Welcome to the real world

Two Mainers bring chefs out of the movies and into the kitchen
By BRIAN DUFF  |  August 8, 2007

Bresca | 111 Middle St, Portland | 207.772.1004
Hugo’s | 88 Middle St, Portland | 207.774.8538
This summer’s two big food movies, Ratatouille and No Reservations, have virtually identical endings. In each case chefs leave behind the problematic and demanding world of chic high cuisine to open their own cheerful, humble, and cozy family-run restaurants. Labor problems are minimal since in one case the happy couple’s only employee is a child and in the other it’s a rodent. All the customers look like pleasant, satisfied regulars.

Such restaurants don’t really exist. If they did they would not be nearly as interesting as the realistically tension-filled kitchens that provide the main setting for these two movies. Seeking to better understand this world and the way it is depicted, I sat down to talk about cooking and film with Chef Krista Kern of Bresca, and her neighbor Chef Rob Evans of Hugo’s. Kern recently opened one of Portland’s most promising new restaurants, and Evans’s shop has received many of the nation’s most prestigious awards in its seven years. Unlike most chefs depicted in the movies, they are pleasant and completely unpretentious about food.

What they told me about being a chef also belied the message about cooking that the films, especially Ratatouille, convey. They both loved Ratatouille, and it is certainly the better film — beautiful to look at, funny, and genuinely exciting — with an attention to kitchen details (like the look of a particular make of knives) that Evans and Kern appreciated. The film develops the idea articulated by the character of Gusteau, a sort of guardian angel chef drawn as a fatty teardrop of a man: “anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great.”

Kern and Evans did not agree that fearlessness is the measure of a chef. They both maintain that the real world of restaurant cooking is infrequently about daring and radical innovation. “It’s really more about technique and consistency,” Kern said. While it’s exciting to watch the cooks on television shows like Top Chef and Iron Chef invent something great with a few ingredients in limited time, the reality of kitchen life is more like Gordon Ramsay’s show Hell’s Kitchen, in which the star British chef berates inexperienced cooks until they can get a few dishes right every single time.

This surprised me, based on what I know about their restaurants. Evans is known for preparing some of the most interesting and creative cuisine in the country — including experiments with foams, pellets, bubbles and emulsions. But he insisted that he is usually working within tried and true approaches to combining flavors. “Adria does the same thing,” Evans said, referring to Ferran Adria, the Spanish chef who uses molecular science to invent novel meals. “He admits that he travels around trying other people’s stuff, finding things to recreate in his own way.”

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