Debate: You Have “Mediocre Taste” says Anthony Bourdain and David ChangJuly 16, 2018
- Dwight CoWords
“Why does everyone want Parmesan cheese shaken out of a Kraft container or whatever? That’s not even mediocre. Or maybe that’s the epitome of mediocre.” says David Chang.
“You’ve gotta be a fucking freak,” Bourdain replies,” to aspire to be better than mediocre. People want mediocre. People buy that Parmesan in that little shaker because that’s what they want. If you gave them the real thing, they wouldn’t recognize it. They might even punish you for it.”
I came across the first issue of David Chang’s Lucky Peach Magazine and stumbled upon a page where “mediocrity,” set in 48pt, all caps and in Comic Sans boldly stares from the top. Intrigued, I find a conversation between three of America’s more popular chefs, Anthony Bourdain, David Chang and Wylie Dufresne in a friendly, curse-laden debate on what constitutes mediocre food.
Above anything, chefs are artists. And in each community of artists, there’s a sort of mediocrity mark that instantly screams “Hey, I suck!” to your peers. Graphic designers can spot a noob with excessive drop shadows, gradients or a clumsy use of type. Writers get miffed with fundamental errors like switching “your” with “you’re.” Cooks, apparently, find that using commercial cheese is a huge red flag to fellow chefs that they should never try your creations.
Look around local groceries and you’ll see these red flags everywhere—processed meat, sweetened tomato sauce, MSG, marinated meat or instant noodles. In restaurants (buffets and value meals are especially guilty) you won’t get enough of them too—mystery meat hamburgers, breaded pork cutlets with more bread than pork, pasta swimming in a pool of sauce, sugar-blessed powdered iced tea, or my all-time favorite, KFC’s bottomless gravy pump. Also, if there’s just one thing that would probably make Chang and Bourdain really explode with sarcasm, it’ll probably be trained chefs endorsing Knorr.
It’s not that we don’t have people who can do proper pasta. Like Bourdain asserts, most of us are just genuinely happy having mediocre taste.
In the Philippines, this “culinary mediocrity” has been the norm for as long as I can remember. Pancake House’s spaghetti, a pasta monster bathed in sugar and smothered with commercial parmesan cheese is a culinary mistake that’s been selling terribly well for over a decade. It’s not that we don’t have chefs who can do proper pasta; but like Bourdain said, most of us are just genuinely happy having mediocre taste. And I don’t say that to apologize or demean.
This attachment we have to mediocre food is also summarized in one over-used word: pang-masa. Try and observe chefs and restaurateurs debating on the kind of food to serve and you’ll always come across the debate on whether the food is “masa enough.” Torn apart by art (what they really want to cook) and money (what sells), chefs almost always compromise by trying to find that balance of what they love to do and what’s gonna sell. In reality, the decision usually slants towards where the perceived cash is. Sadly, it’s hard to blame them for it.
I’m not gonna spark a flame war and pick sides, but this discussion begs a few interesting questions.
Is there a universal standard for good taste? When is good taste good? Do trained cooks have “better taste?” Is this something that can and should be learned? Or are the rest of us with uncultured tongues doomed to lie at the bottom rungs of the culinary ladder until our bodies rot, get eaten by pigs and recycled back to the food chain to be consumed by superior tongues?
Trivia: Commenter En Route mentioned that Marco Pierre White, the world’s first celebrity chef, trainer of infamous Gordom Ramsay and the youngest chef to be awarded 3 Michelin stars later on became an endorser for Knorr. In response to criticism about selling out, White says, “by working with companies like Knorr it allows me to stand onto a bigger stage and enrich people’s lives… Michelin stars, they’re my past.”