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VELVEETA - AMERICAN & EASY CHEESE

How does a classically trained chef reconcile with the broad spectrum of taste, especially when tradition clashes with modern conveniences? Allow me to share a battle from my culinary soul. In one corner, we have the classically trained, unwavering chef, a purist believing in tradition, where there's a correct way, and all others are heresy. In the opposite corner, the contemplative food anthropologist interjects, embracing the diversity of human experience and the multitude of ways a dish can express culture. Now, I can forgive many kitchen mistakes, approaching them as teaching moments. But God help the poor soul who mistakes tomatoes in olive oil for a confit or blitzes some fruit in a blender and dares to call it a coulis. Such blunders make me bristle. Imagine my horror when the thought of Velveeta crossed my mind while contemplating my adventures surrounding 'Fromage du marché noir.' The comparison of an exceedingly over-ripened Reblochon, aged to the point of becoming a potential bioweapon, with Velveeta, a substance more akin to plastic than cheese, is terrifying. Is this a sign of a mental breakdown or a schism in my culinary conscience?


As I ponder this dichotomy, I'm reminded of walking through refrigerated containers coming to me straight from the airport. I was the first stop for the cheese merchants. I would walk over the pallets pointing at cheeses, saying, "That one." - "That one." - "That one." I could quickly rack up $ 2,000.00 with six words. By the end of this encounter, we would be writing a check for upwards of $15,000.00. Contrastingly, I have never bought the bright orange block of Velveeta from a supermarket shelf. It's in these contradictions that my culinary explorations take shape. Whether aging a Camembert or considering the place of processed cheese in modern culture, I find myself challenged to reconcile my classical prejudice with a more inclusive and explorative food philosophy. This mental exercise prompts me to ask, 'What is the essence of cheese, and how do we define its authenticity in our cultural, culinary experiences?


I remember sitting across from a chef during a menu reading before the reopening of a restaurant. I was there in a supporting role as a consultant. The menu reading was unfolding in the typical fashion when I heard the word Velveeta. The word landed like a mortar shell, instantly erasing his prior statement. I replied with a befuddled "What?" He replied, "The sliders will be topped with Velveeta." Me: "What?" Chef: "Velveeta melts better than aged cheddar." Me: "You cannot 'sally' processed cheese," My brain was scrambling for any reason not to serve processed cheese. I wanted to head off any idea of using American cheese or even smoked Gouda. For general information, in a commercial kitchen, there is a piece of equipment called a salamander, aka "the sally." It is a broiler that operates at a higher temperature than the standard broiler. The salamander was the traditional method of crisping crème brûlée before the blowtorch.


In these moments of unexpected confrontation with the culinary new world, the core question of authenticity is brought to bear. Does the pursuit of tradition deny the repertoire of a generation raised on processed foods? Or does embracing this generation's convenience foods betray the soul of the culinary arts? Is it a delicate balance, avoiding the juxtaposition of white steamed linen tablecloths backlighting Instagrammable Twinkies? These are the thoughts that I need to justify. Where is the line?


With this thought, I am brought back to a time when I had just mastered hollandaise sauce. In Vermont, I heard that my wife's cousins, "the twins," loved Eggs Benedict. So, in my excitement, I offered to cook them breakfast. I bought some Canadian bacon from a local butcher shop and gathered the other ingredients to prepare this meal for them. I got to the house early, made my vinegar reduction, and strained the peppercorns. I placed my poaching water on the range, salted and acidified. Then, I set up my double boiler so the water did not contact the bottom of my bowl. Then, I separated my yokes and cubed my butter. I cut the English muffins. The twins showed up eager for breakfast. I toasted the English muffins, paying attention to butter them upon their ejection from the toaster. I stirred the water and gently dropped in four eggs, ensuring they did not touch the bottom of the pot. I melted butter in a frying pan and browned off the Canadian bacon. I then added my yokes to my bowl and the vinegar reduction and whisked until it was nappe. Changing gears, I checked the doneness of the eggs and removed them to dry. Then I added knot after knot of butter, emulsifying the sauce to its capacity, and then added two drops of Tabasco. I removed the sauce from the heat and proceeded to plate the breakfast under the watchful eyes of the twins. I plated the buttered English muffins, topping them with the Canadian bacon, paying attention to adding the pan drippings. Then, gently roll on the poached eggs, careful not to rupture the yolks.

Then I spooned on the hollandaise pregnant with fat encapsulated fat, holding its viscosity like a champ. Then I topped it with paprika and brought it to my spectators. This dish, only weeks before, initiated an impromptu marriage proposal from a man in front of his wife, so I knew it was spot on. Yet, as soon as the plates hit the table, I was met with, 'Where is the Cheez Whiz? You forgot to use the packet.' At first, I thought they were joking – but they were not. Their request was a sharp reminder of the gap between the kitchen's detailed artistry and the innocent expectations shaped by a world of fast and convenient flavors.

As much as the classically trained chef in me tends to look down my nose at processed cheese, clinging to the artistry and legacy of the fromager, I am slapped in the face with the nostalgic reality of some of my favorite childhood foods. The combination of steamed celery with white Land O'Lakes American cheese—a dish conjured not from gourmet cookbooks but from the necessity of food insecurity by a mother who spun magic from an ill-stocked refrigerator. A recipe so simple yet lodged in my psyche: soft-boiled sliced celery blended with unpretentious white American cheese.


Then there are the guilty pleasures that transcend culinary snobbery: Easy Cheese on Triscuits, the Easy Cheese stuffed California Black Olives. Though miles away from haute cuisine, these combinations have the power to transport me back to a space where a chef supposes a mother's love is generated. They remind me that food is not just about refinement and tradition; it's about memories, emotions, and connections. It's about the shared experiences that bind us, regardless of the ingredients' provenance.


In the hands of a loving cook, even the most ordinary ingredients can become impactful. These dishes, although simple, speak of a love that transcends the culinary arts, reaching into the very soul of family bonds and childhood. They are the recipes that ground me in humility, reminding me that the essence of cooking lies not just in sophistication but in the heart's ability to create warmth and comfort. They are the unexpected culinary waypoints that add depth and resonance to my ongoing exploration as a chef, bridging the gap between the culinary dogma and the heartwarming tastes of home.


I have recognized that I am not the arbiter of class or culture. The classically trained chef in me will always toe the line when it comes to the definitions expressed in the worldwide culinary lexicon. There is a beauty in adherence to tradition that cannot be compromised in my kitchen, the need to echo centuries of refined technique. Yet, I must also recognize that there are subcultures and divergent tastes that have found their place in the culinary landscape. The food anthropologist in me cannot ignore the richness of human experience, where convenience can sometimes trump complexity and where individual preferences may diverge from culinary tradition. It's a delicate balance, a negotiation between the founding principles of the culinary arts and an open acceptance of the multifaceted ways that people engage with food. It challenges me to question, 'How does one maintain the integrity of traditional gastronomy while also honoring the dynamic evolution of taste?' It's this intricate balance, this delicate negotiation between the founding principles of the culinary arts, and the open acceptance of the multifaceted tastes found across both culture and subcultures that fuels my passion and shapes my ongoing journey as the classically trained, unwavering chef and the contemplative food anthropologist.

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