Judicial Review #4: What Is This Thing Called Food?
What is a Judicial Review? It is a fresh approach to creating a conversational, critical space about the arts and culture. This is our fourth session, this time deliberating on the relationship between science and food.
It could be foam or gel, popcorn cloud or liquid ham, in the hands of the chefs of avant-garde cuisine. Some of the world’s best practitioners of what is also called “molecular gastronomy” and “deconstructed food” were the stars of a recent series of lectures at the Harvard School of Science and Engineering, “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter.” Showcasing scientific principles through cooking, they manipulate ingredients via scientific means—with machines and with chemicals affecting composition. Textures and shapes change into another thing—olive oil becomes a sphere in a skin, or a crystallized sugar orb looks like an apricot but when you crack it open custard spills out.
But—do too many tricks spoil the broth? Eaters and foodies are talking. And here at ArtsFuse.org, food editor Sally Steinberg leads the discussion. We encourage our readers to become a part of the debate.
- Verdict of Sally Levitt Steinberg.
- Verdict of Mary Vaughn.
- Verdict of Joseph Margate.
- Verdict of Jody Adams.
- Verdict of Emily Manetta.
- Response by Rebecca Hoffman.
- Response by Corky White and Gus Rancatore.
- Summary by Bill Marx.
Majority Opinion: The crux of the case, raised by the Harvard University course on science and cooking, appears to be whether “molecular gastronomy” should be seen as gimmicky or innovative, the same old thing under a new brand or the arrival of a brave new world of eating. Most of the judges and respondents give the deconstruction of food the benefit of the doubt, convinced by the reality or intrigued by the promise of new flavors and combinations, as well as by the aesthetic possibilities of reinventing the look of food from the ground up. Still, the approval is moderated by a healthy dose of skepticism — the proof will be in the eating, and the results are still not in, as least among a large enough group of foodies.
Minority/Dissenting Opinion: The counterargument is put at its best by chef Jody Adams of Rialto, who thinks that avant-garde cuisine remains at the “hipster margins,” offering “an intriguing esthetic experience, not a meal.” The doubters question whether the “experimental” approach to food will amount to more than a faddish revolution, a necessarily marginal though significant challenge to the traditional definition of what and how we eat.
— Bill Marx, Editor, The Arts Fuse
Sally Levitt Steinberg
Make me a malted, went the old genie joke. Poof, you’re a malted! Dated joke? Maybe not. New magicians of gastronomy are performing the impossible. You want caviar? Catalonian chef Ferran Adrià takes olive oil, dunks it in an alginate solution to form a sphere in an invisible skin, and poof, olive oil caviar. Merlin the Magician trades high hat for chef’s toque. Adrià, possibly the world’s greatest chef, inventor of molecular gastronomy, creator of “spherification,” culinary conjurer, lectures at Harvard. Mouths are agape. Lines form outside.
Inebriate of air am I, said Emily Dickinson, speaking of summer. Why not put that to the test? Chef Grant Achatz of Chicago restaurant Alinea places fresh cut grass in a vaporizer and seals the smell in a plastic bag, encloses the bag in a linen pillow, puts a plate with an exquisite tomato creation on the pillow, punctures the bag to release grass-scented vapors through the pillow–tomato perfumed with cut grass. Inebriate of air. Poof, your tomato tastes like new-mown lawn in summer. And poof! 3 Michelin stars.
Now another poof. This is at Harvard!– in a course, “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter,” each lecture validated with an equation spelling out its principle, to applause. On Harvard’s Science Center stage, in the Hallowed Halls, magicians of the meal perform a class act in science class. Part wizardry, part science. And part art.
Showcasing scientific principles, star chefs of avant-garde cuisine manipulate ingredients by scientific means–with machines and with chemicals affecting composition, “natural” chemicals like calcium and agar-agar (from seaweed). Textures and shapes change, into foam or gel, popcorn cloud or liquid ham. Pea juice becomes a bright green globe, an elixir in a perfect sphere. Joan Roca’s magic glass fruits are crystal blow-ups, replicas made of blown sugar. One mimics an apricot exactly, but crack it and mousse spills out. Burning leaves on branches skewering pheasant tempura give it an autumnal aura. Autumn on your plate and on your palate, inducing an altered state where childhood smells are up close and personal. Time travel. “People cry. In a good way. Smell memory is a powerful thing,” Achatz says. The podium becomes a sorcerer’s den, a spectacle of puffs of steam and plumes of smoke. Liquid becomes solid or gas. Today’s avant-garde cuisine is yesterday’s alchemy.
