Shokugeki no Soma S2 Ep. 1: The beautiful ideas of cooking

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I didn’t finish the first season of Shokugeki no Soma, and that’s okay. I’ll somehow write over 2,000 words about this episode anyway.Due to the story’s simplistic nature, we can completely avoid the whole unsavory burden of knowledge that often encumbers sequels. Right off the bat, we see that Soma is competing in a tournament, and that’s all the information that I really need to know. So for better or worse, Shokugeki no Soma has that unique distinction where its plot is, well, klnda irrelevant. I just watched the first episode of the second season, and I feel as though I haven’t missed a single beat. It’s like I never even left in the first place, and that’s due to a couple reasons. First, the show’s characters never really undergo all that much development. I’m sure Megumi is not as shy as she was at the start of the series, but that’s not much to hang your hat on. Second, the plot mostly consists of cookoffs and tournament style competitions anyways. There isn’t exactly much in the way of intrigue or suspense. Soma himself isn’t even fun to root for like most shounen heroes. He’s a rather flat and generic shounen hero, a safe vehicle for the show’s cooking hijinks.  So if you’re not into food and the subsequent silly food reactions, then the show has little to offer. In fact, why am I even writing this post?

Well, I do like cooking, and I do like the culinary arts, so here we are. In fact, I just want to talk about the food. In this week’s episode, Soma faces off against Alice, a girl who specializes in molecular gastronomy. She’s also Erina’s cousin, but again, the plot is mostly irrelevant. It’s always difficult to talk about the specific dishes in the show, because you can’t taste any of it. You can’t even smell any of it. We can only look at the pretty pictures, and even then, it’s an anime depiction of food. Yeah, I do go hungry when I look at the photos from A Life Worth Eating, Luxeat or the ulterior epicure. But in anime form, these fancy dishes don’t look quite as appetizing as their real life counterparts. This is probably why the story relies so heavily on its silly food reactions. First, it’s often an excuse to get these girls naked, and hey, we anime fans do love our fanservice, don’t we? But more importantly, Shokugeki no Soma needs to exaggerate just to get our attention. What else can it do when two of the most important senses when it comes to eating — taste and smell — are completely denied? So yeah, this is my roundabout way of excusing myself from talking about the characters’ bento boxes.

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In the end, Soma wins and I don’t think any of us should be surprised by that result. The justification is hardly surprising either. Oftentimes, Soma wins because he understands the food, the challenge, or what-have-you. This week, he understands the idea behind the bento box better than his opponent. Alice’s offering is certainly creative, certainly skillful, and certainly delicious, but as her grandfather pointed out, her bento box didn’t actually need the bento box itself. She could’ve served her sushi tasting progression in any format. On the other hand, Soma’s bento box truly required the container that it came in, so I guess it’s only fair that he won. Even I can’t begrudge him of that. I will say, however, that both of them kinda annoyed me with their need to feed the judges with instructions. Alice felt the judges should eat her sushi in a certain order, because, again, it’s a progression. I have nothing against progressions, but if it’s going to be a progression, then it should be served as one, i.e. one dish after another. Of course, this is a bento box challenge, so everything has to come in one container, and in that case, don’t tell me what to eat first and what to eat last. Soma doesn’t commit as much of a culinary sin, but even he had to remind the judges that they need to pour his soup over the rice to truly make the meal special. But whatever, it’s a minor point.

I guess I’ll end this post by talking a bit about molecular gastronomy, or rather, culinary movements in general. Well, mostly western culinary movements. I’m afraid I’m not very familiar with the history of Japanese cooking, and how it has evolved over time, but perhaps we can draw comparisons at the end. Think back to the medieval age. Think back to the time of kings and members of royalty, and imagine how they must have eaten. Are you picturing grand feasts? Are you picturing a table full of expensive and delicious dishes? It’s hard to be pick an arbitrary starting point, but let’s begin there. As you can imagine, there are drawbacks to feasts. You can’t exactly enjoy every single dish at the same time, can you? Even if you try to sample as many dishes as possible, something’s bound to go cold. And even the portions on your plate will bump up against each other, so you can’t enjoy each dish on its own. So along came cuisine classique, which pretty much popularized the idea of serving meals in courses. This eventually became the epitome of fine dining, and you can see why. Chefs don’t have to prepare 20 different dishes at once. With the dishes being served one by one, you can also pay closer attention to the details. Make better sauces, keep the food hot (or cold if need be), so on and so forth.

