I’ve never been to the French Laundry.  I’ve never been to Per Se.  The closest to those restaurants I’ve been to is Providence here in Los Angeles, where the food is both playful [a dessert offering paying homage to a Seinfeld episode called “These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty”] and exquisite.  I am not at all trying to compare Providence to either of Thomas Keller‘s restaurant, but I think it is important to take comfort foods to a new level where we can experience something new.  Something so American, such as macaroni and cheese, can be reinterpreted to a higher level as Thomas Keller does at Per Se.  The picture above is his interpretation of macaroni and cheese.  A butter poached Nova Scotia lobster tail served over creamy lobster broth and mascarpone enriched orzo topped with a parmesan crisp.

I know a lot of people take offense when people like me say cooking can be considered an art form.  People might say, “It’s food for crying out loud!!!”  But like many art forms, you can reinterpret something that is so familiar to you that it creates a new experience.  To me, that’s part of art.  It’s part of what artists go through to interpret, and at times, reinterpret their surroundings and even their own experiences.  And it’s this reinterpretation of a classic American dish that allows someone like Thomas Keller to be inspired by something of the past to take the diner to a new place.  As he says during an interview with Charlie Rose:

People often ask, what inspires you?  Well, you can’t really say what’s going to inspire you in the future, but you can talk about stories of what inspires you in the past.

We don’t want to live in the past, where mac and cheese is done a certain way and there’s no changing it.  But there’s importance and artfulness in trying to transcend a dish that is so basic to something quite extraordinary.  While these new interpretations won’t evoke childhood memories perhaps, it is the same childhood memories that allow chefs like Thomas Keller to reach for the stars as we ride happily along with him.  We don’t all have to cook like Thomas Keller to imagine the possibilities of creating a new dish from an old dish.  It takes iterations to get the flavors right and balanced.  We don’t have to have lobster tail or mascarpone enriched orzo, but we do need some imagination and some adventure in our way of eating.  As Eric Ripert said during an interview for PlumTV.com, a dish normally take about 4 weeks from conception to bringing it on the menu.  We don’t have to go to French Laundry or Per Se to experience food in a new way.  We just have to be open to new experiences.  Sometimes they work out beautifully, and sometimes we wonder why we tried at all.  But life is not about going to Red Lobster every Friday night because that’s what you’ve done for the last 20-30 years.  Life is full of experiences and one can start by venturing out to something new.  It will be worth it in the end.  We may never look at macaroni and cheese the same ever again.