Avant-garde cuisine is hot and happening, with its magical changes wrought by science. Even chefs who don’t “alter” use it as a reference point. It’s original and innovative, but you can’t do it at home. You need a reservation a year in advance at an astronomically expensive restaurant—so it’s for the foodie elite with fat wallets, which has people wondering what it is about. It is, without question, science, so for the lectures it served its purpose.
But—do too many tricks spoil the broth? Eaters and foodies are talking. Is it a striving for effect, or indulgent playing with food-as-luxury? At El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, Jordi Roca reinvents dessert as soccer field, white chocolate ball vaulting into candied net, accompanied by a recorded sportscast of the game. Do we want to play soccer with dessert?
When is it trickery and not gastronomy?
Sometimes it’s now-you-see-it now-you-don’t. Where there was foie gras there’s frozen dust. A disappearing act. There are vaporizations, conflagrations. Smoke and mirrors. Results can depart drastically from food as recognizable fruits of earth and sea. Do we need food to morph, or can we trust it just to be?
Some question the authenticity of this approach, of its alteration of nature’s bounty into unrecognizable substances. Why not leave a carrot alone? Chef José Andrés parries–ice and ice cream are scientific alterations. And there are practical applications, like better gluten-free edibles (noodles of Parmesan cheese). For the chefs, taste rules, whether foam and sphere or food as nature grew it. But at issue for others is whether the food loses its essential “nature,” with shape shifts and strange textures. Alchemy is two-faced. A wizard, a devil, magical and dangerous. For better or for worse. Used and abused.
People ask, Why? And why not? How are we to think about it? Adrià’s mantra is Do Not Imitate. He drops yoghurt into a bath. Lo! It’s a sphere. Lift it with a spoon, puncture it to ooze, taste yoghurt in a different way. In 1999 the first hot gelatin happened with the discovery that agar-agar holds gels at high temperatures without melting. So Adrià could make ravioli out of its sauce—pesto—basil, nuts, salt, oil and gelatin. The science of soft matter.
Adrià’s talking style swirls in stream-of-consciousness loops. He can seem a bit possessed. But he’s re-imagining things we take for granted–ice cream is sweet. Why not savory? He conceptualizes anew, transmuting accepted objects and received knowledge into The Other. It’s a new way of thinking. It’s about the application of mind to food.
Think, what form could a food take that it doesn’t have? Achatz makes salad as palate cleanser –juice greens, freeze, grate them like a granita. Taste is infused into invented textures–salad as shaved ice, food bent out of shape. Isolating taste creates new experiences of it, separate from thing–vegetable or fish. Taste is refocused or reduced to essence with almost no substance, as foam or “soil” powder, or ethereal chip. The relationship of content to form is upended and redefined. So you have to notice, wake up to new mindful eating.
Shape shifting is a universal conceit. Shakespeare would know, with his gender bending and moving trees. Or Alice in Wonderland, with magic mushroom for growing or shrinking. Fairy tales spin dross into gold. Tribal spirits inhabit the physical world. And now– transmogrifications of food…. Caprice! Surprise! Awaken senses, nose and eyes. And tongue.
A quail egg appears in costume, a salt-studded caramel bustier, which functions simultaneously as a sweet/salty crisp foil for the mellow egg. Cooking in a vacuum, sous-vide, at low temperatures, produces newly intense flavors and altered textures by ringing changes on the application of heat. Roca’s cod sous-vide is a swoon on the tongue.
Achatz says, we feed people trees. We distill pine in the evaporator for pine essence, to make pine sorbet. For a dish around pine we gather mushrooms growing under pines, matsutake, and we smoke fish with pine.
The message—this is what taste can be.
This cuisine may seem rarefied, reserved for a special interest group. But it has the feel of a new frontier in human endeavor, using inventions of science for radical culinary perspectives and new taste sensations. No longer hidden in cabinets of wonders, this new thing is filtering into our culinary lexicon.
