Chefs on Science Biography
on Philosophy on Design Recipes
Robert Del Grande

Tina Fiore: There are quite a few chefs these days with degrees in biochemistry… How has your scientific background affected your style of cooking?

Robert Del Grande:
I guess I’m not really big on it unless it’s just from a gimmick standpoint. I think everyone sort of has a scientific process in his or her minds, but I don’t think it necessarily creates anything; maybe it’s more of an analytical tool. I see it in the young cooks, like here’s the classic one – if you’re going to do a good experiment, you force yourself to test for just one variable. Most times, young cooks will say, ‘OK. I’m going to do this… I’m going to change these five things and see how it turns out.’ And I say, ‘Well, how are you going to know which one made the difference. You won’t be able to know. Why don’t you take five things in a row, and look how things have changed.’ You are not always allowed that in cooking because everything is always changing all the time, but I think it’s more of an organizational thing - a little bit of cause and effect, but most people have that – you burn yourself the first time at the stove, and you go, wow, I see how this works.

Sometimes people think you’re going to be able to write an equation… here’s the roasted chicken equation, when really it’s much more like the relationship of music to the musician – one is written in an algebra, but you don’t want it to sound that way, but you want to be able to count real well – no question about that, but I don’t think scientists necessarily make better musicians even though the language is mathematical. Sometimes there’s this chemistry thing about food where you think if you’re a better chemist, you’re a better cook. It just seems that if that were true, it would rule out lots of great cooks and chefs that don’t really think that way. And I love the whole mysterious thing – I love to say, ‘I don’t know why that happens, but it sure is good, isn’t it?’ I sometimes think if you learn more chemistry, it doesn’t improve your taste at all. It’s a rationale, it’s a reason, and aesthetics is not a reason, it’s something else. I don’t know if it’s a 20th century thing that you can gain control over nature or chaos – understand it better – when sometimes, that’s not what you want to do.

TF: What is your view on genetically modified foods?

RD: It’s a mess for only one principle reason for me: taste never really comes into the question. So, if you look at pre-genetically engineered tomatoes, they weren’t any good either, but you think the genetically engineered one is more scary, therefore you don’t want it. It’s kind of funny; it’s become very twisted and tangled. I think that certainly genetic engineering can solve some very intractable problems, genetically or otherwise, but if the regulator is fear, you’re going to get nowhere. The other problem is cookbooks have promoted this idea that the perfect tomato is round and red, but I grow them, and they never look like that. They’re never perfect and there are all sorts of different ones, and they always have bug holes in them… so it’s like, wow, I don’t want this one because it’s got a bug, and I say, ‘Well, at least it’s alive. It’s better than seeing a lot of dead bugs. They may be dead for a reason.’ (Laughs.)

The whole thing has become very twisted to the point where I can’t even think about it. I understand the big Agra-business-corporate-bottom line, etc. And I feel badly for the scientists that did some basic research and now they have to give it to someone to say that this has no value. I think you can create the theory and technology to build an atomic bomb, but you don’t have to build one. It’s OK to know about it, but you don’t have to go blow people up. So, it’s a wacky problem that’s just gotten wackier.


Tina Fiore: One of your other passions is philosophy… what is the philosophy behind your cuisine?

Robert Del Grande: That’s a good question. Should I know the answer to that? (Laughs.) Well, I’ve always joked about it - I was an undergraduate at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit university, so we got the philosophy thing – we were required to take it – philosophy and theology. We took so much of it, we were like, ‘How is this important again?’ The problem is during those years, although I liked it because I had some good professors who were really inspirational, but basically as I remember it, it was like, how do I get through this? How do I pass my next test?

It wasn’t until I got to grad school and I had a friend who was interested in philosophy. It began more as a dialogue. I began reflecting on it more. I would joke, when people would say, ‘What’s your philosophy?’ I would say, ‘My philosophy is fresh ingredients; cook simply.’ I just don’t remember that counting as a whole philosophy; I think that’s like a chapter heading or something… unless that’s the centerpiece of your 700-page tome. (Laughs.) I kept thinking philosophy is never one sentence, and you should never be able to understand it because then it’s always more important if no one knows what you’re talking about. So I always try to look for that elusive thing – what you would call a philosophy of cooking. For me I guess, when people say, ‘I like to use the best and freshest ingredients,’ I always want to find a person that says, ‘canned foods, only canned foods – that’s my philosophy.’ I guess very few people are going to be out there with that philosophy, outside of the armed forces.

What we strive for cooking wise comes from 4 words: simple, simplistic, complex, complicated. So, we have to caution ourselves about simplistic that becomes complicated. We like simple that offers complexity. That’s at least a paradoxical relationship and we understand how it works. Generally the world is simplistic and then realizes that it’s simplistic, and then begins to add things from a sense of insecurity, trying to get complex, but ends up as complicated. And as we say here, there’s complicated and then just past complicated is a mess and then just past a mess is a swamp. It’s a starting point that you can use… with young cooks, with every dish the first question you ask them is, ‘How much can you take away for it to be just as good?’ They don’t know what I mean. They haven’t thought about that. Generally, with the young cooks, you can take away half of it and it generally improves. (Laughs.) But, it’s very difficult because there’s that idea of being called simplistic, which is not a compliment these days. And then complicated is just a mess.

