Voice in Cooking

Food for Thought

Raphael and Guillaume invited us to their Upper East Side apartment for a galette des rois, but before that, we were treated to two dishes Raphael has been perfecting: roasted fennel with pomegranate and miso-marinated portobello tart.

Everything he cooks has his unmistakable signature. It’s a mysterious thing we experience when someone advances beyond the foundation in any field. We might call it soul, subject, or author, but words fail to capture what it is.

In writing, it’s often called “voice,” which is differentiated from “style.” As a writer, if you have found your voice, you could employ many different styles (casual, academic, humorous, etc.), and your readers would still be able to detect something unmistakably “you” in everything you write.

In cooking, I don’t know an equivalent term. The word “soul” is often used in cooking, but it refers to something different, some sort of collective spirit that exists in a particular cuisine or dish. It’s not necessarily unique to the person cooking it.

If you brought a dish to a potluck, would your friends be able to identify which one is yours? That would be a good indication of whether you have found your voice in your cooking. I think I would be able to spot Raphael’s dish with pretty high accuracy, especially because his voice comes through in his presentation too.

As soon as you define the essence of anyone’s voice, you’d realize how inadequate it is. “His dishes always look beautiful” would be true for countless other chefs. If you kept being more specific, you might end up with a description long enough to fill a book.

Why is it that labeling someone is considered rude? Because a word has the power to erase the thing it points to. As soon as you are labeled as X, whatever in you that can be described as X disappears, because the very function of a word is to define something universally. As soon as it’s applied to you, it ceases to be unique. If you had a quality that only exists in you, naturally, there wouldn’t be any word for it.

So, the voice necessarily consists of what our language cannot capture. Or, rather, it’s the failure that gives birth to what we call “voice.”