What’s taken cooks so long to “go modern”?

Reader Tina writes:

You say that it’s taken cooks decades to ‘go modern’ and start using gadgetry and techniques that pastry chefs have been using for years. Do you have a theory as to why that might be?

Tina, I have a cockamamie theory about pretty much everything. However I think it’s possible to make an argument that cooking is going modern because it has no other choice. Consider the basic business model of a restaurant: it takes food in the back door, dresses it up, and moves it out the front door at a profit.

A large part of a restaurant’s value is bound up in its ability to deliver foods that home cooks can’t replicate: either by using ingredients of a type or quality they can’t get, or by employing techniques that are beyond them.

For decades restaurants have had an edge in both arenas. However with the rise of the foodie/local foods movement the balance of power has started to shift. Nowadays you don’t have to be a top chef to acquire unique and/or ultra-fresh produce, you can just go to your local farmers’ market. As for the classic techniques that once separated a typical line cook from a home cook, today for a few bucks anyone can take a class in pretty much anything from grilling to risotto making at their local specialty kitchenware shop or Whole Foods market.

So what’s a restauranteur to do when people get too good at preparing their own food? Push the envelope further: either by amping up the entertainment value of the establishment, or by taking the food into technical realms where home cooks have yet to tread…sous vide machines, liquid nitrogen, peristaltic pumps — though even here some home cooks are starting to make inroads.

But suffice to say this is why we’re seeing more high-end eating establishments going high tech. It’s a trend that will certainly continue as restauranteurs increasingly find themselves enmeshed in an arms race with their own customers — pushed into it, to no small extent, by a movement that is hostile to both industry and technology. Zee irony, she iz as thick as a cheesy béchamel.

2 thoughts on “What’s taken cooks so long to “go modern”?”

  1. I think things have really changed a lot for the home cook since food processors and higher quality stand mixers became ubiquitous. Cookbooks that were created before the mid-eighties really seem dated, and IMO, it’s because the older instructions don’t reflect the shift in the basically standard equipment we have available now.

    Making sauces and soups with stick blenders, also a snap nowadays, but thirty years ago, they were one of those infomercial gadgets that hadn’t quite caught on yet. (Remember the one that tried to convince you that using a stick blender on freezing cold skim milk would do something magical? I don’t remember what it was, but boy, did they think you ought to be impressed.)

    All those used-to-be intimidating techniques are simpler now, with the right equipment.

  2. My theory on the latest “foodie” trend of modernizing how we cook at home is that so many of us want to know exactly what we’re eating… we’re learning to replicate gourmet, professional-style flavors at home so we have more control over where our food comes from, what ingredients are being used, and how those foods are prepared.
    Also, speaking for my family, there is a level of “togetherness” that happens around the home table but cannot really be achieved in a restaurant setting.

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