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Eating, as many of us learn too late, is a struggle between the pleasure of the senses and self-preservation. Plenty of us would love to eat three fried eggs, four strips of crispy bacon, and two slices of toast slathered with butter every morning. But sooner or later, the doctor’s going to wave some charts in your face and suggest a nice bowl of fruit.
Science, alas, wants to step in and give us our daily bacon along with a healthy cholesterol reading. Last week, media outlets reported that scientists, those pimps for the palate, had genetically engineered and cloned five piglets to produce pork muscle rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, the same acids that have been linked to a number of human health benefits, including a lower incidence of heart disease. The revelation piqued my curiosity. If pork could share the same potentially heart-healthy benefits as tuna, without the toxic mercury levels, then what else could science do to brighten the gastronomic world? Young & Hungry put the question to local chefs: What manipulations of nature would make their lives better, their meals tastier, and their customers happier?
Those Who Would Alter Nothing
The question, to be sure, makes some awful assumptions. It assumes, for instance, that in the process of altering things, we won’t cause greater harm to human health or the environment, such as widespread antibacterial resistance that might wipe us all out when the next pandemic hits.
Such concerns forced two chefs to dismiss the question out of hand. Carole Greenwood, chef and co-owner of Buck’s Fishing and Camping, has “absolutely no hope that anything positive will come from genetic modification” of foods, and she avoids all such products. She does it for her customers—and for the children. Gillian Clark, owner/chef at the Colorado Kitchen, also can’t imagine messing with nature, mostly because doing so would contradict her rugged image of a chef fighting unruly ingredients to rustle up a flavorful dish. “The machoness of being a chef is that it’s difficult to work with some ingredients,” she says. “A chef’s life would be dull if everything were easier.”
Those Who Would Alter Flora
Topping the gene-splicing wish list are square vegetables. The idea was first proposed to me by Jonathan Krinn, owner and executive chef of 2941 Restaurant, who says, “Make any round vegetable square, and you’d make chefs a lot happier.” Anyone who’s had to brunoise a sack of carrots knows the finger-cutting danger involved in squaring off the vegetable in preparation for chopping.
Ease of preparation, in fact, is a central theme of chefs’ nature-re-engineering fantasies. Grapeseed’s chef, Jeff Heineman, wants “big-leaf thyme” to avoid the tedium of plucking those tiny herbs, Galileo’s Roberto Donna wishes for olives and cherries without pits, and L’Academie de Cuisine instructor and chef Susan Watterson asks, “How about zip-off citrus zest? That’d be convenient.”
Ann Cashion, owner and chef of Cashion’s Eat Place, would like to reverse-engineer the grapefruit and tomato to give these fruits back their natural acidity. They’re too sweet today, she says. “I’d be a preservationist for acids.” Watterson suggests tampering with fermenting grapes. “Diet wine wouldn’t be a bad idea either,” she writes in an e-mail. “All the taste, half the calories!”
Those Who Would Alter Fauna
Altering the anatomy of animals is fraught with ethical issues, but I asked chefs to try to put those concerns aside when pondering my question. Michel Richard of Citronelle had no problem with that. The celebrity chef wants a chicken genetically engineered with four breasts and encased in duck skin. “He just likes chicken,” says Mel Davis, PR coordinator for Citronelle. Richard also likes the taste of duck skin and “the way it crisps,” Davis adds.
Equinox’s Todd Gray wishes fattened duck livers came in a rectangular shape so that a foie gras terrine would be easier to make, the Black Restaurant Group’s Jeff Black desires oysters that arrive “perfectly cleaned” and “perfectly shucked” at his BlackSalt Fish Market, and Donna would love to see medium and large fish without all those teensy bones that you have to take the tweezers to.
Those Who Would Alter Their Staff
The award for shameless self-interest in the area of cloning goes to 2941’s Krinn. As the man responsible for overseeing the fine-dining operation in Falls Church, Krinn finds himself competing with the deep-pocketed chains for quality line cooks, who tend to flee for higher-paying gigs at the corporate restaurants. When asked what he’d like to genetically alter, he doesn’t skip a beat. “My cooks,” Krinn says. “I would clone the cooks into efficient cooks.”
Those Who Would Alter Time
Cashion understands the dangers of manipulating nature—even a merely tongue-in-cheek suggestion of manipulating nature. Around 1979, while working the pastry station at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., she grew tired of slicing away the skins on pistachios and suggested to Alice Waters, the godmother of organic cooking, that someone should create a nut without thick coverings. Within a week, Cashion was shown the door. Does she still wish for pistachios without skins? “I’ll say it this way,” Cashion says. “I wished they would have been skinless so I wouldn’t have said that.”—Tim Carman
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