Apr 01, 2016

It occurs to me that there is nothing inherently valuable about authenticity. 

I recently attended a screening of City Of Gold; the excellent documentary about Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold. After the movie there was a Q&A with Mr. Gold and Peter Meehan of Lucky Peach. Someone in the audience asked Mr. Gold if he ever traveled to the various countries where the cuisines that he explores in LA originate, in order to calibrate his palate with what would be presumed to be authentic examples of the dishes.

He responded that food’s relationship to place is way too granular for there to be an authoritative version of any national or even regional cuisine. He went on to say that adherence to some conception of the “authentic” original version of the dish is something which can guide the chef, but is not part of the diner’s experience… Ultimately as far as the diner is concerned it’s either good/interesting on its own, or it’s not.

 …This is not such an earth-shatteringly new idea, but it made me think.

I’ve always valued authenticity. 

There is a famous restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans called Galatoire’s. They serve a trout meuniere amandine that is of sufficient delectation to be a good reason to visit New Orleans even if there were no others. I have heard people speak of it as a benchmark. In other words, if you’re a chef, and you want to know what a trout with brown butter and almonds is SUPPOSED to taste like, you can go to Galatoire’s and find out. It’s like the 30 prototype meter bars that are the standard from which measurements of length have been derived all over the world.

I’ve always thought that Galatoire’s commitment to authenticity was comforting. Somehow it has always been a load off my mind to know that there is a tradition at work in a kitchen in Louisiana that is keeping a historically delicious fish recipe true.

What Jonathan Gold clarified for me is that the value of the dish derives not from chef’s adherence to tradition but SOLELY from the deliciousness of the trout meuniere amandine itself. The fact that it is authentic is purely technical and completely incidental to the enjoyment of the dish. In fact, somewhat counterintuitively, the value of the authenticity derives from the resulting enjoyment.

Coke may be “the real thing” but if I don’t like the thing that this is the real version of, I don’t care.

The English idiom that is typically attached to this idea is interesting to examine. Since the 1920s it has been common in the United States to say “the proof is in the pudding” but the idiom is clearer in its older form, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Now, if I wanted to go whole hog with authenticity I could go back to the 14th Century version; “Jt is ywrite that euery thing Hymself sheweth in the tastyng” which is a pudding that is limited in it’s appeal when tasted. The point of the idiom is that direct experience in the present is the way to evaluate value. 

For many years, I complained that it was impossible to find good ramen in New York City. As recently as the late ’90’s there were a few places that were serving something that might pass as ramen in Manhattan, but you couldn’t find “the real, good stuff.” I tended to experience this as a lack of authenticity. When I would go to Japan, one of my first orders of business would be to seek out some, even average ramen, and enjoy a steaming hot bowl of authenticity. This situation has changed and although at the high end of the spectrum there is still an argument to be had about whether there is truly great ramen in New York, there are a lot of excellent bowls of noodles all over the five boroughs of New York. 

One of my current favorites is the signature ramen of Tabata Ramen which has two locations near the SITI Company in the Garment District. I LOVE this ramen, it draws me with the power of deep-deep comfort food. But it is almost entirely inauthentic! It is made with a Thai influenced coconut milk soup and I’ve never seen anything like it in Japan. Chef Maung Htein Linn is from Burma but he spent some 11 years in Japan and learned much of his trade there. His creativity is obviously infused with knowledge of what might be called “authentic” ramen. But what is exciting to me is that he’s not letting his adherence to it keep him from making a distinctive bowl of noodles that I really like.

SITI Company has been around for 24 years now, and we founded ourselves on really strong, palpable practices and traditions that reach back much further than that. It is very easy for us to think that we need only be loyal to these traditions and the authenticity of our adherence to them is of primary value. This is a trap. We cannot allow the momentum of the past to dictate the direction that we take in the future, without a constant checking-in. As time goes on it is increasingly important to keep “tasting the pudding.” 

Art is tricky in this regard, because our art is rooted in our personalities and lives, and those are not static things. Being true to our interests, taste and heart in each moment means being loyal to a moving target. And because so much of art is rooted in the unconscious, we often don’t really know what we’re doing until we’ve done it. And many times even then we don’t. And as with cooking, there are stages in the process of making art when the pudding tastes horrible. Experience and technique can allow us to calm down and trust that it is on its way to something good. But this is not easy. Experience also shows us that sometimes it doesn’t turn out.

Because the trainings that SITI Company practices do not originate within the company itself, there is often a question of authenticity. Questions such as “Is this the true Viewpoints technique?” or “How close to the source is your version of the Suzuki training?” These questions are both somewhat inevitable and misleading. I firmly believe that it is important to recognize the legacy that we are part of. The giants on whose shoulders we stand. I could make a really strong argument for SITI Company having an unrivaled pedigree when it comes to our training, and I would fiercely stand behind the “authenticity” of any member of our company. But that’s not where we ultimately derive our value. What we work really hard on is keeping our training and teaching rooted in our work right now. This is one of the big reasons why a company is important; because in addition to inspiring each other, we call each other out, and keep asking each other, is that REALLY it?

In the Suzuki training, there is a fundamental phenomenon that we call the “stop.” It is a stillness or an arresting of all movement that both punctuates and permeates all movement in the form. It is one of the reasons why this training is sometimes referred to as “the art of stillness.” Part of the function of the stop is to kill all traces of linear momentum within the body. It is a violent etching out from the past, the integrity of the present. It says to a direction in which you are moving, “I may continue following you, but only because I choose to again. Not because I have followed you in the past.” This is hard to do, moment to moment, but it touches at something that is deep within the very fabric of acting. It is deep awareness and mindfulness. We must seek to find this stop in all areas of our activity.

I’m not saying that we should throw away the past, or that traditions are inherently stultifying. Far from it. Some of the most valuable things we have as humans are in our pasts. But it is only if we disconnect from the inherent value of authenticity that we can imbue the past with its true value. To say, I continue this NOT because it’s old. I continue this because this old thing is good.