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You’ll notice, of course, that we still use the same ideas today. The most expensive restaurants out there still feature grand tasting menus with over 20 courses in one sitting. But the important takeaway is that art always filter down. Most of us are familiar with the three course menu, i.e. appetizer, dinner, and dessert. It’s nothing fancy. Hell, you can go down to the local TGIF right now and enjoy your microwaved 3-course menu, and this is very important. People often look at the cutting edge of any field, and wonder, “Why?” Why would you paint that? Why would you wear that? Why would you ever eat 20 different courses? Well, most of us don’t, but again, we can at least eat three. And when it comes to fashion, I’ll let Meryl Streep make the argument for me. You’ll watch that clip, and you might think, “Who cares where my ‘cerulean’ sweater comes from?” And in some sense, you’d be right. You don’t have to care where these things come from, but that’s not really the point I’m trying to make either. In some sense, the arts are always about indulgence. When the life expectancy was only about 40 in the medieval ages, did anybody really need yet another depiction of Jesus Christ in a fresco or triptych. But at the same time, art doesn’t exist in some vacuum completely separate from the rest of the bourgeoisie. If you’re willing to look, you’ll be amazed at the many ways art can touch our lives.

But back to the primary topic at hand. Cuisine classique eventually “gave way” to nouvelle cuisine, which emphasized a lighter touch, more inventiveness, and more attention to the diner. Should we really marinate and braise a roast for hours? Should we really drown everything in heavy French sauces? Or should we let the ingredients speak for themselves? Nouvelle cuisine lent itself to quicker, “simpler” cooking methods not just for expediency, but to also celebrate the ingredients. Should I stick to the old French classics, or should I combine new ingredients to create daring, new pairings? Most of all, should I just cook what I think the diner should eat, or should I ask them what they want to eat? Like cuisine classique, the ideas here have filtered down to our own personal cooking. Nowadays, we’re bombarded with dietary restrictions often to the point that it’s become a joke. A lot of people are not actually gluten intolerant even if they claim otherwise. But still, it’s great that I can bring my girlfriend to an Italian restaurant, tell them that she can’t eat shellfish, and they’ll gladly offer alternatives rather than telling her to suck it up. You can call these dietary restrictions a fad all you want, but people who are actually gluten intolerant must be thrilled to see so many alternatives being offered at their local supermarket.

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Eventually, movements become murky, because as our cultural boundaries expand, ideas don’t always travel in one straight line. I can’t really say that the local movement happened next, but to simplify this post greatly, I’ll just assume that it did. Basically, we have to start thinking about the environment. We have to think about sustainability. We have to eat not just with our stomachs, but also with our minds. And that might sound silly, but it really isn’t as climate change continues to loom over us as a serious threat. So there has been a push towards eating locally. You might have heard that we’re slowly eating the bluefin tuna to extinction. Rather than paying hundreds of thousands of dollar for bluefin tuna, why not enjoy something local? In fact, it would be far more advantageous for the environment if I ate only local ingredients. After all, it takes vast amounts of energy to ship things across the world, and while it is a modern marvel that I can enjoy goods from across the world, I probably shouldn’t. Ironically, we mock foodies for this. And hey, it’s all in good fun. I’m not bitter about it. What’s important is when I go to my grocery store down the street, and I see all these signs claiming that the food I’m about to buy are from local farmers.

Is my Safeway telling the truth when they have “local” or “organic” signs plastered everywhere? Are farm-to-table restaurants being honest when they say that their ingredients are locally sourced? Probably not all the time. There’s certainly a huge financial incentive in putting up appearances. Are companies and restaurants merely taking advantage of naive consumers who want to eat ethically? Probably.  Do consumers even care where their food comes from? A good percentage of us likely don’t. But a small percentage is better than zero percent, and again, this is yet another example of what was once the “cutting edge” of the culinary arts filtering down to us commoners. And that finally takes us to molecular gastronomy. There’s a perception that molecular gastronomy is weird, exotic, fancy, or complicated. In this week’s episode, members of the audience are astonished to learn that Soma was inspired by a “cheap candy product.” But this is precisely why molecular gastronomy is so unique, because this movement didn’t start in a fancy restaurant kitchen. This time, the direction has been reversed; this is the case of art being inspired by the masses. For foodies, you might think of Ferran Adria when you think of molecular gastronomy. But truly, molecular gastronomy has been around since the mass production of food goods.

