Heights Ateneo — The Official Literary and Artistic Publication and Organization of the Ateneo de Manila University

Today’s Special: Dwelling on the Details

Stanley Guevarra, Charles Yuchioco | Jun 26, 2020

Food demands attention to detail. In this Lemon Meringue Tart, a sugary halo, mint and gold leaves, candied lemon, and lime zest decorate this slice of a pastry case filled with lemon custard. To top it off, orange and grapefruit citrus segments, sweetened brown crumbs, mango and raspberry drops of gelée, and fresh portions of pomelo adorn the dish. Your eyes relish its softness and texture—a sweet and citrusy surprise unknowable until the first taste. 

Every plate is prepared by a storyteller and an artist. Though food is not immediately recognized as an interplay of literature and art, cooks utilize a creative interaction between narrative and aesthetics with the dishes they serve—and Cess Yu is a notable example. Coming from a business-centered background with a growing passion for food, Yu had always envisioned herself to have “the life of a hustling person in business.” A graduate in Pastry and Bakery Arts, Yu founded Cuisina in 2016, an organization in the Ateneo de Manila University for people who share the same love and passion for food.

While food is a basic necessity inseparable from human life, it is unrecognizably the oldest storyteller to have ever existed. Yu demonstrates this idea with a staple ingredient: a potato. With something so plain, the cook draws from narratives to employ a combination of methods, techniques, and ingredients to bring stories to the table. Whether it is a ballad of a particular cuisine, a testament to a homemade recipe, or a work of mimesis from culinary school, the resulting dish is a manifestation of narratives that have been passed down through ages. “A lot of dishes we know and love have been around for decades, but they continue to tell stories,” Yu adds.

Alongside narratives, food draws from the aesthetics of its maker as well. Yu elaborates on this by using the example of a wedding cake: “[It] takes months of planning, then weeks of active work to make and decorate the cake...at the wedding reception itself, the cake is a showpiece. Even slicing the cake is momentous.” The cake’s artistic appeal owes itself to the cook’s discernment for beauty and taste. In the same way, cooks are always guided by their personal approach in creating a feast for the senses. This artistic sensibility serves as the cook’s set of principles and space for creativity; it is their aesthetic.

As a cook, Yu is a storyteller and an artist. By drawing from narratives of lessons in pastry school and imbuing her aesthetic statement, each of her desserts becomes a transformation of raw ingredients into an enchanting story and a gorgeous art piece. Aside from her Lemon Meringue Tart, one of her proudest pastries breathes new life into the classic Italian dessert: a Deconstructed Tiramisu. Served with coffee crème anglaise, the sweet course is crafted with bavarian cream fused with marsala wine, mascarpone cheese, Kahlúa, rum, and Baileys Irish cream. A strip of coffee jelly and a piece of mint leaf rest lazily on the surface of the cake while an arching chocolate cutout boasts its figure. The plate is meticulously garnished further with a ladyfinger, streusel, mango and raspberry gelée, and fresh berries.

In Yu’s dishes, narratives and aesthetics are manifested through well-balanced composition. Yu reflects how thought can be put into food as one ‘eats with the eyes first’. She achieves this by choosing a focal point that will be in harmony with the natural flow of flavors, colors, textures, shapes, and sizes. “We have to strike a balance of creating a feast for the eyes without making the plate look busy,” she says.

Evidently, cooking is not as easy as pie. With each plated dessert, the cook’s careful ministrations are like clockwork. Developing the recipe, constructing each component, and fashioning every garnish are just a few steps behind the preparation. Yu recalls studying plating in pastry school to be far from a piece of cake. Like a painting or a story, there are no specific rules in approaching the process. "It's a creative skill you just get better at by experimenting," she explains.

In observing careful procedure and thought into making food, it is evident that culinary arts is inevitably intertwined with literature and art—the former lends the narratives, and the latter offers the aesthetics. In a similar fashion, culinary arts' creative process commits to the act of composition by dwelling on the details just like literature and art do. These creative practices are so inextricably interlaced that no one can really say whether one exclusively belongs to a sole discipline. But art, as a medium, is special in that it has the ability to get a message across, and culinary arts is no exception in communicating through food.

Photos from Cess Yu. Art by Giulia Lopez.

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