Q&A of a Q&A’er: I interview Jonas Luster

April 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

As Quora users go, our next subject is pretty rare specimen.  A working chef with encyclopedic knowledge of the chemical interactions that go into cooking, who somehow has the time to write as much as he does on quora and his own blog, feastcraft.com: Jonas Luster.

I am grateful he found time in his schedule to answer a few questions about himself:

As a working chef, how the hell do you find time to write?

I am writing this on my Xoom while watching my stocks and sauteeing some onions for a dish. Since I got this marvel of technology, I have become rather adept at writing in chunks, dropping a few lines here and there, until something  decent emerges.

That sometimes leads to rather … disjointed … paragraphs which I have to fix after giving them the once-over. Or, horror over horrors, I might miss them. Recently someone wrote something to the effect of “this is such an egregious error, I have to question your whole answer”. He’s right, of course, but the mistake was to continue writing a sentence that I’d started an hour prior.

When writing your answers, how much of the food science comes off the top of your head, and how much is researched?

About 80:20. We’re two cooks in this kitchen with some semblance of food sciences background, so I run some past her when she’s in. Otherwise there’s always Harold McGee :)

Where did you pick up all of your scientific knowledge?

I have some amateur chemistry knowledge, augmented by books like Harold McGee’s “On Food And Cooking”, a few courses with the Research Chefs Association (culinology.org), which did’nt help much but got me in contact with others who think about food in a new way. It should be mentioned, that most of the things we consider “modernist cuisine” these days have been practiced by the “evil empire” of mircowave meal makers, fast food chains, and even the guys who sell you sacues and little packages of “just add water” foods for decades. We were just very, very, slow in adopting it into our work. There’s more dogma involved in food than most religions :)

Given your evident interest in chemistry, are you particularly drawn to “molecular gastronomy” kind of cooking of Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz, and company? Is it a direction you would go yourself?

One of my heroes, Hans Heinrich Euler, once said “If we understood the Universe we could make it better or completely remake it into a new one”. I don’t have as much interest in making a new universe as I have into making this one (culinarily speaking) a better one. I believe that a lot of culinary dogma comes (again, religion comes to mind) from misunderstandings and simplifications. If we understand food, we can make better steaks, reduce waste, sautee better asparagus spears, and take the pain out of complicated sauces and dishes without sacrificing taste and healthy properties.

Take the “63 degree egg” for a second. For centuries people have devised better and better methods to establish the time an egg has to be in water to be of a certain consistency. A little bit of science, the “Chem 101″ version, teaches us two things – egg whites firm up under lower temperatures than egg yolks, and egg yolk assumes a “soft boiled” consistency when it reaches 63 degrees for three minutes. The only question left over is, does it firm over time or temperature and, a few experiments later, Herve This figured out that time played no role. Chefs can breathe easier – all we have to do is take the eggs, drop them into 63 degree Celsius water, and we can  walk off and forgget them. Once the egg is warmed through, after 45 minutes or so, it stays there until quite a long time has lapsed.

Would you like to one day be a chef/owner of your own restaurant? What would be the concept?

I want to modernize and make gourmet “comfort food”. Many have tried, but even the chosen gods of our profession don’t go much further than putting better cheese into better bread for a grilled cheese sandwich. I want to take that a few steps further. If I had to elevator pitch it, I want to use the holy trifecta of art, craft, and science in the kitchen to make the best Mac and Cheese you have ever had.

I would certainly be down with that.  What city would you want to set up shop in?
None of the big culinary ones. I am thinking about Austin, Dallas (came here for that reason), St. Louis, that kind.

Professionally, what kind of cooking do you most enjoy making?

I am a fan of the New Nordic Cuisine. Bold, strong, flavors with many undertones, always seasonal and always rather spartan in its ingredients. I am happiest when I get to play with tthe preservation, smoking, curing, aspect of the cuisine and when I can work with the ingredient over long time spans.

I haven’t heard of that one before.  Is that the kind of cooking they do at Noma? [Ed. note - Noma is currently the rated the world's best restaurant by the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants rankings]
Yes, precisely. I met Claus a few years ago (when he was at the French Laundry, we met while shopping for calf’s liver of all places), spent a few weeks staging with him, and haven’t been more impressed since :)

When designing a menu, how do you draw the line between satisfying your desire to try new things, and satisfying the desires of the eating public?

I honestly don’t think there’s such a thing as a firm line.  I am first and foremost in the “hospitality” business, which means I have to make people happy. I see my style of cooking as complimentary, another tool on the bench, in the pursuit of making great food that makes people smile. You can go overboard. “Crab and Oyster Espuma”, anyone? But when I look at a dish like that, my first question is always wether my mother would eat it, and secondly if, on a first date, it would get me invited upstairs for a coffee afterwards. If food doesn’t pass those two qualifiers it’s not going on the menu :)

Where do you enjoy eating the most?

