Editor’s note: The following words belong to Mark Miller; they’re his answers to the questions asked by Mark Oppenheimer, and we felt they stood strongly on their own.
Whether ordering a meal in a restaurant or preparing a favorite meal at home, do we ever stop to consider the sensual experience of taste and flavor, or how perceptions, beliefs and expectations contribute to our appreciation of food? Mark Miller does. Since leaving the rigors of the restaurant kitchens he’s created, Mark, a James Beard Award-winning chef and anthropologist, has been an indefatigable world traveler who seeks out the latest cutting-edge research on eating, cooking, perception and the brain, and asks us all to pause just for a moment, breathe deeply and be present for what happens in the body and mind when we eat. We got to talking.
People used to think that the end of the season was the Burning of Zozobra, but much like the Japanese idea of autumn, when things come into their totality and fruition and are at their most intense and complex. Thus was born The Wine and Chile Fiesta. We thought we should have an event to celebrate fall—the changing of the aspens, gorgeous light, the ripeness of the end of the summer, and the culture and culinary heritage of New Mexico—based on the most famous thing we have here: chiles. We thought it would be interesting to put two things together that at first don’t seem to go together—chile and wine. People are interested in wine, and we would get great wineries and local chefs to come in, and every dish would be cooked with chiles. The original format was designed by Gordon Heiss, the director of Casa Sena (he’s no longer with us) and Al Lucero and myself. It’s turned out to be the most successful culinary event in Santa Fe.
I was always a culinary adventurer. I don’t think, as a child, that I had a problem accepting the foreign perception of food. Even at a young age, I loved oysters for breakfast.
What I was aware of when I was young was that my way of tasting was different. I would always smell my food first. My mother would allow it at home, but when we went out she would say, “Mark, you can’t do that in public, it’s impolite.” I argued, “I don’t know what it tastes like unless I smell it first.” I don’t want to eat anything I don’t like or don’t know, and I can only tell by smelling. For instance, there are seven parts of memory required to recognize one taste. You’re pulling from the past, present, the associative, linguistic, semantic skills, hedonic skills, muscle skills—you’re pulling information from all these systems to create one unified pattern in order to recognize one simple taste. It’s a very complex system.
The problem with drinking wine is that it’s a highly complex part of neuroscience, cultural perception and individual subjective psychological patterns. What happens is: If you don’t break the pattern that you normally have, you end up mindlessly repeating the same habitual behavior. The reason that I want people to drink wine first is that I want them to pay conscious mindful attention. Much like in Zen—to do all things with the awareness that right now, in this space, that’s what I’m doing. It may not be important what it is, but it’s important that one should be conscious and in the moment. When we don’t engage the mind, we are not tasting; we might be eating and drinking, but we are not tasting. When we don’t taste, we are not present in the body. Taste is an active perceptual beingness in the world, it is not a passive sensual perception, and that’s where the sense of taste is highly important that it be conscious and you train yourself, just like in Zen or sports, to actually learn how to taste.
I believe that basically the body ideology is reflected in our sensual food aesthetics. By that, I mean: If you take a potato chip and you crunch down on it, and it’s a really hard kettle chip. Americans love the physiology of force and sound; the sound itself is part of the texture that they love. It is this sense of empowerment of the sensual over the object. In Japan, their food aesthetics are gooey, yucky and sticky. Yet to the American palate that is all pejorative. Oysters and uni to the Japanese palate [are] very sensual; it’s part of the body, the mouth, an acceptance of the sensuality of the body in its most natural expression. Let me say it this way: Would you rather have wet French kisses or dry, crinkled sandpaper as a kiss? American’s are on the sandpaper node.
One of the first things I teach in my palate-coaching classes is Taste Occurs Over Time and Space. For instance, the raisin’s not sweet. It doesn’t have a definitive objective experiential part of it—part of it is sweet, part of it is bitter; your palate will experience different tastes at different times. The raisin’s taste occurs long in perceptual time. “Each taste is either fast or slow…long or short…simple or complex.” This helps us think experientially, dimensionally, not semantically. After we taste the raisins and use this descriptive thinking, we find that the taste of a raisin is long, slow and complex, not sweet.
