Over the past 20 years or so, the culinary arts have taken one giant step into the spotlight of mainstream media. Emeril Lagasse, Rachel Ray, Alton Brown, and many many more talented chefs and presenters have guided the US of A into a new age of culinary understanding and interest.
We’ve also seen the rise of meal kit delivery services, which have accomplished the daunting task of helping individuals expand their personal palette, and generally giving examples of simple but tasty recipes.
And while many of us have loved food all our lives, very few of us have converted that passion into practical skill and deep-set knowledge of why, exactly, certain flavor combinations work, or how to blend varied culinary styles to make something new and exciting.
Our collective understanding of fine food and drink is based, for better or worse, on a certain amount of guesswork and long-held myths. Some may hold up under scrutiny, but there are also plenty that deserve to be left behind.
And so we’re left with plenty of questions:
Do cooking shows really show what it’s like to work in a kitchen?
Is our societal food IQ on the rise?
What makes for the best food and drink within any given culinary tradition?
So to help stoke the fires of your curiosity and clear up these questions and more, we’d like to break down some of the biggest aspects of the culinary arts as they exist today, with the assistance of two long-standing professionals in the industry, both of whom have spent their entire lives turning their overwhelming love of food into successful careers.
With that said, let’s meet our first expert.
A Sommelier at Heart
Alexandre Cuvillier comes to us from France, a country that has nurtured an extremely personal relationship with food and wine over many centuries.
So much so in fact that many of the wine varieties that we know and love today are named after their French growing regions. Think Champagne, Bordeaux, and Beaujolais.
Even as a child, Cuvillier was sharply aware of the importance of wine to French cuisine as well as French culture. He recalls his parents’ affinity for finding just the right bottle for dinners and special occasions.
“I first became acquainted with the world of wine as a child. My parents were used to drinking a bottle of wine on Sundays. When I became old enough, I started tasting with them. When I entered catering school, I discovered all the specificities of the world’s wine regions which made me even more eager to discover them.”
After studying the business side of the culinary industry, Cuvillier found himself drawn to the joy and possibilities that the work of a sommelier offered.
“To me, the most interesting aspect of becoming a Sommelier was the possibility of traveling throughout the world and meeting new people, wine-growers in particular, touring wine regions and enjoying a new outlook on wine.”
Cuvillier followed his passion to a greater understanding of the many nuances of wine, and soon he was personally hired by world-renowned chef Guy Savoy to work as a sommelier in his Paris restaurant, Restaurant Guy Savoy, on the River Seine.
Most recently Cuvillier has been working at Fiola D.C., a renowned restaurant owned by world-famous chef Fabio Trabocchi and his wife, Maria Font Trabocchi.
Make Your Mistakes
Our next expert, Claudia Barrovecchio, is a notable pastry chef with a penchant for balancing sweet and savory flavors in her creations.
Originally from northern Italy, cooking and enjoying food as a family was central to Barrovecchio’s childhood experience.
“I’ll never forget the good times spent sitting at the table with my whole family. I still remember the aroma of the Sicilian cannoli that my grandpa used to make on Christmas day, and the gnocchi with bolognese sauce that my Grandma Assunta makes every time I go back to Italy for a visit.”
Those tastes, smells, and textures stayed with Barrovecchio, inspiring her to make memorable meals of her own.
From there, she started to hone her craft, starting her professional culinary career at a very young age. She found herself in kitchens filled with experienced cooks, but she never let herself feel unwelcome or out of her depth.
Instead, Barrovecchio saw her enthusiasm and curiosity as an opportunity to learn from masters, all of whom have made their own mistakes throughout their careers.
“I started my career at the age of 14. I never felt intimidated by my more experienced coworkers. Instead, I always had in my mind that even those seasoned professionals started somewhere. Regardless of how far along you are in your career, it’s good to remember that everyone you work with has made mistakes, so don’t be scared or frustrated. Just do your best, always, and the rest comes on its own.”
That simple and intuitive philosophy has taken Barrovecchio, and her career, around the world. She has worked with the San Clemente Palace Resort and Spa in Venice, Italy, the Nobu Matsuhisa and Bulgari Hotel, as well as an extended role as pastry chef at the Kimpton Seafire Resort and Spa and Luca Restaurant in the Cayman Islands.
Currently, Barrovecchio is also working with Fiola D.C., where her creations are delighting patrons with their unique blend of flavors and textures.
Cooking and Baking on Television
Let’s start with the popularization of cooking, baking, and the culinary arts in general over the past couple of decades. The focus of culinary shows, especially in the U.S., has been steadily converging on some variety of competition.
