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I’m sitting at a table in Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe when restaurateur and uberchef Mark Miller insists, out of the blue, that I take the Raisin Test. He hands me a single, ordinary raisin and asks me to put it in my mouth. “Don’t bite it yet,” he warns. “Just sit there, suck on it, and describe the flavors you sense.” I do taste a couple of flavors I’d never thought about while downing raisins before, but I fall well short of the dozen or more sensations he says I should be experiencing. I do no better with the tiny sliver of chile pepper he offers next. Considering that he’s done this test for corporate clients countless times, Miller finds my mediocre performance exactly as expected.
Perhaps, he suggests, it goes back to the days when the Puritans put people in the stocks for using spices, fearing that things that excited the senses were tools of the devil. “American food critics don’t talk about the qualities of food,” he says. “They talk about its intensity, how much there is on the plate, and how expensive it is. It’s total quantification without meaning. I don’t know whether Americans really want to understand food as an experience, and whether they want to spend the time and effort to learn it.”
Miller isn’t your garden-variety snooty foreign gourmet; reared on English muffins and Welch’s jelly, this New Englander of French-Canadian ancestry has spent most of his adult life seeking to perfect American cuisine (if not, as some critics snicker, acting on a self-appointed mission to rescue American cuisine from itself). Miller is best known in Washington for the chichi restaurant Red Sage, which he created as a venue for a cuisine shaped by the trade routes of the American West, combining the sausages of German immigrants in the upper Midwest with buffalo and antelope from the open range and the wheat grown in the nation’s breadbasket. He also owns the Asian fusion restaurant Raku.
Miller was originally an anthropologist; his fieldwork provided him with the international experiences that shaped his culinary career. He began cooking professionally in the 1970s at Berkeley’s famed contemporary American restaurant Chez Panisse. He later opened his own place in Berkeley before creating the Southwestern-style, chile-pepper-centric Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe in early 1987. (He later opened a branch in that most American of cities, Las Vegas.) The past few months have been particularly busy for Miller, with the publication of his book Tamales (written with fellow restaurateurs Stephan Pyles and John Sedlar) and heavy-duty preparations for the opening of a 12,000-square-foot Asian restaurant in San Francisco, Loongbar.
Although Miller acknowledges that food habitsespecially bad onesdie hard, he adds that at least American culture is generally more open to foreign influences than other cultures. And although he says that “I’ve had 14-cent Chinese noodles that are worth more than almost any Italian food in Washington,” he remains optimistic that his fellow Americans will eventually begin to understand the fine art of taste.
“When I was 8 or 9, I tasted whiskey, a glass of Canadian Club. It didn’t smell so good, so the whiskey came right back out of my mouth. I have the same taste receptors today, yet I now drink the same whiskey and enjoy it. Nothing happened physically, but the brain has reprogrammed its receptors and put some aside and looked for the dynamics of the taste. I think the same thing will happen generally. The one thing I heard through all my cooking experiences was that people wanted more flavor in their food. I think people very simply want pleasure in their lives. That’s what things like chile peppers do. They open taste buds that had been dead.”Louis Jacobson