Reductiveness (reducing things to their elements) is a fundamental concept in good design and it’s also something understood by artists and writers. Coco Chanel remains one of fashion’s most iconic figures because she knew simple and timeless elegance could be achieved only through reductive thinking. “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one piece ….” she famously said.
That is good advice, not just for fashion but also for life in general and it is especially true for the cook. Réduire! Réduire! Réduire! was the constant mantra of the Lenôtre chef in Paris I studied with as he made his stock early every morning. From those bubbling pots of bones he would create a myriad of complex sauces. He reduced gallons of stock to make a tiny saucepan of glace. He used it to make jus, gelees, estouffade, coulis, sauce espangnole, veloute, fumet, sauce bordelaise, sauce americaine, bonne femme, matelote blanche, fond brun, fond de veau clair, fumet de gibier, marmite and on and on…REDUCE! REDUCE! REDUCE! his words still ring in my ears today when I work in my own kitchen.
From him I learned how to extract deep and complex flavor from a veal bone, an onion and a carrot and discovered I could cook almost anything well with a few simple staples. I learned each ingredient had to be excellent and to fiercely interrogate each one before adding it to the pot. Most importantly I learned to achieve complexity and depth of flavor I had to focus not on how many things I could mix up together but how few. This concept forms the basis of what we teach in our cooking classes at Petraia. I ask our students first and foremost not to think about what they put in the pot, but what they might remove.
I think my responsibility as a cook is not to create new flavors but to distill and transmit the ones Petraia already provides. To do that, each ingredient must be respected and allowed to speak for itself. This process begins in our vegetable garden where we understand our plants, like us are living things. When we harvest them we are taking a life in order to sustain our own. We have a vested interest in making sure they get everything they need not just to survive but to thrive. So we will too. Our menus often feature singular ingredients like a Petraia carrot, a Petraia pear or a Petraia leek and when we cook these things we hope to extract something of their essence. I want our guests to taste their deliciousness but I also hope they will feel something too. Something of the exhilaration I so frequently experience after eating something fresh from the harvest, as if blood of the plant was running through my veins.
Our sense of taste is also affected by a lot of other things of course. Smell is important and so is mouth feel, color and form. Our natural world is never brown or monochromatic. There are millions of colors visible to the human eye and who knows how many different textures we detect in our mouths. We experience brilliance and nuance, chaos and order, synchronicity and discord, violence and passion, peace and quiet. Heat and cold. Winter, summer, spring and fall. Light and darkness; life and death. All of these things are important considerations for the cook. But they all fall effortlessly into place when we focus on the concept of simplicity and reduction.
So try this the next time you find yourself staring at a challenging recipe with a long list of ingredients. What can you leave out? Think about letting one ingredient tell the story. Then start subtracting anything that will confuse or distract from that narrative. You might be surprised at the result. And if you succeed making one basic dish this way you may find yourself inclined to try another. And one day you may also realize you’ve taught yourself to cook almost anything well with just a few ingredients. And that’s where everything begins to get really interesting in the kitchen…….