Why We Wait: A Defense of Food That Takes Time
ICE chef-instructors weigh in on the power of patience in the kitchen.
For years I criticized Soylent, that strange meal-replacement beverage that looks (and tastes) like chalk. It’s in New York’s overpriced neighborhood bodegas — a color blocked, tastefully designed matte bottle. It’s everywhere. Soylent used to be nowhere, you had to buy the powder online and do the mixing yourself. Now it comes in seven flavors not including the original, which reminds me of the barium milkshake I drank with hostile resistance before getting my stomach x-rayed at age 10. At its best (the cacao flavor), Soylent is tolerable as a liquid meal, but what it lacks in nuanced palate notes it makes up for in being insanely convenient.
I have friends who would happily consume a pill with the day's nutrients and eliminate that arduous process of chewing altogether if they could. Anything, really, to avoid standing in lines spanning blocks for a salad they guiltily know would cost them a fraction to prepare at home. Or worse, so they can avoid fumbling in their kitchen at six in the morning trying to piece together a lunch from whatever is not on the brink of extinction in their fridges. Most of us outsource something that seems simple and yet requires too much of our precious thought or effort. It isn’t always a question of time management. Ours is a generation that glorifies speed! convenience! efficiency! Folded into those lofty endeavors and supposed advances may simply be a glaring lack of patience and attention.
I love bread because it's stubborn. "Yeast will not bend to your will," ICE Dean of Artisan Bread Baking Sim Cass told me. There's no amount of innovation that's going to save you — the simplicity of the process is rigged against the overdoer. To bake good bread is to be patient, to honor the learning curve, to survive many a dead starter. It's a four-ingredient recipe (five if you count love and Sim does) and once you’ve got the basic technique, the rest, "well, it's a bit like magic,” Chef Sim said.
And practice. Sim has a lot of that under his belt. He baked at Balthazar from 1989 until 2005, when he started teaching at ICE, where he now runs the eight-week bread baking intensive. It can also be termed an eight-week patience-building intensive — bread can be a rigorous exercise in just that. Mark Bittman wrote a story on a technique that emphasized patience above all else in The New York Times in 2006, and the recipe asked for the moon on a silver platter: 18 hours of idle time to let the dough ferment. In late 2018, Dayna Evans covered the rising trend of bread baking in tech culture on Eater. The bible of this movement is a $600+, five-volume book by the same people who brought us cryo-shucked oysters. When I told Sim I was impressed that despite all that, bread baking didn’t give in to too many technological advances, at least as far as technique is concerned, he laughed. “If it ain’t broke, why try to fix it?”
ICE’s Director of Stewarding and Purchasing Joseph Pace has a unique perspective from his bachelor’s in Agronomy from the University of Arizona. Four years seeped in statistical research on crop cycles and estimates of bovine body composition seem like they should birth a chef looking at his kitchen as a laboratory with a minimal margin for error. Chef Joe’s teaching approach, however, reveals a love of the experience above all else. “Cooking is mishaps leading to discoveries, a creative process involving all the senses,” he said. “Nature never produces identicals. Two peaches from the same branch of the same tree can taste vastly different. Observe, smell, feel, taste and correct along the way.” Baked into patience is attention. Without it, patience is just scrolling on your phone through Instagram’s food porn while water boils.
When we discussed Joe’s cooking philosophy, he recalled a quote from Joel Robuchon. “One can never know a dish until you’ve prepared it a hundred times,” he said. That sentiment makes sense if you’re familiar with Risotteria, the chef’s little corner restaurant in the West Village, which operated from 2000 to 2016. If you didn’t get to eat there, you missed out. Really. It was a fantastic location; there were gluten-free breadsticks (the result of 40 dozen test batches); and the service was wonderful. I ate there twice in 2014, once alone and again with a friend, both times thrilled that a medical condition or vanity didn’t preclude me from enjoying butter. Over the next several years, I tried making risotto and then stopped because it was costlier to keep screwing up risotto than to just go to Risotteria.
Risotto is a dish I’d have to prepare 100 times to really know. It’s a deceptively simple base: butter, stock, rice, some salt, white wine (you can do without). The rest is technique. When it’s ready, it’s ready, and there’s no time to waste, no back burners. Like bread, it’s a bit merciless. You messed up? You have to start again, no course-correcting. Patience is required for nailing the approach and attention for nailing the timing. Like bread baking, risotto making is a tactile experience — you may be looking, feeling for something before you’re tasting for it.
Joel Robuchon brings up a host of emotions among most food trade people. His militant kitchen (see: Eric Ripert’s “32 Yolks”) was sacred to young chefs, not just because he managed to make a ceremony of mashed potatoes. It was a mental thing. The effort he demanded you apply to decorating a plate of lobster salad with 90 evenly spaced dots of sauce — this was an exercise in patience fit for a monastery. You could apply that to rocket science or risotto and it would be of service.
Don’t get me wrong. Thank goodness that current food trends aren’t focused on dotting the lobster salad and instead want to know if the lobster everyone’s so obsessed with dotting is wild-caught and how long we’ll even have lobsters on this planet, at the rate that we’re dotting them. But the song remains the same: Our priorities have shifted to be result-, not process-, oriented. They’ve shifted because our workload and our expectations have shifted. We want more, faster, easier, because we know it’s possible, and Thursday night dinner service in a busy restaurant is probably not the best place to slow it down and smell the roses. But somewhere in our lives ought to be. Maybe in a classroom. Maybe in a new career.
So the Soylent ... I was in a rush one morning and there it was, requiring so little of me. I spent two weeks on Soylent — eating became less about eating, the act, and more about eating, the nuisance to overcome. It didn’t “grow” on me, (it does on some, shockingly) but that didn't seem to matter. Soylent was an antidote to my impatience. That is, it gave me permission to be impatient about other things: email replies, writing deadlines, train delays. I explained the magic of the strange beverage to my mom after she saw the half-empty bottle in my bag one afternoon. It was unwise to say the least. She’s a woman who self-describes as a "child of nature." This is how she justifies being late to places, but mostly, it’s how she approaches life: simply, calmly, intentionally. When I visited, she was making soup. It was going to take 30 minutes to prep. I offered to help expedite it but got shooed away. Afterwards, the agony known to any person who's ever prepared soup while hungry began — we sat around and waited.
Learn the time-tested techniques worth waiting for in ICE's Culinary Arts program.