I’ve been listening to David Chang’s memoir, Eat a Peach, and it’s nothing like I expected it to be. Where I anticipated the slick and smug persona that has become synonymous with his celebrity, I have found instead startling vulnerability and the unmistakable ring of honesty. (There is also some showmanship and self-roister, but it is refreshingly self-aware.) In his book, Chang grapples with the conditions of his success as a restauranteur, his lifelong mental health journey, and what I can only describe as raw, unstilted philosophizing about the nuts and bolts of his profession. These musings are recherche in the sense that Chang is well-read, often citing classical authors from The Canon and beyond, and also deeply conversant in the philosophies and perspectives of many of the most highly-respected figures of our times in the realm of culinary arts–but he is also a free thinker, somehow untrammeled by the trappings of tradition. Hearing him talk about cooking and menu design and plate composition and restaurant concepting almost affords the impression that he has discovered it all on his own, though it is clear he is a studied professional. There is something about his tinkering inquisitiveness (i.e., “this flavor is too assertive, what if we tried x instead?” and “our customers find this too hot, but we still need the szechuan peppercorns to numb the tongue”) and his confidence in his own tastes (“no one likes umeboshi except for when drinking”) and his fearless cross-pollination of ideas (noodle bars, in America, before they were a thing — but in a category of cuisine he determinedly labeled “American” rather than “Asian” or, as was the now-rightly-denigrated term of art when he started his career, “ethnic”) that solidifies the fact that this is a man who truly thinks for himself. It’s not so much outside-the-box thinking (though this is also probably a fair assessment of his creativity) but the kind of ego-centricity that, at its worst, disrespects the culinary history of which he is a part and, at its best, demonstrates a kind of authenticity that is rare and precious.
I also last week watched an episode of Jon Favreau’s show Chef in which he and his co-star Roy Choi make flatbread with Pizzeria Blanco co-founder Chris Bianco and Tartine co-founder Chad Robertson. In it, Bianco displays a somewhat similar (though more approachable) variation on Chang’s M.O. when he says that he’s not sure how to classify what he’s making — flatbread, pizza, focaccia — and that he doesn’t much bother with labels anyhow: he cares about what tastes good and the provenance of his ingredients. He implies that he has been head-down working on making something delicious rather than positioning his work within a culinary framework. He later says, shruggingly, “All cooking is appropriation.”
I’m fascinated by the casual, almost flippant, anti-establishment ethos of both these artists — and they truly are, in my opinion, artists. They are familiar with the canon and yet they somehow appear to be operating outside of it, or imagining that they are, or inviting us to envision that they are capable of such outlander status. “That’s tradition over there, and that’s cool,” they seem to be saying, “But I’m just doing what feels interesting and fun over here.” Is it disingenuous? Is it pretentious? Or is it the exact opposite — radically authentic?
I have always felt that much of art is pastiche and allusion, the patchwork of influences that talented craftspeople are able to combine and transform into magical new iterations, driven by the force of their rare intellect and aesthetic impulse. It is alchemy. But references are the key and bulkiest ingredient. “No man is an island” (John Donne), and all that.
In my own narrow experience, I find that my writing materially improves the more I read. That is, my creativity is borne of the work of others: I stand on their shoulders and perch on the branches of trees they have planted.
But what share is theirs and what is mine? How much credit do we give? And what is the purpose of such — how to call it? — attribution or bean counting or divination? — anyhow?
It’s hard to say how Chang or Bianco would respond to a direct line of questioning along these lines, or whether they would bristle and reply: “Who cares? Don’t think so much.” (I could see that reply as well.) But these are the kinds of intractable rhetorical questions that their bright and startling comments dredge up, and they feel like the stuff of artistic integrity.
Any thoughts on this conversation on a Wednesday morning? Has anyone read the Chang book or watched the Favreau show? Free-wheeling commentary encouraged — a lot to chew on here.
+What are you reading this fall? I just finished Shari LaPena’s latest thriller and I can’t remember the last time I stayed up until midnight reading a book. I had to finish it! I didn’t think it was quite as good as some of her previous novels (the conceit of marital infidelity and misgiving is starting to feel a bit old), but she is a master of suspense and specifically of sowing the seeds of doubt. You can trust nobody in a La Pena novel. It makes for fun reading. Strongly recommend if you want something you can’t put down!
+I’m currently reading The Lions of Fifth Avenue on the recommendation of multiple Magpies. Stay tuned for a full review.
+I am working on a gift guide for gentlemen that will be coming out soon, but wanted to let you know now that Mr. Magpie absolutely raves about his Apple AirPods Pro — there are a ton of enhancements over the original design (which I own and love), like noise cancellation, earpiece controls (i.e., you can tap the airpod in your ear for various features), and more. At the time of editing this post (10/27), they are marked down to 20% off so I had to share in case you want to buy now and save a little money!
+Speaking of dramatic knitwear, this tres popular Vita Grace style was just re-stocked!
+I polled my Magpie Instagram followers to ask for recommendations for masks to wear while exercising. The top recommendations were these by Athleta (NOT the ones on their site marketed specifically for exercising — many readers said those are in fact horrible and suffocating!) and the disposable surgical ones on the grounds that the wire makes them easy to mold to your face and sort of cup around your nose/mouth so that the material doesn’t keep getting “sucked in,” which has been my major issue using fabric masks while running. I tested running with the latter because I already had some at home and I found it so scratchy on my face! Am I a baby or what? Contemplating ordering the Athleta ones unless anyone has any other suggestions to throw on the table?
+Speaking of masks, mask-ne (mask-induced acne) is a thing now. One benefit to adding this retinoid to my regimen: it also combats acne. (I will write a full review on my experience with it in a few weeks!) Also on the unseemly topic of breakouts: my dermatologist recommends this inexpensive body wash post-exercise. Also going to test and will report back.
+Into these fair isle plates for a holiday tabletop situation.
+I’ve loved Self-Portrait for years and years now — several of my favorite dresses are theirs. Currently dying over this velvet midi for the holidays and this satin bow style, too. (The eyelash neckline!)
+If you are a new mom and need some encouragement, read the incredibly warm, compassionate, and encouraging comments here.
+So into the statement vest this season, and this is now my top pick. CHIC.
+I saw a chic pea coming back from a run in Central Park wearing all black exercise gear and this running hat and…shamelessly bought it to copy her.
+As always, in case you need to hear it, you are enough.