, of course. When I say celebrity, I’m referring mostly to the reactions that chefs can sometimes get from other people. Even then, I’m not really talking about screaming fans or anything of that nature. It’s a very subtle thing, really, but I am still amazed by how interested some people are to meet a chef -- even an everyday chef -- like me.
There have been quite a few times when I’ve made acquaintances through mutual friends, and I hear the words, “Ah yes, you’re the chef.” That’s usually about the time I get ready to field some questions. Believe me, no one had ever said to me, “Ah yes, you’re the bank teller,” when I was suffering through that mundane job.
Chefs are popular nowadays simply because people have become fascinated with food. I wish I could say that it was our natural charm and our legendary savoir faire, but it really is the food. As it should be. People love to eat, and when they’re not eating, they like to talk about what they ate, or what they plan to eat next. I certainly don’t pretend to be any different, which is why I don’t mind answering the questions that people often ask. I get requests for cooking tips, restaurant recommendations, and everything else food-related. Every now and then, someone will ask me, “What do you think of Emeril?” I call that question the “secret handshake,” but that’s really fodder for another column.
Perhaps the most common query I hear is, “What’s your favorite thing to cook?” I should have a stock answer to this question by now -- something exotic and sexy, like bone marrow ravioli with blue-foot chanterelles and black truffle sauce. But instead, I simply tell the truth. I like comfort food, plain and simple. And to be perfectly honest, most of the food that I cook at work is much fancier than what I would usually care to eat. Sure, I can cook a potato ten different ways, but I feel that nothing can beat a good batch of mashed potatoes. Instead of foie gras or caviar, give me chili, fried chicken, jambalaya, and macaroni and cheese. These dishes are called comfort foods for good reason.
In many ways, I have a similar attitude towards wine. Now, I’m certainly not saying that I like my wine from a box. Keep in mind, I didn’t say that I like my macaroni and cheese from a box, either. I also refuse to drink many of the mass-produced “supermarket wines,” the ones you might find along the bottom shelf at the local Safeway or Albertsons. If you’re reading this column, then you probably already know the labels I’m talking about. To me, most of these brands are the McWines of the world, processed in every imaginable way to mask the fact that they are made with sub-par fruit. It’s incredible to consider the various ways that wine can be manipulated to make up for its innate flaws. But again, that’s really another column.
For me, the most interesting wines are the ones that present a particular value. I find great satisfaction in discovering a wine that’s priced in the $30 range, but which has the depth and complexity of a wine three times that price. I know that there’s a contingent of wine drinkers who shares the same opinion, and I feel that we should all be searching for these diamonds in the rough. These personal discoveries are what really make wine interesting. However, I also realize that there is a definite wine-drinking demographic that needs to pay top dollar for a wine in order to feel good about drinking it (or collecting it). In the same respect, many of these same people can only bring themselves to drink a wine that has received a certain numerical score from a reputable wine writer. I find that to be unfortunate.
I would be a liar, however, if I didn’t also acknowledge that I have used these same scores as a guide. I also understand that people who don’t live near a wine-making region are at a far greater disadvantage than I am. Magazines, websites, and other second-hand information must take the place of actually visiting a tasting room. For this reason, I cannot begrudge anyone who purchases their wines based on a trusted source. However, I have to question the people who feel that a wine is not even worth consideration if it is a few points shy of a particular number. These people are simply cheating themselves, and I daresay that they aren’t confident in their own tastes. Perhaps they might argue that life is too short to drink 89-point wines. We have no guarantees in this world, so they may be right on that count. Even so, I find it interesting that wine elicits this attitude from people.
For centuries, the wine-drinking nations of Europe each had their versions of good, afforable table wine that people consumed and enjoyed on a daily basis. This is still the case today. Wine does not always need to be ceremoniously sipped, swirled and swallowed. Far from it. I say that if you can save $30 by giving up two points on a particular scale, then your decision is simple. Of course, certain occasions may still call for the top of the line. So be it. But I would also contend that someone who routinely eats at the finest restaurants would still love a piece of authentic Southern fried chicken or a slice of New York-style pizza. I just can’t be convinced otherwise. Tell me, who doesn’t crave a hot, glazed doughnut every now and then, chased with ice cold milk? Or a BLT, on toasted sourdough, with heirloom tomatoes? Is there any shame in that? Nope, just comfort.