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Using science to enhance food is nothing new. We’ve been pickling for thousands of years, and even though it may not seem “sciencey,” all sorts of fancy scientific concepts go into preserving those foods for safe consumption. But of course, in recent modern history, food science has exploded. Companies pour millions and millions into research and development just because they want their products to taste a certain way to consumers. Anthony Bourdain once visited el bulli, and he marveled at how Ferran Adria was able to toy with his diners’ perceptions. My god, a carrot foam that is as light as air, but nevertheless retains the true essence of carrot! Amazing! I don’t want to take anything away from Adria, of course. The man is a culinary genius, and it sucks that I’ll never be able to experience el bulli. Nevertheless, I think it’s equally amazing that I can buy “orange juice” for a dollar (not really a dollar, but it’s cheap enough). And I know it’s en vogue nowadays to whine and complain about how juice nowadays is loaded with chemicals, but c’mon, you only have yourself to blame if you think consuming vast amounts of sugar is healthy for you. On the flip side of the coin, just look at this product. I’m dirt poor, and I certainly don’t live near any goddamn orange grove. And yet, through science, I get to enjoy the experience of tasting orange juice for just a few bucks. We take it for granted, but it’s really amazing if you think about it. It’s a modern feat.

So what I enjoyed about this week’s episode was when Soma revealed his inspiration. Yes, it’s a cheap candy product, but that’s the beauty of it. Modern science has revolutionized the food industry for over a century, but it is only in relatively recent history that high end chefs are finally taking notice: “Hey look, we can use these same scientific concepts to delight our diners.” In that sense, the episode really captures what chefs like Ferran Adria or Grant Achatz is trying to accomplish. Thanks to Adria, we no longer grimace when we see molecular gastronomy on the menu. In fact, it has been merged with local cooking to perhaps spawn a new culinary movement (maybe that’s the New Nordic cuisine that’s all the rage nowadays). But this wasn’t always the case. People used to look at molecular gastronomy with some disdain, because they think it’s treating food like a weird lab experiment. But again, this overlooks the tremendous role that science has played in shaping our diets. And even though Japanese cuisine often emphasizes simplicity and the idea of letting the ingredients speak for themselves, at the same time, the Japanese people consider instant ramen to be their greatest modern invention. And if you look at the evolution of the instant noodle, from the polystyrene cup to the powdered soup base, these are just precursors to molecular gastronomy.

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I don’t really care about the bento theme all that much. I don’t really care about Soma’s victory either. Likewise, the show’s gimmicks have been employed to exhaustion. The crazy food reactions aren’t so crazy when you’ve seen them for the hundredth time. But despite everything, I appreciate the spirit of innovation. Who knows if Soma’s bento actually tasted any good. Nori balls with a layer of dried tuna flakes in my rice? Eh, I dunno if this would really play out so well in reality… but I like the idea of it. I like that he was inspired by a “cheap candy product.” At the end of the day, that is perhaps the most curious characteristic about the culinary arts. All we’ll really have are the ideas. Even the most perfect dish quickly dies if the plate is left alone for too long. Meanwhile, statues and paintings will continue to exist for hundreds and thousands of years. Music from ages long forgotten can be heard by simply queuing up a video on Youtube. But fifty years from now, when I think back to my experiences at the 3-Michelin-starred French Laundry, I’ll have nothing more than my memories. I can try to replicate a recipe from one of Keller’s books, but it’s an imitation that will fall woefully short of a true dining experience at the restaurant. And likewise, history won’t really remember Thomas Keller. Or Guy Savoy. Or even Joel Robuchon. Well, not in the same way that we celebrate Van Gogh or Beethoven. Nope, not at all. Even the richest chefs are merely doing a peasant’s job; you’re servant who cooks for others. So when food is your palette, the art must be enjoyed in the moment.

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Near the end of the episode, I was about to tweet, “Well, at least Alice didn’t lose her clothes after trying Soma’s cooking… PROGRESS!” But as you can see, I hastily deleted that never-to-be message shortly after finishing the episode.

2 Replies to “Shokugeki no Soma S2 Ep. 1: The beautiful ideas of cooking”

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