food / travel

Time To Stick A Fork In The Cult Worship Of Chefs

Restaurants are places for eating, not genuflection.

Chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park
Chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park

-OpEd-

What's the best restaurant in the world? According to the World's 50 Best Restaurants, the award goes to the Eleven Madison Park in New York. My sincere congratulations. But I hope to never visit you.

Don't get me wrong: It's nothing personal. I do believe in your excellency. I believe, as critics say, that your "modern French cuisine with a New York twist" is perfectly comparable to the 72 virgins of the koranic heaven. But I'm tired of the religion of chefs. You know the one: It consists of raising cooking to a metaphysical, transcendental, celestial level. Every week witnesses the appearance of yet another chef, with his own church, presenting you the menu as if it was the holy scripture.

The ingredients aren't ingredients. They're "elements." A meal isn't a meal. It's an "experience." And the food, obviously, isn't food. It's a "composition."

I've already found myself in several of those sanctuaries. Whenever the food arrived, I never knew whether I was supposed to try it or pray. My sacrilegious worries were made worse by the waiters who, as they placed the plate on the table, revealed in a low voice the miracle resting in front of me. "Smoked duck with tomato petals and jasmine essence."

I would listen with reverence, say a "thank you" that sounded like an "amen" and approach with a trembling fork, afraid to disturb the delicate balance between the "petals' and the "essence."

In rare cases, his holiness the chef would appear at the end. To bless the commensals. I understood one day, after I'd kissed the hand of one of them, that I'd have to apostatize.

And when they're not saints, they're artists. A piece of meat isn't a piece of meat, it's a "challenge." It's the Sistine Chapel ceiling waiting for Michelangelo.

The religion of chefs, with its evil charm, devastated the restaurants of my city.

I checked Eleven Madison Park's website. Since April 11, they've been doing a "retrospective" (I swear it's true) with the best 11 dishes of the past 11 years. A "retrospective." There you have the evolution of the history of Western art: the cave paintings of Lascaux, the statues of the Greek sculptor Phidias, the stained-glass windows of the Gothic cathedral in Chartres, Caravaggio's baroque paintings, chef Daniel Humm's egg quiche tartlet.

I like to eat. I like food. These two sentences are ridiculous because, hey, I'm Portuguese. And it's precisely because I'm Portuguese that I'm an atheist when it comes to "elements," "compositions' and "essences." The religion of chefs, with its evil charm, devastated the restaurants of my city.

One of them, just around the corner from where I live, used to make "octopus filets with rice" that was so good it had become the barometer of my love life. Whenever I was going out with a girlfriend, if I would start to think about the octopus filets, I knew it meant our romance had come to an end.

Eleven Madison Park's dish tete de cochon with pickled vegetables — photo: Krista/Flickr

A few weeks ago, I returned to the place after it had closed for renovations. Something was odd: There's was ambient music and dim lighting similar to the one in Thai massage salons (note: Honey, if you're reading this, I swear I've never been to Thailand). I sat at a table. When the octopus came, I looked at the plate and asked the restaurant's owner whether he hadn't forgotten something. "What's that?" the insolent man asked. "The microscope," I replied. He laughed out loud and explained. "It's the chef, sir." "What chef?" I insisted. He shrugged and answered, visibly ashamed. "Agostinho." The old cook had turned into a chef and my octopus into squid.

Unfortunately, this cancer has spread all over my beloved homeland. I've already written about it in the Portuguese press, but nobody joined my weeping. It's the ambient music that replaces the natural murmur of conversations. It's the brothel-like lighting prevents you from distinguishing between an olive and a cockroach. It's the chic habit of never leaving the bottles on the table, meaning that the waiter only notices our thirst in extremis, when shaking and other signs of alcohol withdrawal start to show. My God, where will this end?

I don't know. But I know I've already taken some precautions. I'm going to learn how to hunt. Anything goes: partridge, jackrabbit, wild boar. And after that, with a fire and a skewer, I'll cook my meat like a caveman. The pinnacle of civilization is now Daniel Humm's egg quiche tartlet? Then the time has come to go back to the Lascaux cave.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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