While educational, procedural cooking shows remain popular with their friendly and approachable tone, competitive cooking shows have merged with elements of reality television to form a genre all its own.
‘MasterChef Junior,’ ‘Food Network Star,’ and ‘The Great British Baking Show’ have amassed huge followings. But do they communicate the real joy of cooking?
In short, no. Being forced to bake an obscure traditional spice roll in just an hour with no instructions is not exactly an accurate depiction of professional culinary work. But at the same time, shows like these can serve as a gateway to further exploration of the culinary arts.
So how do the professionals feel about these shows? Barrovecchio sees both good and not-so-good in these dramatic programs.
“I’d like to say that I am not against any of the talent shows related to pastry and baking, but I don’t think they transmit to the audience the right image of what this job really is. Any positive attention that we can get from the media is always good. However, some media doesn’t necessarily focus on the professionalism that comes with our career.”
Hopefully in the future we will start to see an emphasis on realistic shows that follow the careers of skilled culinary artists. Until then, these programs will continue to be a mix of reality and fantasy.
An Educated Public
The upside of increased exposure for chefs and restaurateurs is that the public has also become more and more informed on many of the small details that can contribute to making and appreciating truly great food and wine.
We asked Barrovecchio whether she’s noticed this trend among restaurant patrons.
“Customers are more educated than ever. Instead of asking what a souffle is made of, they are now interested in knowing which variety of chocolate you are using for a certain dish and where it comes from.”
We owe this new knowledge in part to media that has, in essence, made it cool to care about these things.
The shift has been so gradual that we may not have even really noticed it was happening. Instead, we have absorbed a new attitude almost by osmosis. By observing others who have a real passion for the ins and outs of fine taste, we have ourselves arrived at a greater appreciation for that taste.
And this increased knowledge only pushes culinary artists to maintain incredibly high standards in their work.
For Simplicity’s Sake
For Cuvillier, those high standards start at the very beginning of the process, with the specific ingredients being used. It’s essentially the equivalent of starting a construction project with the strongest possible foundation. Only with a strong foundation can the final product reach new heights.
“The best cuisine is often the most simple, but made with excellent products.”
Those exceptional ingredients make for exceptional food and drink. And thanks to the versatility of high-quality cuisine, Cuvillier doesn’t limit himself when it comes to culinary types and traditions, food genres, if you will.
“I do not necessarily prefer working with a certain culinary style as I think it is possible to match any kind of dish with a wine, as long as it is made from high-quality products.”
Just like laughter, joy, and affection, a successful dish or perfectly paired glass of wine has a universal effect, offering pleasure to anyone fortunate enough to find it.
What It’s Like to Be a Pro
So then what is it really like to be a culinary professional here in the 21st century? Like many other industries, the restaurant game is undergoing serious changes.
So-called “foodie” culture has made it cool to seek out new and interesting meals and creative flavor combos. And that ultimately translates to an increased demand for innovative restaurants.
Barrovecchio has seen that kind of frantic competition firsthand.
“There is certainly more competition between restaurants, and this pushes chefs to always want to do more.”
Then there’s the participatory aspect. What started as an organic produce craze in the early 2000s has become a lasting desire to purchase compelling and uncommon ingredients.
“Everything is now available and typically easily accessible, every single product you can think of. Today, having an on-site garden and growing your own ingredients is quite the trend among chefs and home cooks alike.”
The Secret Ingredient
In the light of that kind of accessibility, it’s more important than ever before for restaurants to show customers what they’re capable of.
According to Barrovecchio, there is a simple philosophy that can help restaurants build a loyal base of repeat patrons. Well, the philosophy may be simple, but it’s certainly easier said than done.
“Regardless of all the industry changes, the most important thing I’ve learned is that if you offer good food, customers will keep coming back again and again. And I don’t think that is ever going to change.”
Transatlantic Food Love
It’s no secret that Europe and the U.S. have very different attitudes when it comes to food. Despite recent surges in culinary innovation here in the states, we Americans tend to stick to our personal standbys, whether it’s burgers, beer, or wine.
“I have, indeed, noticed many differences, mainly in terms of how wine is consumed. In the United States, drinking wine is not necessarily part of people’s habits when eating. People taste wine according to the grape variety. For instance, they want to taste a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Pinot Noir.”
And while those broad categories are also important in Europe, Cuvillier has noticed that his fellow countrymen have a love of wine rooted not only in taste but also tradition.