Is it part of a natural progression, or does it violate this progression? Cooking was a transformative scientific departure, a step on the continuum of change. Artisanal tofu requires scientific manipulation, using sea water from a specific Japanese island locale as coagulant, bamboo for draining, and lava blocks and cedar boxes for pressing, ancient ways rooted in science. Once upon a time three eggs become an omelette, a new concept. Bill Yosses, White House pastry chef, eloquent, brainy, learned, a sharp wordmeister, muses on how we transformed sugar, a spice, into a “staple,” a sine qua non, an element, not a flourish or flavor accent. The evolution of habitual foods.
The invention of new ways in food is not new. The journey began when people started fiddling with food, frying in oil, baking in a clay oven, methods we call traditional. Avant-garde cuisine is another in these changing ways. If it seems a departure from that continuum, that may be wrong thinking.
It harks back to antiquity, to the building blocks of life identified by the ancients, Earth, Fire, Air, Water. The chefs use these to change some things and keep others constant. Air foams things up–what’s a soufflé but egg puffed up with air? Fire crystallizes sugar or smokes leaves, water bathes liquids like olive oil or yoghurt to make spheres, and earth is culture medium and substance–all foods are of earth.
Adrià creates “a new language,” using this alphabet of universal elements in unprecedented ways. Few of us will taste what he creates. Even fewer would spherify in an alginate bath. But this is creativity. It’s razzle-dazzle, mind-bending. It has aspects of the outlandish. Think Galileo. These are visionaries, slightly loopy, to be reckoned with, astonished by. The earth moves a bit. They don’t rest on their laurels. They are forever inventing, doing away with past codifications.
Who knew Dan Barber’s talk on grazing lambs on varietal grasses would knock the socks off listeners, outdoing soporific lecture hall deliverances? At his restaurant and farm, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, his foods are raised and grown on the land. He does not alter on the plate. He maximizes the environment for taste, adjusting grazing patterns, using a “recipe for hay,” sonograms for fat marbling, a CV on the Dehesa, “king of pigs”—with its 2,000-year history of feeding off acorns. His pigs eat a “buffet” of grasses. He controls wood carbonization for a “recipe of charcoal flavors” for grilling. He alters soil composition, creating “bio-char,” a “vitamin pack” for soil, spraying plants with “compost tea” as an inoculant. “Everything I celebrate in the kitchen begins here,” on the farm. He is Master of Earth.
These are the back alleys of taste. He calls it A Recipe For The Recipe.
Carme Ruscalleda grew up on a farm wanting to be an artist. Now she paints on the plate. Her Miró “bird” is cod and asparagus and olive, a museum piece. Speaking Catalan, the world’s “most famous woman chef” is a wisp of a thing, more Titania than Titan. She shows off langoustines with black egg clusters, pink beauties wearing black pearls. She says, “Pork made me a very happy person.” She loves her pig. She paints its skin with beet puree, dries and twirls it on a hook, as faux “jamon iberico,” a “divertimento”—playing with food. It also tastes good, she says. She presses whole fish as thin as an “x-ray,” a see-through chip, bones and all. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice in Wonderland says. Who would have thought?
The chef lectures are a tour de force. These are not just cooks. They are thinkers, creators, artists, scientists, inventors, wizards, farmers. It’s not just that food is science, in essence. Food is food, the thing we all love and are fascinated by, multifaceted in its reach into the corners of human discourse. Food is good. Food is fun. Food is art. Theater, story, science. These chefs take it apart and put it back together. They shake up our notions of what food can be and do.
What Is This Thing Called Food? That is the question avant-garde cuisine asks and answers in new ways. Food is what we know, and then again, we don’t, if it can change before our eyes into other forms or become taste abstracted from physical form.
Food can do so much. It can attract crowds, spellbound, to jaw-dropping articulations and demonstrations of its new antics and contortions, the torque of gastronomic innovation. It can spread its wings and become avant-garde cuisine.
Is this a flash in the pan? Is it hocus-pocus? If you are a foodie, or an eater with discriminating taste buds, if you are interested in the cuisine of today, cutting edge, locavore, avant-garde, molecular gastronomy, or whatever your nomenclature, you can’t ignore it. Its adventurous spirit is infectious.
It’s science. It’s foam! Is it food or isn’t it?
The ways of avant-garde cuisine can seem oblique, shocking, and, yes, weird, but a caveman might have thought the transformation from raw meat to cooked was weird. It’s a wake-up call, and who knows? That may give it its chance for wonder.
