Tiziano Gérard might be the greatest chef you’ve never heard of. He combines the skills and repertoire acquired in the kitchens of five-star hotels in Monte Carlo, Milan and Sardinia with the traditional cuisine of the Aosta Valley in northwest Italy, where he grew up and learned to cook. Alongside his version of regional classics, such as alpine cheese wrapped and baked with Speck, and rich minestra soup with spelt and barley, are original dishes such as zucchini with black rice ‘tabouleh’ and toasted risotto with muscatel wine, parmesan and rosemary. Hearty fare, but you will want to find your second stomach for his perfect tarte tatin or hazelnut parfait and flambéed strawberries with pistachio ice-cream. To cap it all, the menu is as varied as it is incredible, changing every day. You can eat at Gérard’s table every night of the week and never have the same dish twice.
You might suspect that I am suffering from a traveller’s romantic delusion – the sort of thing that leads one to take home a bottle of glorious local digestif only to find it mysteriously undrinkable in the familiar surrounds of home. The only secret ingredient in many far-flung meals is the strange alchemy of food, drink, time and place. Could Gérard’s cooking have been elevated by the fact that I tasted it in the alpine idyll of the Gran Paradiso National Park, after a hard day’s walking?
I don’t think so. It was my second trip to the region and, much as I loved the food I ate on my first trip, Gérard’s was clearly in a different league. What’s more, such delusions of greatness don’t generally persist when you’ve eaten at the same place six nights in a row.
The real reason why Gérard is a culinary unknown is that the only people who eat his food are the half-board lodgers who stay at Hotel Petit Dahu, a small place he runs in an unfashionable alpine village with Valentina, the mother of his two young children. As talented as he is, Gérard’s one-man operation will never be a Michelin-starred destination restaurant. That kind of excellence requires a staff-to-customer ratio approaching 1:1. Intensely refined and extraordinary it might be, but Gérard’s cooking occupies a gastronomic no-man’s land between the resource-heavy, prestige avant-garde and the solidly traditional rustic table of the good local cook.
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In 2003, Joyce Meng, then a 16-year-old girl from Virginia, competed in the final of a national competition known as the ‘Kids Philosophy Slam’. For once, philosophy was not far removed from the interests and concerns of ordinary people but a perfect reflection of them. ‘Fame is a necessary component of self-fulfilment,’ she argued, ‘a pathway to the meaning of life.’ Given that history never remembers who comes second, I can only imagine how she felt when she was announced as the runner-up.
Perhaps she was just being provocative, but I remember feeling saddened that the brightest of youth could take philosophy and use it to derive such a wrong-headed conclusion. Yet it often takes a child to state plainly and unapologetically what the adult world implicitly believes. No right-thinking person would endorse what Meng said, but our behaviour suggests many of us agree with her in practice, if not in principle.
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Fame is relative, of course. Most of us can honestly say we have no desire to be on the cover of Hello! magazine, yet almost all of us crave recognition, believing that it validates our endeavours. A myth of our age is that talent, dedication and ambition bring such recognition – and its associated rewards – in gastronomy as in everything else. Gérard is living proof that this just isn’t true. And, of course, he is not alone. The chefs we hear about are almost all of two kinds: either they run top-ranked, cutting-edge restaurants, or they serve the very best examples of traditional regional cuisines in simpler tavernas, osterias and brasseries. But there must be hundreds of truly excellent cooks who choose to work in other settings where you can’t even book a table, places that will never feature in restaurant guides.
The great philosophers would not have lamented this. The Stoics were entirely dismissive of the pursuit of fame, which they thought involved an excessive desire to please others. By example, Epictetus asks why we should feel annoyed when we ‘were not invited to some one’s entertainment’ – for our purposes, let’s call it an invitation to be a keynote speaker at a conference or to appear as a guest on a chat show. Everything has a price, says Epictetus, and the price of such invitations is that you must lavish praise and attention on those who can help you get one. Now it’s true that some individuals achieve fame without ever having sought it. But it’s far more likely that the desire for acclaim has driven them to ingratiate themselves with influential people in their field.
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‘Who are these people, by whom you wish to be admired?’ asks Epictetus. ‘Are they not the very people whom you have been in the habit of describing as mad?’
Aurelius does, however, concede one benefit to recognition. ‘What use is praise,’ he wrote, ‘except to make your lifestyle a little more comfortable?’ Clearly he did not think this a significant gain, given the concomitant losses. Aristotle’s view was more moderate. He believed it was good to be able to accept an appropriate degree of recognition with good grace for deeds that merit it. But he insisted that honour could not be the highest good because it ‘is felt to depend more on those who confer than on him who receives it’. Our focus should be on cultivating virtue and excellence, not the good reputation that often comes with it.
The message is clear: you should do what you do to the best of your ability, and whether you gain recognition for it or not is secondary. This is the ethic of the Japanese shokunin, the true craftsman. These masters are completely dedicated to perfecting their craft, whether it is cookery or calligraphy, woodwork or weaving. Honour comes simply from the work, not from the recognition others give you for your doing it.
Link to the rest at Aeon and thanks to Julia for the tip.