NOVEMBER 27, 2019

CHEW Cookbook Review: Hungry – Part 2

Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking it all with the Greatest Chef in the World

by Jeff Gordinie, Tim Duggan Books, 2019. Part 2 of 4.

“Of all the dishes and ingredients that captivated him, nothing in Mexico cast more of a spell than mole. What is mole? Well, maybe it’s more useful to ask what mole isn’t and even then you’ll wind up stumped.” – Jeff Gordinier, from chapter 1, “Mexico”

Noma pop-up in Mexico via www.eater.com

The enigmatic Mexican sauce ‘mole’ becomes a symbol not only for the first chapter of culinary adventure in Hungry, but for the entire quest that Rene Redzepi had placed himself on years before. Something had happened to Redzepi and his famous Copenhagen restaurant Noma as it moved through the rising but bittersweet stages of status success. As he says in his journal from those days, suddenly they had become a fine-dining establishment and had to begin to consider whether they would use fancy silverware or whether waiters should wear suits. “Those things had never been important to us; we’d always put all our efforts into people and creativity, not commodity […] we had stopped following our natural instincts and trusting that our memories are valuable enough to shape our daily lives at the restaurant.”

For Redzepi, the antidote to this distancing from vitality becomes the essential meaning behind the title of the book. To get outside of the confines of his acutely elite kitchen and to regain a hunger for raw and foreign experience that might inspire a closer understanding of those elusive connections between food, culture and meaning, was the risk. What exactly all of this was going to be was not clear, but mole as a food type is described as the perfect first step. It was not contrived or ‘of a school,’ but instead it was a kind of evolving culinary repository of all the accumulated generations of indigenous Mexican peoples, European invaders, and various immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Redzepi "in search of the perfect taco" in Oaxaca, Mexico via www.nytimes.com

Seen from outside Mexico, Gordinier tells us, mole might be considered as nothing more than a simple sauce, sometimes made with chocolate as mole poblano, but in Mexican reality it is “a word used to link a fellowship of sauces.” This variability of scattered influences was the very ethnic complexity that drew Redzepi and Gordinier to meet Enrique Olvera, a master of the craft, at Pujol Restaurant, where the mole transcended the simple and became “the piece de resistance. It was the mole that ruled them all. It was an epic poem about history and time. The mole at Pujol reverberated with layers of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice, star anise, almonds, pecans, peanuts, onion, thyme, oregano, marjoram, dried chilhuacle rojo chiles, dried chilhuacle amarillo chiles, plantains with the skin on, and heirloom tomatoes, but even that litany of components didn’t capture what it tasted like, because mole was the game that moved as you played, the answer that was always in flux, sauce as quantum physics.”

As readers, we can begin to see why the greatest chef in the world had become captivated by a sauce and tacos.

To be continued….