My introduction to avant-garde cuisine was during a vacation in Catalunya in 1999. Catalan friends Pep and Montse had suggested that we drive up to a place on the Costa Brava to try the food at El Bulli, where chef Ferran Adrià was getting exceptional reviews. We followed the treacherous mountain route to Cala Montjoi, where six of us were seated in a comfortable booth with a view of the Mediterranean. The “dinar,” or midday meal, was a prix fixe tasting menu with about 8 courses, each further subdivided into stages, meaning that we were presented with 18 exquisite miniature dishes on plates and spoons, in small glasses, and on sticks. Four or more servers hovered around the table, explaining in detail the ingredients of each dish, in what order bites of food should be taken for optimal results, how fast to sip two-layered hot and icy soups, and what went into the mysterious foams that accompanied some courses.
The combinations and transformations of basic and exotic ingredients made the whole meal into an experience I’ll never forget, although not one I’d like to have every day! My clearest memory of the meal, however, was that one of our party announced upon sitting down at the table that she could not digest meat and was allergic to shellfish and all milk products. This meant that virtually every course on the set menu was inappropriate for her. Without a word of complaint, the servers asked the kitchen staff to create 18 different exquisite bites or sips of food specially for her.
Chef Adrià stopped by our table to check on things and afterwards let us take a peek into the kitchen at the long, laboratory-like tables on which the culinary experiments took place. Throughout the meal he and his servers spoke about every ingredient, dish, and procedure with utmost reverence, demonstrating a seriousness of purpose I had never seen before in a restaurant. There was none of the pretension that one often encounters in restaurants of this category but simply a commitment to providing diners with a truly unique culinary experience.
In 2005, on another vacation in Catalunya, Pep and Montse suggested that four of us take the train to Sant Pol de Mar to eat at the restaurant Sant Pau run by Carme Ruscalleda. Thus we boarded a train that travels north along the Costa del Maresme directly beside the Mediterranean. The restaurant was a short walk from the station, and the elegant dining room had views onto the glistening, midday sea. Once again, there was a multi-course prix fixe menu and, once again, a diner with special dietary needs—no shellfish, no cream, no eggs. This time only half the dishes had to be individually prepared, and Chef Ruscalleda took on that task herself. During the meal she came over to greet us personally and to check whether the dishes she had prepared were to our friend’s liking. She seemed almost delighted to have been given this extra challenge at the peak of the restaurant rush hour.
There were fewer courses than at El Bulli, but each plate was a work of art made up of foods transformed and recombined in unique ways. The course I liked the best, though, was a simple one, a board of 5 micro-portions of artisanal cheeses. Carme Ruscalleda explained in her animated fashion that to bring out the particular flavor of each cheese, it had been paired with a seed, nut, jelly, or confit chosen as the perfect foil. And I have to add that the graciousness and enthusiasm of the chef were as memorable as the food itself. At Sant Pau, like at El Bulli, there was no pretension, just a fascination with new and exciting ways to deliver extraordinary food. Chefs have always tried to innovate, but Adrià and Ruscalleda have taken food into an entirely different realm, and I wholeheartedly support their efforts.
Mary Vaughn is a freelance editorial consultant living in Manhattan. She taught English for two years in Barcelona, where she mastered just enough Catalan to keep up with friendly conversation and to get along in restaurants and food markets. Over the years she has frequently visited friends in Catalunya, who have taught her much about preparing local dishes and enjoying food in both traditional and avant-garde restaurants.
Joseph Margate, Chef at Clink, Liberty Hotel, Boston
I’ve dabbled in avant-garde cuisine, introducing different textures, turning something into a powder or fluid gel. The foams I can leave behind. I don’t think of myself as an avant-garde chef, depending on the definition. I don’t serve veal sweetbreads with white chocolate—that would be “avant-garde.” I like to stick with traditional flavor combinations. But there’s something to this avant-garde cuisine.
I’ve played with it. I might use one of the techniques to spruce up a dish. I’m not an expert at it, but you can use as much as you want. A good way to look at it is that it’s technique-oriented. That’s what drives it, learning the techniques perfectly. It’s about technique and it’s about perfection. If you make a sphere with a skin around it, it’s perfect. I’ve used that technique to make a smoked yoghurt sphere that I serve in soup. I made one with Vermont goat cheese. I think of the sphere as a dollop.
