I like to watch Top Chef.

Not for the brilliantly embedded advertisements for Whole Paycheck, nor the towering asymmetrical bowls, nor the ever popular Pollock-inspired platings.

But because I like to cook. And I like to train dogs. And the two activities seem to me to have a great deal in common.

Professional chefs remind me of professional dog trainers. Like dog trainers, chefs come to their field from every walk of life. They knowingly follow in the footsteps of masters, tend to respect the need for knowledge of basic principles and a familiarity with a wide range of techniques, develop their skill primarily through years of practice, and finally bring their own individual styles to the table.

You also won’t find too many good examples of either that didn’t do their fair share of grunt work early on in their careers.

Cooking is in fact an interesting metaphor for dog training. It has a long history, is commonly practiced by those with no formal training, and has a collection of perfectly sound rules, theories, and traditions (as well as a handful of ridiculous myths), that were derived empirically by those at work out in the field. Tastes and techniques may differ, new schools of thought may evolve, but in the end, the strength of any given method may generally be appraised by the quality of the results.

Over the past decade or so, a style of cooking called “molecular gastronomy” has developed, begging the question of whether the many styles of cooking that came before were somehow unmolecular. The Wikipedia entry for molecular gastronomy begins,

Molecular gastronomy is a scientific discipline that studies the physical and chemical processes that occur while cooking. Molecular gastronomy seeks to investigate and explain the chemical reasons behind the transformation of ingredients

Practitioners of molecular gastronomy are dedicated to taking a more scientific approach to their craft. They have introduced a number of interesting new methods and tools to the kitchen (like liquid nitrogen, yum). They have also debunked a few myths.

Here’s the thing. The food turned out by this new breed of chef is not obviously or unilaterally superior to what your mom made for dinner, not to mention the dishes turned out by, say, Julia Child.

And while no one has so far suggested, at least to my knowledge, that the art of cooking generally would benefit from banning traditional tools and methods in favor of an all-molecular approach, God knows what the future has in store.

Perhaps one day soon, it will be widely believed that molecular scientists are the natural authorities on what tastes best. Perhaps one day a PhD in chemistry will be considered de rigueur before breaking an egg. Perhaps future seasons of Top Chef will involve judging cheftestants on method alone, while host Padma Lakshmi politely demurs from taking even a bare amuse-bouche between her lips. Perhaps not.

In the meantime, I keep my mind open to both received wisdom and modern science.

Food for thought.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.

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