Guest Post: Adventures of a Ninja Chef

First, who’s Ezra?

A friend and new Portland transplant who writes things like:

“Cooking
Like jazz
(Like all art, really)
Is an expression of love, joy, pain and sorrow.
The delicious sustenance that results is almost an afterthought.”

He’s also an Excel whiz. And he doesn’t like to be bound by the constraints of pre-figured directions or maps (which, considering that quote, shouldn’t come as a surprise), as I found on a recent field trip to Uwajimaya. The next time I get turned around in the US-26 / downtown spaghetti tangle I’ll try to remember I’m not lost at all, merely “riffing”.

What else to know? My dog loves him. She has no use for Google maps either.

I don’t know if Ezra would have needed extra inducement to Koko-sit during our Seattle trip, but I figured that opening the pantry and pointing out all the weird foodstuffs he could play with wouldn’t hurt. And indeed, that clinched the deal.

Now let’s be clear: Ezra has a large, gorgeous kitchen at his disposal, filled with healthful, vegetarian products, while mine is tiny, battered (mmmm…batter) and sullied by all manner of questionable ingredients. But he kept his eye on the adventures that he could concoct within this small, tiled space, transcending physical limitations, ethnic boundaries and, once or twice I’m sure, common sense.

In this guest post, Ezra describes his time. “A lot of ideas really crystallized for me during that week.” says he, and for that I’m so glad!


The Space
I pause for a moment at the entrance to the kitchen. It’s the same whenever I enter an unfamiliar house. I’m thinking about how this room reveals the soul of the house and of the people who have made it their home. I cross the threshold and suddenly I’m an anthropologist. What do I know about the inhabitants? What is their relationship to food? What traces of life do I sense in this place?

A quick tour of the garden, pantry and cellar reveals that these folks have a healthy and positive relationship with their food. I’ve cooked in many kitchens, but this one is set up perfectly for an improvisational cook. The utensils are in their proper place. Spices and herbs wait patiently in their containers and packets. This is a kitchen where good food is honored.

The Preparation
Before cooking I envision the food to be created. I breathe in the smells of the kitchen, orienting myself among the shelves, racks and cupboards. I feel the temperature and humidity in the air.

For me cooking is about creating and maintaining optimal conditions for food. I enjoy the prospect of creating food out of whatever’s available. This kitchen is bursting with possibility. Wherever I turn there is culinary inspiration.

Eating
Eating is one of my favorite aspects of food. It’s easy to take this step for granted. But it is just as important as all the other parts. And it is equally rewarding.

Cleanup
There’s an old saying, “when you are finished eating, clean your bowl.” This is most true when practicing food preparation. A fundamental aspect of cooking is care for utensils. They are for the cook what brushes are for the painter.

When I’m finished eating I lovingly clean every knife, bowl, spoon and pan. Ingredients are replaced in their original location. A ninja chef, I leave the kitchen with barely a trace behind me. Perhaps the space has been altered subtly by this process. But everything is just as I found it, ready for another food adventure.

P.S. Two other things came to mind as I was writing this. Big surprise, they are both about food and are both Japanese. Hmmm… I definitely see a pattern emerging here.

Kitchen (Banana Yoshimoto) is one of my favorite books. A major theme throughout is food in general, but especially the energy created by the kitchen space and different types of people and kitchens.

Tampopo (Juzo Itami) is one of my favorite movies. It’s all about food, cooking, eating, food culture, the art of food, etc. Basically it’s two straight hours of Ramen. Every time I watch it I want to make miso soup with noodles.

Editor’s Note:
“But what did you MAKE, Ezra?” I wail.

“The trouble is I don’t know what I made. I know what I used, what I did, and it was all really good. But I was aiming for *formless* food (ed: and by this he means without boundaries or limitations, not literally formless), going by what I know about the way the food works, and whatever inspired me. So I could list the ingredients, the specific processes. But in a sense these are accidental and it’s the finished product which matters. These are meals which will never, can never, be made again.

Perhaps this is an unsatisfactory answer. Or maybe I’m just trying to maintain an air of mystery. But I really am trying to develop an approach to cooking which is scientific, creative and focused on the larger issues of what food is all about.”

img_1288(What I do know is this: our aged, DOC balsamic hand-carried back from Italy in 2002 had been shifted. My, what good taste he has! And the jar of South African salted, green papaya was open in the fridge. As long as he didn’t use them together, I’m pleased.)

“Not unsatisfactory at all, Ez. Just hard for a process-oriented, don’t-like-to-get-lost person such as myself to accept. But okay. There. I’ve just accepted it.”

To read more of Ezra’s posts, check out his eclectic thoughts on cooking, movies and inspiration here.

01
July 29th, 2009 3:38 pm

I have this sinking feeling if Ezra came to my kitchen, he’d enter, take in his surroundings, notice the puffs of dog hair skittering across the floor and conclude we either had very strange eating habits or were incredibly lazy housekeepers (the latter, I promise!).

But how fun to have someone take the measure, literally and figuratively, of your kitchen. Loved the post!

02
July 29th, 2009 7:12 pm

Sounds like intuitive fusion cooking to me… but definitely a ninja performance to do that in someone else’s kitchen with someone else’s equipment and ingredients. What fun!

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