“In France, drinking wine while eating is part of a real tradition. In the U.S., attraction to specific wines is still relatively recent, due in part to the Prohibition era of the early 20th century.”
Even after popular movies like ‘Sideways’ have made an attempt to showcase the intricacies of wine and the stories behind the people who make it, there is a cultural reluctance to jump into the deep end.
For any burgeoning wine-lovers out there, Cuvillier recommends paying close attention to your own personal wine preferences, as well as taking note of how certain varieties interact with the meals you usually cook.
These are the very steps on the journey to better understand your own culinary horizons. Once you’ve found a few wines that really speak to you, the impulse quickly becomes to find even more to add to your list of favorites.
On Staying Hungry
Despite Cuvillier and Barrovecchio’s years of experience and mastery of their respective crafts, both made a point of stressing the absolute importance of maintaining a sense of exploration and a constant striving for personal improvement.
It’s a different kind of hunger, one that can never really be sated. On the contrary, progress motivates artists like Barrovecchio and Cuvillier to re-dedicate ourselves to looking for something more, the next big thing that will remind them of why they dedicated their lives to these pursuits in the first place.
Cuvillier detailed for us the core concept that he keeps in mind at all times, the everlasting belief that there will always be room for improvement.
“I think my greatest strength is my curiosity. I am always eager to learn new things, to discover new wine-growers, to talk with clients, and to share my passion. The whole world is like a playground for sommeliers. Let us be curious and humble as we are nothing in front of exceptional wines.”
Resources for Starting Your Own Culinary Journey
It might all seem a little intimidating at first, this wealth of culinary knowledge. And it is, to an extent. It does indeed take years and years to truly master a craft as detailed and artful as cooking, baking, or wine tasting and pairing.
It’s rare for a chef to earn a Michelin Star before the age of 50, or even 40. And that’s largely because it’s not enough just to be highly skilled. You also have to be dynamic, inventive, capable of serving guests something they never even would have thought of.
But that barrier of entry is no reason to stay cowed by the prospect of boning up on your culinary chops. Sure, if you have plans to become a professional, at the helm of your own restaurant in a major city, then yes, you’ll probably need some formal training.
On the other hand, for those of us who want to deepen our relationship with food on a highly personal basis, to help ourselves and those around us eat better each and every day, then there are plenty of little ways to get started.
Because the Internet
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the internet as a whole represents one of the best and biggest resources for getting a feel of what it really takes to make good food and to discern good wine.
Sites like Wine Folly and Jancis Robinson can help break down the basic wine growing regions, categories, and simplified flavor profiles. But of course, to really get in the weeds here, it would be well advised to head out to a winery.
Even if you don’t happen to live near a major city or the major wine-growing regions here in the U.S. (which basically translates to Northern California), you may be surprised that the winemaking scene is alive and well in many smaller cities and towns as well.
On the cooking and baking side of the equation, we highly recommend looking into some helpful sites and especially YouTube channels whose sole purpose is to welcome normal folks like you and me into the fold of the culinary arts.
Some of our favorite YouTube cooking channels include Binging with Babish, You Suck at Cooking, and My Drunk Kitchen. In fact, we published a whole article about why these channels and more are both accessible and extremely useful.
And all of them put a big emphasis on not needing any prerequisites to join in on the fun. Just come into the game with an open mind and a willingness to buy some ingredients you may have never heard of before.
Don’t Be Afraid of Recipes
I remember being impressed with a college friend who showed up to a class potluck with a beautiful lasagna. I couldn’t imagine making one myself, certainly not one that tasted this good, and I told her as much.
Her response was wonderfully simple. “People think I’m a good cook, but all I do is follow recipes.”
Recipes are one of those tools that are so obvious we tend to forget about them entirely. And once again, the wealth of information offered on the internet is just absolutely staggering. Online recipes also have the advantage of the community element.
In other words, recipes get reviewed and tweaked by users, hopefully collectively working toward the best version of any given recipe.
Heed These Words
Lastly, we’d like to summarize the lessons shared with us by our guest experts, Alexandre Cuvillier and Claudia Barrovecchio.
Good food and drink come from good ingredients. You can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear, mostly in a metaphorical sense.
Don’t be hesitant to make big, expensive mistakes. Not only are they unavoidable on the path to artistic mastery, but they also represent some of the biggest opportunities for learning about both your craft and yourself.
Above all, follow your passion. Over the course of our lives, it’s our passions for the work, the places, and the people we love that give us purpose and meaning.
It’s hard to undersell the importance of that truth, so we won’t even try.