I learned a new word last week from Chef Enzo Campos: meatforce.
He passed by our table after we dined on his smoked offerings at The Smoke House by Culinaria Bcd inside BazKet Bacolod and sat down to have, maybe, a quick chat.
Perhaps the cumin sausage forced the blood back into my head and I blurted: some people would say that the texture of smoked sausage is rough and hard. But, hey, what can you expect from a smoked one?
It was meant to be a witty remark to show off whatever sophistication I thought I had but I got schooled.
In a nice and interesting way.
That was country style, he says, as he launched into a detailed description of the type of forcemeats from campagne to straight to mouselline and how forcemeat differs from a stuffing although forcemeat is derived from the French word “farce” that means stuffing.
Listening to Chef Enzo talk about forcemeat is like listening to a Swiss watchmaker explain how fine Swiss watches are made even if one only asked for the time of the day.
He sounded authoritative but not condescending, his explanation informed by long hours spent in many kitchens and by the burns, cuts and bruises on his hands.
Not like the hollow rattling of facts by most Tom, Dick, and Harry nowadays who learned about thermodynamics five minutes ago on the Internet.
“A chef must have respect for ingredients,” he says as he pulled a chair and sat near our table, much like Rick Bayless hopping the tables at his restaurant as I saw on television.
It was like a Native American Indian ethos, a sentence that sounds like the motto of any kitchen technician who has reached the sublime after hours of mise en place, cooking on the line, and plating the food.
The first time I heard Chef Enzo say this, he sounded cryptic to me, as cryptic as King Leonidas’ final instruction to Dillos to let every Greek know what happened at Thermopylae.
Then it hit me. Cooking, like journalism, is both a craft and a practice. The philosophical comes after the practical.
That night, as I prepared to cook a sauteed vegetable dish of potatoes, carrots and cabbages, I began to understand more what Chef Enzo said.
“Everytime I go to a fish market and see all the dead fishes I thank them for giving up their lives for me,” he adds, briefly closing his eyes while saying the last few words.
“I love eating cochinillo but when I see a pig about to die I truly thank them for giving up their life for me,” he adds.
But cooking, like writing, is easily the most abstract thing if not expressed in melding inredients using fire.
It is only when I viewed the words of Chef Enzo as a writer and as an amateur cook that the practical truths came out.
“Respect for ingredients” is profound in the sense that the cook is not the center of the universe, the stars are the meats, produce, fruits, seafood.
The chef, using fire that creates chemical reactions, simply coaxes out the flavors, enhances the taste but without the ingredients, the chef has nothing to create.
That is the philosophy, the chef paying respect to creations without which he is nothing.
The praxis of respect, on the other hand is rooted in diligence and conscientiousness, as simple as using a sharp knife to cut fish or meat, the precise cutting of ingredients, the cleaning of stoves, pots and pans – things that require elbow grease.
It is not only visually unpleasant to see fish and meat slices with jagged edges or crushed parts indicating the use of unsharpened knives, as if these were torn by piranhas in a feeding frenzy.
It also shows one’s wastefulness that is, in my grandpa’s word: makagalaba.
Or vegetables cut in different sizes and shapes.
Or poorly cleaned pots and pans with the grease of the punta pecho cooked during the turn of the 21st century still languishing on the rims.
All these lead to waste, a disrespect to the ingredients.
Vegetables not cut evenly wjll not cook evenly. Some slices might be as white as the faces of the Wayan brothers in White Chicks, others as black as the face of Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder.
Eating in the Philippines is mostly for nourishment and survival but it is supposed to be an experience, a learning process for us.
That day when we sit around to learn about food and understand its place in our sense of community might be long in coming.
Our demographics point to that.
In the end, Chef Enzo admits that while a chef might really want to please his diners, they might not really understand much about the pains cooks go through.
Much like the sacrifices of reporters.
Until that time comes, however, Chef Enzo holds on to that ethos, his way of reaching for the sublime.
After all, it is in mastering the seemingly small and practical that one can hope to be philosophical.