So what I do is I have to visually grab the understanding that taste itself is experiential, and when we say the music is loud, that doesn’t say anything about the music. So when people talk about chiles or spices, people will say, “It’s hot.” No, it’s not hot—you picked out a single dimensional part of identifying something and you rejected the rest of the experience. So what you’re not doing is: you’re not tasting it. When I ask you, “What’s in a raisin?” And you answer, “It’s sweet,” what you’re doing is giving the preconceived acceptable answer, which is socially the way we use language. So we are included in the social meaning and food. Whether it is mediated by our parents, food writers or school systems, we get encultured to look at food in a certain way.
A recipe is a codified cultural perceptional pattern.
When people say, “I don’t like this,” what it means is that: I don’t understand it; I don’t perceive it; I’m associating it with a negative part of an emotional experience I’ve had before. It could be hedonic, social, parental, familial. People say, “I know what I like,” and I say, “Not really, you like what you know.” Point is, I’m not interested in that you don’t like it. What I’m interested in is why you don’t like it (remember, everything you do or don’t do tells me about you), and that usually is the problem. What people don’t want to do in their food self-discovery is that they’re not really interested in understanding that separation of themselves sensually in the world and themselves emotionally of what happened to them in their lives, and then what happens is they get confused.
“Flavor is not in the food, it is created by the brain.” Gordon Shepard
Where we are today is that we are getting much closer, finally, that experiencing taste is an active participation of being in the world, and in that experience, that you have to be trained, engaged, aware and mindful that you create the flavor. The flavor is physically there, but unless the brain engages actively in seeing it and actually experiencing it, we don’t recognize it. When I used to teach art and culture in anthropology, the point was, where’s the art? Is it in the object or is it in the relationship between the aesthetic experience and the audience and the object? The object is not the art. Now, why each culture tastes and has a different taste palate? That, to me, is the ‘Why’ that still hasn’t been answered.
I think that local traditions have always been more complex than people think they are. The food system is part of our identity system; it’s one of those things which we negotiate in those social spaces to create. People call it foodies or foodscapes, and we use it to create who we want to be at that time, in that moment. It’s more of a—what I would call—a cultural trading skill.
I think that local food traditions have been totally interrupted by economics, science, technology and media, and it’s very difficult to go back to. When someone says “a native tradition,” a native tradition has to be put in the right time and space, and that time and space is gone forever. So this idea that we can actually turn the clock back is impossible. I think trying to preserve native traditions is sort of like trying to catch moonbeams. We have this romance about the past, because we don’t understand the present or the future, so it’s a security system. Chefs today who talk about past traditions, don’t really understand the past. I think this idea of creating the past is fake, can’t be done. That’s why I titled my book Modern Southwest Cooking.
The word “authentic” is highly debatable in terms of the experience. Is the experience authentic? Is the stage, the site, the activity, the performance authentic? Is the place and time authentic? There are different levels of authenticity that exist. Though in street food, yes, it’s authentic—that someone’s preparing it in real time and space. So the sense of actual time-and-space authenticity is there. It’s interactive. It’s basically: you get to season it or do something individual to it. You can see the theater, the chemistry and the smell of the place over time and space. So there’s a time/space dimensional interactive social part of authenticity. We need to have authenticity in our food supply because, as we become more dependent on virtual reality, our body constantly needs to reorient, reconfigure its senses in real time and space. Street food is an intensified way of recognizing the body’s need to reorient itself in smell, sight, sound, smoke and taste.
