The third issue of Lucky Peach descended upon newsstands last week with all the pomp and pompousness of the first two. The quarterly’s latest incarnation is dedicated to cooks, and lavishes many words on the future of chefs in the media, whether cooking school is worth the time and money, what it means to be a chef in an age of celebrity, and David Chang’s laborious assertion that cooking is dying.
Since its premiere issue, Lucky Peach as been an object both of admiration and skepticism, thanks to its potent combination of good writing, striking design, and Chang. (Full disclosure: I was paid early on to write for the publication.) The Momofuku overlord tends to provoke strong reactions, and because LP bears his imprint (and is full of contributions from his famous friends), it often reads like the in-house publication of a club its readers aren’t cool enough to join. The implicit message: Readers should feel grateful for the chance to stand behind the velvet ropes and behold the magnificence.
Regardless of your views on Chang, the fact that the food world even has a magazine novel and thought-provoking enough to merit review is something to celebrate. And the third issue provides a good deal to cheer, along with plenty to merely tolerate.
Lucky Peach is at its best when it’s not trying to prove anything; when its writers simply tell the stories of interesting people making good and sometimes challenging food. Cases in point are Naomi Duguid’s concise, vivid account of three cooks in Chiang Mai; Jack Carneal’s earthy, sometimes jarring tale of everyday eating in Mali; and Karen Leibowitz’s meditation on the San Francisco chef Dominique Crenn and the question of what constitutes “personal” cooking. Likewise, a series of Q&As with the nonfamous—like an elementary school cafeteria manager, a dim sum chef, and a South Pole station cook—are illuminating, in part because their subjects speak for the vast majority of kitchen workers who will never appear in any magazine.
Other highlights are what you might call the geek tirades, vehicles for obsessive fixations on minute but fascinating details. Under this rubric fall Harold McGee’s “On Molecular Gastronomy,” a dissection of the oft-maligned term that’s accompanied by some nifty facts about cooking with fresh herbs (“bartenders sometimes ‘spank’ mint rather than muddle it”); “Lespinasse,” Amanda Kludt’s meticulously researched story about the four-star restaurant that was a training ground for some of New York’s greatest chefs; and “Nobody Doesn’t Love a Cake with a Runny Center,” Rachel Khong’s piece on the evolution of molten chocolate cake, from the ’60s-era tunnel of fudge Bundt to the Jean-Georges’s signature to Betty Crocker’s microwavable “treat.”
Then there’s the really cheffy stuff, which is hit-or-miss. In the “hit” camp: Peter Meehan’s interview with Joe Beef‘s Fred Morin and David McMillan about what it takes to run a restaurant kitchen, which beautifully conveys the absurdity, joy, toil, and grotesqueness of the restaurant business. (Those reading over lunch are advised to skip McMillan’s account of a plumbing emergency: “A turd floats in, then a tampon, then toilet paper ….”)
That self-effacing good humor stands in contrast to Chang’s “I See Darkness,” a lament that begins, “I am convinced that cooking is dying,” and goes downhill from there. It’s not that he doesn’t make some valid (if already repeatedly voiced) observations: Comfort food has become the lingua franca of many an ambitious chef; kids today don’t want to take the time to really learn how to cook. It’s just that his self-important cynicism is becoming tiresome, and increasingly difficult to swallow. Even if all of the country’s culinary students took a vow tomorrow to spend the next 10 years peeling potatoes and perfecting beef consommé, you get the feeling Chang would still be dissatisfied.
Along the same lines, Chang’s chef rant with Sat Bains, Claude Bosi, and Daniel Patterson reads like a David Mamet parody written by a pair of testicles with Tourette syndrome. After two pages, the dialogue becomes a blur of the macho posturing that lost its novelty around the time Kitchen Confidential entered its second printing.
The rant opens the issue; try not to hold it against everything that follows. All told, this Lucky Peach is a good read, a fruit whose seeds will hopefully germinate other titles that can pull food media from a morass of quinoa salad recipes and Brooklyn dinner parties.