Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Meringue War

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Meringue War

Article excerpt

Claiming Culinary Turf on Instagram

BEING A RENOWNED PASTRY CHEF IS OFTEN likened to being an artist-a vocation rife with personal obsessions, fads, and the pressure to create something honest and new. And while pastry chef Matt Tinder doesn't think of food as art, he does tend to work according to his obsessions, which are intentionally contrarian. If the current culinary Zeitgeist favors ice cream, no dish on his menu will include a single scoop. Nor will he indulge in the current cupcake fad. Tinder prefers to explore dishes uncommon to fine-dining dessert menus. One year it was wet cakes-rum cakes, tres leches, Argentine tortas mojadas. Lately he's been obsessed with baking whole-grain bread (something of a departure for a pastry chef). Back in 2012, when he was at San Francisco's Saison restaurant, his obsession was the open fire.

"These guys were cooking over a big hearth in the middle of the kitchen," Tinder says. "I just kept thinking, I've got to use this." But what could he burn? He considered his options- fruit, mostly-but nothing really worked. Then he thought of a meringue. One afternoon, as the coals glowed in the fire pit and the savory chefs hustled to prepare for the dinner rush, Tinder whipped together sugar and egg whites to assemble a hand-built meringue. Then he pulled an ember from the kitchen's fire and held it onto the meringue, searing the sugary gauze into an unexpected yet familiar char. It was just as he'd hoped; here was a haute cuisine go-to dessert, delicate and blackened, evoking the low-brow yet beloved s'more without being gimmicky or déclassé. After spending several months experimenting with it, and moving on to join the kitchen at Coi, in downtown San Francisco, Tinder finally listed the dessert on the menu: a frozen lime marshmallow inside a meringue, branded with a flickering ember- the Charcoal Toasted Meringue. When set down before the customers, recalls Tinder, "It smelled like campfire."

This dessert brought Tinder much acclaim. It was immortalized in the popular Coi cookbook and helped land him a Rising Star Chef award. But a few months later, Tinder was scrolling through Instagram and stopped on a new post from fellow pastry chef and Rising Star award winner Stephanie Prida: a marshmallow, charred black and featuring the same bubbled s'more texture, held over a fire of glowing embers with two sticks. She tagged several chefs beneath the picture, including Johnny Ortiz, chef at San Francisco's Saison restaurant, where Tinder formerly worked. But Tinder himself wasn't mentioned. "Johnny you inspired this," read Prida's caption. "Ember kissed marshmallow."

Of course, Tinder felt the "ember kissed marshmallow" wasn't Prida's creation at all. He took a screen grab of Prida's post and posted it to his own account, captionless-no comment necessary, he felt. His friends and fans commented on the picture, understanding Tinder's intention to show that something he'd spent months crafting had been co-opted by another chef-the inspiration for it attributed to others still. That it could have been a coincidence seems, to him, implausible.

"In music, if you do a cover-just say you're doing a cover," Tinder said recently over coffee and cigarettes at his new home in Calistoga, California. By then he was no longer angry about the marshmallow incident-he now has a collegial relationship with Prida-and admitted he was being unnecessarily inflammatory with the re-gram. But the issue of honesty in acknowledging one's culinary influences-as well as the fundamental idea of originality- was still important to him. "You can do an amazing cover song, a beautiful cover-but just say that it's a cover."

TINDER'S SHORT-LIVED INSTAGRAM FEUD WITH PRIDA sprung, in part, from the pressure chefs face to continually outdo themselves. "It's like, 'How am I ever going to beat that?' circling in your head all the time," Tinder says. "New, new, new. I realized, that's not me."

New dishes rightfully take time, he says; sometimes a dish might take months or even years of experimentation before it's ready for the menu. …

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