Korean food blends big flavors, fermented flavors. We get this vibrant street culture—Korean food has this kind of chaos that appeals to people; it is an unfinished food that we can interact with and finish. When we talk about French food, I always think of finished symphonies, movements that are completely in balance with one another. Korean food has all these rough edges about it that seems to resonate with the way people organize the world around themselves. The more unfinished it is, the more opportunity we get to basically interact with and create our own flavors. It’s one of the reasons people like sushi—because we can construct the flavor experience just the way we like it, in real time and space. So that reifies. Korean food is what I would call “a very opportunistic interactive sense of being there” kind of food.
One big mistake I did do strategically in my career was not understanding, business-wise, that I didn’t have a strategic business partner and that I wasn’t prepared to understand the complexities of the commercial part of the food-restaurant world. I think one of the things that helped me as a chef coming from an anthropological background is understanding the consumer behavior right off the bat. It wasn’t my food, on my plate, in my restaurant. It was my idea of what I liked. I have never created a dish that people didn’t like, because I have always put myself at their table eating with them. I don’t cook for others; nobody likes my food like I do—but I understand my food in its time and setting and place.
I think what happens today is that we’ve become too enamored by, or idealize the chef as the artist, which I think is dangerous for chefs. I think that a chef today needs to be a really good crafts person, a really good strategic business person and a really good observer of consumer behavior. Those were mistakes I made in my own career and that I had to learn over time. I didn’t learn it at Chez Panisse, or at my own restaurants. I didn’t have strategic partners. And those mistakes have hurt my career. I probably should have gone back to writing and gotten out of food and restaurants. Now, I need to make real choices. When you’re young, you don’t have to make real choices.
What I really need to focus on, which I’m not good at, is choosing one thing and following it to the end. I still don’t know enough about taste. One of the things I’m really excited and encouraged about is what’s happening with neuroscience and memory. I’m finding a space right now in my life that brings together my whole life. What I did as a child, my academic studies—intellectual interest in anthropology and perception in culture—my 40 years in food and restaurants, business and creating foods. I’m learning that I can bring everything that I know to the table and synthesize it.
I would like to satisfy two things in my life. One is that I created more knowledge about tastes and other cultures. Secondly, that I actually improved the American palate by having other chefs say that I expanded the understanding and importance of complexity and ethnicity in the American palate. Those are passions I still consider to be priorities in my life. Not making money, not creating more books, not creating more restaurants.
A lot of chef’s don’t understand their strategic strengths and weaknesses.
When chef’s talk about ingredients. I always ask, what is your culinary philosophy? “Don’t say it’s local, or in season, or organic, that’s just good shopping.” You have to let go of the idea of ingredients. I’ve lived in native villages where there’s no big supermarket, or store near by. What I learned is that technique creates flavor. Now that phrase––technique creates flavor––is something that we the audience, cooks at home, we have commercialized the idea of food, restaurants, the food supply and groceries. We think we want people to go buy experiences and buy flavors and tastes and buy recipes. We don’t want to teach people a technique like my grandmother making the chowder, making the beans correctly and knowing everyday for the rest of our lives that we have the confidence to make a great chowder, or to make a stew.
Flavor has nothing to do with organics, nothing to do with local. Unfortunately, chef’s today when they do ethnic food don’t understand technique. When you learn ethnic food, especially food that looks simple but it’s actually highly complex you have to forget the idea of ingredients. I know that shocks people. We don’t trust our senses, don’t want to actually learn to actually use our senses and we don’t want to educate our senses. And what learning technique does is you educate your senses.
People ask me if I miss cooking and actually my cooking became so complex that I sort of surpassed my staff and my customers. What I’d like to do at the end of my culinary life is to have a stage where the audience, the diners, my friends were truly there to try to understand and learn about food. I’ve always believed my real role in life is as a teacher.
What is the real truth of a restaurant? It’s actually creating something that we share together. If I were to create one last restaurant, I would hope it be one that I would have the fun and freedom to have people truly love, and experience a sense of pleasure that doesn’t have meaning, but as an acceptance of pleasure. It would be the meal that we talk about, and we create together. It would be creating meaning by being there. And the food itself was the catalyst for the understanding of that meaning in our lives.
by Mark Oppenheimer