TF: You’ve been quoted as saying, "Each dish on the plate should be a manifestation of one single thought." Could you elaborate on this concept?

RD: That’s how you write philosophy! You write things that aren’t really clear and then you leave it alone! (Laughs.) I think the idea of one single thought is a difficult one – where you don’t have a fracture. If you ask a cook when they’re working on a dish, ‘So, what are you trying to do here? What’s the idea?’ and they give you three ideas… all on the same plate. You say, what’s going on here? But, to get one single thing of clarity that somehow leaves room for multiple interpretations is again a sign of great art. For example, when you look at a painting or read a poem twice you always get a different experience – it’s not that you get a different experience because there are three or four ideas working and you didn’t see the other ones previously – they’re just perspectives on the same thing. If you were forced to have a dish that really showed a unity of one thing with a diversity of experiences – that should be the goal – not a pile of things going on simultaneously.

TF: What would you consider to be the ideal dish - the ideal balance of ingredients? For example, I was getting philosophical myself, thinking about Plato’s World of Ideas, where everything in this world, the world we live in, has an ideal in Plato’s World and I started thinking about the ideal dish…

RD: It’s a good question. I think that one of the difficulties with food particularly has to do with the better and better ingredients you buy, not just the freshest, but the fact that their farming or fishing practices are good – you begin at a very high level of complexity. If you get really beautiful sea scallops, the dry-packed ones, not the ones all pumped up with water and salt, they can be so amazing that you need very little to make anything happen – you’re starting at a very high level of complexity.

Plato’s a hero of mine; I love those Greek guys. Except that (their) world was a point of departure, but we like to be perfect here - every once and awhile… (Laughs.) But I think that the Platonic ideal of good food that I hold in my mind is that you need three things, and I change these words all the time, so I’ll give you the straight up ones - you need salt, fat and fruit. When you taste wine for example, the wine’s the fruit – if you give any wine fat and salt and the right combination together to form a triangle, then the wine’s going to improve because the fat and the salt will throw all that fruitiness out, but if you change those words to, let’s say, minerals, richness and ripeness… things that have the ability to be ripe tend to grow in fruitier flavors or sweet flavors, scallops can even have that too. So we always look for those things.

I talk about sea scallops (as an example)… I love the best ones sort of seared, left medium-rare, so you don’t lose anything, and then you just put a couple slices of perfect ripe avocado on top of them, and then fleur de sel or sea salt. And then you don’t do anything else… you have the salt, the fat or richness of the avocado, and the sea scallops… it’s just unbelievable! And then you have to put a little chervil leaf so people think it’s garnish, and then you have to put a little something else… (Laughs.) You start adding stuff and it all starts going downhill. But I always operate under those three (principles): look for mineral content, richness, which can come from all different sorts of places, and then ripeness – the triangle. With the Greeks it was important – three was the heavenly number, which you sort of strive for and you know you can never quite have it, but that doesn’t mean you give up on it.

TF: That’s a great answer! Well done…

RD: So I passed the test! (Jokingly). I had a fear that the Jesuits were coming in again saying, ‘I want the answer in Latin this time!’ (Laughs.)


Tina Fiore: You designed your own kitchen. What are the characteristics of a well-designed kitchen, whether it is for a restaurant or for a home?

Robert Del Grande: The same principles apply. Every kitchen design has to have an anchor. You have to start with the thing that’s most important to you and then you build the rest of it around it – architectural decisions. When we did the Cafe Annie kitchen, windows were the most important thing to us, so we put windows in the back, and we built the rest of the kitchen. We didn’t want to work in a hole anymore – we wanted to have windows. I think the same thing goes for home – I think it’s important that you have light and the ability to see outside, even to open windows and have air come in.

Then, there is the shape – can’t be too big, can’t be too small. Rectilinear is probably the best. Work can be comfortable visually – there can be sort of this efficient and effective thing where you have a station built and the person doesn’t have to move ever in their life, but they’re in this little cage. (Laughs.) There has to be a spaciousness and a compactness simultaneously. For me, if you think from a humanistic standpoint first and a machine standpoint second, then you turn out fine. And don’t let people say, ‘Well, then your ergonomics won’t be good.’ (Laughs.) In the Cafe Annie kitchen, we have an aisle and prep area in the back and there are no tables against the walls, so you never prep facing a wall, you prep facing each other. You can also prep looking out the window. And we have a very low kitchen so there’s nothing up in front of your face all the time, you can sort of see out and communicate and feel a little breeze from the dining room, feel some of the conversation.

It’s very difficult to design hotel kitchens that meet those demands, but I don’t think they try very hard either. Most of the ones I’ve been in across the country, it’s like, ‘Wow, they put this (the kitchen) in last!’ (Laughs.) I was in a hotel kitchen once in Hawaii. I said, ‘This is unbelievable.’ They said, ‘What’s unbelievable?’ I said, ‘You guys are in one of the most beautiful parts of the world and you don’t have any windows. You built this hotel on this island, but it could be anywhere.’ Long hallways – all cinderblock. I was so depressed… how could someone work there? It should all be glass… you should look out at the hills. It felt like they built all these guestrooms, and then stuck the kitchen in. I said, ‘Don’t you think that really unhappy cooks make really unhappy food, (and thus) make really unhappy guests? Don’t you think there’s a connection here?’ I would never design a hotel, but I don’t think they’ve thought about it hard enough.