Form and Function

(I’ve never been able to listen to music and write at the same time before, but Wes Montgomery … if you think Mark Knopfler is a lyrical guitarist, give old Wes a go.  Absolutely unbelievable.  I used to listen to a lot more jazz than I do now, but Wes has been with me, off and on, since college.  That’s only true of Miles Davis and … well, Professor Longhair isn’t exactly jazz.  Wes plays guitar: that’s rare for a jazz frontman.  But to my ears, he plays it with restraint, verve, and generosity, almost like a piano.  Anyway, he should be much better known.)

“Less is more”–one of my most influential mentors, Chef Terrell Brunet, is from Mandeville, LA, a town on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.  From Mandeville, the causeway that spans the lake leads south in two low, arrow-straight concrete ribbons towards New Orleans.  Terrell taught at The Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park when I attended, and he was my Skills instructor.  We all waited outside the classroom for him on day one in our polyester checked pants and shined shoes and monogrammed jackets and knotted neckerchiefs.  He strode up and stopped, ramrod straight, grinning like a devil.  “Y’all scared?”

We shook our heads.

“You should be.”

I don’t know how the curriculum has changed in the past seventeen years, but in my day, the Skills instructor was perhaps the biggest influence on the students (there were, I believe, four skills instructors at a time in two kitchens, two AM, two PM).  Most classes were five days, a few were ten days, but Skills was twenty days.  It was in those kitchens that we went from two months of classroom and butchery classes–two months and a whole lot of shit-talking about how well we could cook–to the stoves.

We practiced knife skills, made veal stock and all the mother sauces, worked through basic protein cooking techniques, and, after the first week, our first composed plates, all under Chef Brunet’s unsmiling glare.  I remember few specifics, but I recall the pressure we put on ourselves and the competition in which we engaged–almost every guy in there thought he was Iceman or Maverick, and so did most of the women.  That intensity came to be something I still crave in my workday.

The intent of explaining Chef Brunet’s influence on me is to explicate one short, perfect quotation from him.  In the years to come, from then till now, I would land an internship in New York City using his connections; skinny-dip in the pond behind his Poughkeepsie house; leave The French Laundry after two years to be his chef de cuisine at a restaurant sponsored by The Cajun Injector; make crab cakes for grandmother, who scolded me; rent a room from him in Mandeville; run into him, post-Katrina, at the corner of Filbert and Larkin in San Francisco, less than a block from my apartment; eat chicken and sausage gumbo in front of his cottage in West County (outside of Sonoma); and so on.

Here’s what he told me–one day in Skills class, when he was still a god, and not yet a friend–“It’s not about what you can add to a dish to make it great.  It’s about what you can take away, but keep it great.”  That’s how I remember it; he may have said a few words more or less.

I have told that to almost every cook and sous chef who mattered to me and whom I thought would comprehend it.  During my time at the Laundry, chef de cuisine Eric Ziebold would echo it even more concisely:  “less is more.”  For EZ, it wasn’t just about plate composition, it was a holistic work ethic that applied to miss en place, equipment (“Why do you have so many spoons on your station?  How many spoons can you use at one time?  I can only use one.  Maybe you’re far more advanced than me.  I don’t understand.”), and brain space.

But think about the best dishes, the classics, and I don’t mean only from haute cuisine.  Lookit–French fries.  If you add chili and cheese to them, are you making them better?  No.  Poutine?  No.  They lose the CRISPY that makes them so perfect to begin with.  Spaghetti agilo e olio–pasta with garlic and good olive oil, and a dusting of parmigiano.  Anything you can add to it detracts from it and muddles the subtle harmony of its four ingredients.  Perfect scrambled eggs.  Fried shrimp.  A good ribeye steak with beurre Colbert.

At the next level:  Thomas Keller’s oysters and pearls.  It’s a composition of warm tapioca, oysters, and caviar–but there’s nothing that could be added that would make it better.  Zuni’s roasted chicken panzanella is simple, perfect and complete.  Sashimi may in fact be the ur-example of the notion of “less is more”, and makes me wonder if William S. Burroughs ever tried it.  “The Egg” from Arpege would not be better with foie gras in it.  My grandmother’s country style steak would not benefit form blue cheese or black truffles.  These dishes are like your favorite Rolling Stones or Tribe Called Quest song, or like Tennyson’s “Ulysses”: brief, complete, fully realized, they do not include one ingredient or note or element too many, but the perfect amount, each in balance and in harmony, distinct and yet complementing the others.

And as is obvious from trying to describe them, their miniature perfection defies a succinct verbal summary.  They simply are what they are.  They define themselves.  They create an effect, or many of them, in a sliver of time and sensory perception, yet they stand alone.  Their form and function are one.

Look around and you will see many objects in which form and function are aligned.  Take a framing hammer, with its heavy head and long handle, perfect for sinking nails into wood.  Or a full-tang chef’s knife, the all-in-one tool for a cook: it can hack through pork bones, and also slice paper-thin chives.

Take the example of Bordeaux-style wine bottles vs those of Burgundy.  In Bordeaux, where the red varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Carignane dominate, we describe the wines as more muscular and masculine, and they are stored in bottles with pronounced “shoulders” and straight sides. These wines can often be aged for many years.  As they age, sediment fall out of the solution, and when the aged wine is poured, the shoulders are used in tandem with a light source under the bottle to keep the sediment in the bottle and out of the wineglasses.

Burgundy wines, traditionally made from Pinot Noir, are softer and more feminine.  The best are worthy of aging, but not normally for scores of years like those of Bordeaux.  The bottles have much less pronounced shoulders, and a long, gentle curve to their necks.

Is it an accident of history that the wine bottles both store and describe their contents?  Or a stroke of solitary genius?  Or a product’s natural selection by generations of winemakers, vintners, and wine-drinkers?

From rockets to musical instruments to post-it notes, it’s easy to identify items whose form and function are aligned; the best tech products prioritize this relationship.  My colleagues hear me use the word “ergonomic” all the time, probably too often, when I’m referring to our kitchen and the efficiency with which man, machine, and product interact.  I want our form and function to be congruent, with no excess of noise or force or effort, and no lack of heat or equipment or will.


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