Debate: You Have “Mediocre Taste” says Anthony Bourdain and David Chang

July 16, 2018

“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.”

14 comments in this post SHOW

14 responses to “Debate: You Have “Mediocre Taste” says Anthony Bourdain and David Chang”

  1. rftreyes says:

    The way I see it, trained cooks have better taste, but taste is something that is felt in the present. And if in the present the market is not in the same level as the cook’s or can’t afford to taste that the cooks offer, guess what? That’s where economics rule: Where your taste will not matter if the market will not buy it.

    Philosophically speaking, chefs are like the purveyors of the future of cuisine, but it’s a delicate balance to know when such taste will catch on.

    Oh and with the Knorr thing, you know who was one of the famous chefs that gave up all his Michelin stars to endorse Knorr? Marco Pierre White. Strange, isn’t it? Check this out:

    Ok. This is what happens when I log on to the site without my 4th cup of coffee for the morning….

    • Dwight Co says:

      To a certain degree, I think chefs have better taste. After thousands of hours poured into merely tasting stuff, these people have heightened senses and could detect nuances most of us can’t…and that’s a skill.

      And oh man, that Marco White guy makes for a really good story. Thanks for letting me know! 🙂 I’ll add it in the post.

      • rftreyes says:

        Go go go 🙂 Maybe that local celebrity turned chef of ours aspires to follow his footsteps… and he is starting it with Knorr beef cubes 😛

  2. Leslie says:

    Like you said, chefs are artists, and art is subjective. There will always be purists who stick to a high standard of taste and quality, and those who just want something to fill up the space on their wall with something “nice” (or, in the case of food, fill their stomachs with something that tastes good enough or is convenient). Whether one prefers having an Amorsolo or an abstract piece by a never-heard-of artist on his wall is entirely up to the buyer. One can enjoy the occasional air-dried meat & stinky cheeses galore at Spiral, and on other days be perfectly satisfied with pork barbeque on the streets. Whatever floats your boat. Kudos to those who want to broaden their culinary horizons by studying and/or experiencing the art of French cooking, but I think it may take more effort to get the general Philippine population to appreciate these rather foreign tastes. I mean, you even see some instances where foreign franchisors tweak their recipes or menu to match the taste profile of the countries they’re franchising in.

    So, I believe chefs who live, breathe, and study food from raw material to finished product have better taste in the sense that they understand how every element affects the dish. But from the consumer’s point of view, they only see the finished product, so taste is relative. If you’re going to make a business out of “good” taste, just remember that value for money drives most people. To the masses, that can mean cheap and filling. To those who find value in exotic ingredients, fancy cooking, and presentation, the chef will probably do well in a good spot located around Makati.

  3. Gn says:

    I think that chefs are trained to know the subtleties of each flavor, to know how each one is married to another to create a delicate piece of, well, art.

    I just wish that there is food education out there. Let me extend the use of the artist metaphor. We as “mediocre” tasters only know how the mix of the basic flavors extend to “delicious” (let’s try to use it loosely here), but are rather ignorant of how each spectrum can produce inimitable shades of flavor.

    But then when you think about it, one can truly appreciate some flavors if they are exposed to it. It’s a cycle really – unless we step out of it, food cannot be truly enjoyed by everyone.

    Now it begs the question, is “good” food solely for those who can afford it? Does it mean that it can only be truly appreciated by a select few? Is it a hierarchical thing that can never be truly satisfied by the status quo?

    • Dwight Co says:

      Like you said, people have to start getting exposed. But up to what point in their lives are they willing to learn and be exposed? 🙂

      And yeah, there’s the issue of social status…but that’s for another discussion.

  4. sandrita_reads says:

    good food doesn’t have to be expensive! (and you peeps know & demonstrate this very well) it’s really a matter of choosing good quality ingredients (super fresh local vegs, etc. not necessarily pricey gourmet stuff) and cooking carefully & thoughtfully & imaginatively. as human beings, we crave salt & sweet & fat/richness–so the key is to create this flavor using the right combination of ingredients, without resorting to MSG, excessive sugar & all manner of processed horrors. case in point: a chilled salad of chopped & quick-blanched fern/sayote/kamote leaves, perfectly ripe tomatoes, red onion, chopped salted duck eggs, sweet jicama, balsamic/guava/iloko vinegar, bit of patis. it’s such a simple dish but if done with the right technique, people would think it’s gourmet. served to guests, they asked me if the white stuff was feta. i guess people are just so used to getting mostly mediocre stuff in restaurants.