Food is kind of sacred to me. People worked hard for it, ominvores like me eat stuff that some other living being gave its life for, the Universe provides. I enjoy eating most where it’s obvious that everyone involved, from growers and ranchers to cooks and servers, respects that sanctity. And because food is such a big deal it’s too big a deal to be eaten in bad company :). In other words, if I go have dinner with someone I really like them :)

Is there a place in this world where you find those beliefs to be especially cherished?
The small bistrots and roadhouses in France and Spain. In the U.S. it’s hard to find them but sometimes a place comes along that celebrates those things. Manresa before it became famous, in Los Gatos, CA, for example. Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

What topics do you find yourself doing more reading and less writing?

I am but a dilettante in every aspect of life. In some, like cooking, I am enough of an educated dilettante to open my gob, but generally I avoid talking and spend more time listening :)

 Any Quora topics in particular?
Quantum Theory, old languages, above all else.

And the Proust Questionnaire:

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Coming home and having my son laugh and run towards me.

What is your greatest fear?

Funny how stuff changes once you produce offspring. It’s all about perpetuating DNA, sure, but it does a hell of a number on most people’s perceptions of reality. My greatest fear used to be a catastrophic event like a quake, war, or something like that. Now it’s not being there to be able to protect my son from harm. Or failing to do so.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

The Brothers Grimm. They struck a fine balance between preserving history and lore, while being very experimental about things in their writing and publishing. And they were quite misunderstood :). In 43 versions of their book they often had to remove or add things because most people weren’t used to “that kind of story”. Over the decades, however, they really influence and changed things.

Which living person do you most admire?

Since you ask this of me in the context of cooking, I’ll narrow it down to that. Outside of the world of kitchens I admire a few people, from aid workers to human rights advocates, who are above anything in cooking. It’s hard to name just one, but in culinary sciences it’s definitely Herve This who didn’t let dogma and the “French style” get into his way to explore the boundaries of cuisine.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

My temper. It tends to flare, especially at work.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Sheepishness and subservience. The willingness to accept without questioning, to take things at faith value. I find science and intelllectual pursuit to be the cornerstone and center of humanity.

What is your greatest extravagance?

My gadget obsession. At this very moment I am writing on a Xoom, tethered to a Droid X, listening to music on Grooveshark, waiting for a a few vacuum packed sprouts to finish bathing in an immersion circulator while checking the temperature with my infrared thermometer. And not ONE of those things is necessary, it’s pure indulgence :)

On what occasion do you lie?

Any time someone asks if I got enough sleep.

What do you dislike most about your appearance?

I am 5’6. I am statistically not able to become a CEO or COO in a Fortune 500, desirable to less than four percent of all females (according to a match.com survey), and my back is hosed from working in kitchens designed for 5’8 fellas. Three inches would be nice to have (no, not the kind that’s flooding my inbox, I speak stature).

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

See “appearance” :)

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?

Nothing. My folks are perfect.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Beating Cancer. Since you asked for achievements, not accomplishments, that’d be it :). I am well aware that anything in this regard was accomplished by the people who fought it for me, generations of researchers, and a lot of factors I can’t control, but somehow I managed it. Which makes it my most treasured achievement :).

If you died and came back as a person or a thing what do you think it would be?

My dog. I’d be sleeping, eating, chasing squirrels, and basking on my porch all day.

What is your most treasured possession?

My knives.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Hopelessness. The feeling that there’s nothing you can do to change what needs changing. Maybe on par with subservience.

Who are your heroes in real life?

The men and women standing up and demanding democracy in places where this could very well mean pain or death. The aid workers flying into ravaged areas and doing what needs to be done, again often at the peril of their own lives. The French resistance during WWII.

What is it you most dislike?

Preconceived notions and shallowness. The unwillingness to give things or people a chance. Give it a try, be open about it, and then judge :)

How would you like to die?

Happy, quickly, by myself, and listening to Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World”. It’s the end of my existence, might as well make it a fun event.

What is your motto?

“Shut up and get out of my way” if you ask my coworkers and friends.
“This above all: to thine self be true”, if you ask me :)

§ One Response to Q&A of a Q&A’er: I interview Jonas Luster

  • Quora says:

    Does Jonas Luster really do his day job, or does he just give snarky, awesome answers on Quora?…

    I was compelled to answer this but will anonymously as for reasons you should be able to quickly realize along this drawing on. (e) is one of the hardest and very concentrated workers I met in my life. I attempted to find a quote from Jonas online at a…

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