    • Dwight Co says:

      Most restaurants are too focused on cost-cutting, which often results in a lot of cheating. And yes, “gourmet” is a relative term that people usually just associate with fancy plating. 😛

  5. The Fat Kid Inside says:

    Awesome thoughts Dwight. I belive that taste is subjective but that it is also something that evolves. If people are not exposed to the right types of ingredients or techniques, they will simply be happy with what they have access too already. I’ve served one same person a traditional carbonara and then a carbonara with cream sugar. The cream and sugar version won 🙁 Unlike fashion where one can be said to have good or bad taste, food is closer to music, where your taste is subject to what you already like (you hardly see people switching genres anymore). For me, good taste comes down to the ingredients and techniques. I think someone has good taste when a dish is eaten at its purest form without any un-natural or fabricated ingredients and has a perfect balance of flavours. Why? Because un-natural ingredients can be considered cheating, it would be like saying you prefer the 3-D version of the lion king over the original, however imperfections and all, the original has a story and flaws that make it more relatable to me. People are constantly looking for a sense of community and shortcuts erase those ties automatically.

    • Dwight Co says:

      Lol, I think a lot of people can relate to your carbonara story. And I agree that the less shortcuts and cheats there are, the “better” the food…however sometimes, we get into the habit of cheating when it’s convenient or because our tongues have been conditioned to it…so it gets difficult to get out of that artificial food trap. Still, it can be done. 🙂

  6. danevillaluz says:

    I think part of reason why we generally have “mediocre” tastes has something to do with the economy, modernization and our lifestyles. While we all agree that beef noodle soup cooked with fresh noodles and bones that has been boiled to perfection tastes much superior to instant mami, we find it very time-consuming to make. Also, with five minutes of cooking time and a P5.00 price tag, who wouldn’t be tempted by it? We no longer care about the absence of meat on our soup because it is packed with flavorings and sodium that help our brains think that it tastes good and to adjust our “instant mami” tastes, we add boullion cubes on our bulalo, tinola, sinigang and other foods that had never required cubes before World War Two. Although we are now more gastronomically adventurous, we have much busier lifestyles and fresh food has become more expensive so we have to compensate our lack of time in the kitchen with lots of salt and other processed foods and leave the traditionally cooked meals to fine dining restaurants.

    As for the Parmesan cheese from a Kraft container, this could also be explained by the lack of availability of superior ingredients. We Filipinos are curious about food from other cuisines, but we can’t always find fresh ingredients that have foreign origins. There are locally-made mozzarella and fresh portobello mushrooms, but we have to go around the country just to find them. Therefore, we had to rely on processed cheeses and canned winter veggies from our nearest supermarket. I always have a problem with this, especially when I have to take the LRT and MRT from my house in Marikina just to buy a bottle of pure vanilla extract. I wish we have a wider range of products, but for now we have to rely on these.

  7. Simply Maybe says:

    Could it be that David Chang and Mr Bourdain have “better taste” because they eaten so many foods already? That if they were just regular people it would still be the same.
    Yes, chefs are “trained” to know, but theory and practice are two different things. It’s not based on economics either, as some of the greatest dishes in the world today come from the homes of farmers and growers, not in 5 star restaurants

    I don’t think a “universal standard” for good taste exists as it differs based on culture, gender and even location in the world. Our “tastes” as a people are formed through a variety of experiences, etc.

    In the end, I somehow think we are all being taken for a marketing ride anyways, but hey I do like taking a ride on it. Just look at all the MSG haters in the world today.

  8. geezcats says:

    I think chefs (and anyone for that matter) can only be as discriminating as what they’ve been exposed to. If they’ve not tried anything better than Pancake House spaghetti (which I loved as a teenager, but have since gotten over), then that is likely the benchmark they will aspire to, in spite of all the cooking techniques and fancy ingredients they encounter along the way to a career in culinary arts.

    In large part, taste is a byproduct of economics. I’ve seen poor kids shun imported chocolate, simply because the flavor, the texture, the richness was too foreign (no pun intended) for them. Those who have know they can aspire for new taste sensations, and many will pursue such vigorously. Their taste buds come with an open mind, a willingness to venture out into unfamiliar gastronomy, and exercise their discernment (which is really part of the fun).

    Having had to watch my weight of late, I play it safe with my food choices. For some time now, I cut my dining out down to a few occasions a year. So when confronted with a buffet, I no longer go for a sampling of as many dishes as my plate or gut can carry. Instead, I go with the usual sashimi (no chef can botch that, eh?), cold seafood, some greens (just for my conscience) and then the carving station (once a foodie, always a foodie). Familiar fare, but often these are the best dishes in the spread. And does anyone need a degree to make these dishes well? I think not.

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