In fine dining there’s a lot of showmanship, that’s part of it. But taste is the important thing. The ingredients should speak for themselves.
In the beginning, about 10 years ago, avant-garde cuisine had the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. People tried to do it and did it poorly, and a lot of people got turned off by it. They turned their noses up at the word “foam.”
Now it’s about being creative and sparking creativity. And that’s why I’m all for it, whether it’s called avant-garde or not.
I put gel in salads, balsamic vinegar gel, or a swish on the plate. It’s a different way to serve vinaigrette. I use mostly classical techniques, but when I use something like the gel it looks different. It looks really nice. I do it with black garlic too, as a puree gel that adds amazing flavor. I’m on the side of not saying on the menu that it’s a fluid gel, but we put it on the plate. It doesn’t read nicely to put the exact technique on the menu.
I’ve been lucky enough to have dinner at El Bulli. The olive oil spheres served on an antique spoon were delicious. I still have in my memory a frozen raspberry stuffed with wasabi, with raspberry vinegar on the side. That was the year they used Japanese ingredients. The dishes were beautiful. I thought it was very honest, not gimmicky. They served a lot that came from the area. This is one of the great restaurants of the world and they don’t follow any rules. It’s great to be able to do that. They do not sacrifice taste.
What I love most about it is that when the chefs come up with something new they share it, it’s not exclusive, anyone can try it. The spirit of sharing is its legacy.
Joseph Margate, Executive Chef
Two years ago, fresh from his stint as a sous-chef at New York City’s lauded Eleven Madison Park, Margate stepped into the Executive Chef position at The Liberty Hotel’s restaurant, CLINK., bringing with him a modern French approach and a passion to support the region’s local farms and fisheries. A graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Margate draws on 10 years of West Coast restaurant and hotel experience and a California-inspired cooking philosophy.
At CLINK., Margate has refined a menu that showcases his classically trained European technique coupled with the freshness of in-season American ingredients. Diners can experience his enthusiasm for umami, the fifth taste most commonly described as the sensation of savoriness on the tongue. Margate lives in Boston’s Bay Village and spends his free time volunteering for small scale organic and sustainable farmers, learning the fundamentals of growing produce.
Jody Adams, Rialto chef
Molecular gastronomy, avant-garde food, techno-emotional cooking, deconstructed cuisine . . . is this a case of the emperor with no clothes? I was asked to weigh in on the pros and cons of this approach to food.
As a disclaimer, I am not an avant-garde cook or chef but rather a bit of a Luddite when it comes to technical innovation in the kitchen. I came to the profession from a simple love of ingredients, and I continue to cook with a light hand. We don’t use chemicals or liquid nitrogen in the Rialto kitchen, and on my plates anything that looks, smells, and tastes like a carrot is indeed a carrot. That said, I don’t dismiss change out of hand, but I take a wait-and-see approach when it comes to the newest trends. We just put a foam on the menu and the sous-vide circulator in the kitchen is a little more than a year old, about a decade behind everyone else.
I had a memorable encounter with a chef’s idea of avant-garde food 12 years ago. My husband and I were dining at a restaurant one evening when the kitchen sent us a complimentary platter of oysters. One taste announced that we were no longer in Kansas—something unexpected and unpleasant erupted in our mouths. A close examination of the remaining shellfish revealed the cause—a garnish of Pop Rocks and crushed Vick’s cough drops sprinkled over each oyster. In that case the emperor was definitely naked.
Two years ago I attended a lecture given by Ferran Adrià on the techniques he’s appropriated from chemistry and physics to create his “deconstructed food” (his preferred term of art). Later that same evening with some friends at Rialto, I noted that it struck me as odd that not once in his lecture did he mention flavor. A nearby guest overheard me and said, “I just got a reservation at El Bulli and we have an extra seat, do you want to come?” Wow. The result was that I ended up flying to Spain, where I spent an afternoon in the El Bulli kitchen, followed by dinner that night.
In a dinner of 35 separate dishes, I encountered much that was amusing, surprising, even startling, but with a couple of spectacular exceptions, little that I’d describe as yummy or the kind of food that I taste and don’t want to stop eating. The dishes that succeeded for me were the ones that ultimately returned me to a great flavor but via an unexpected route, specifically an amazing liquid “olive” and a frozen coconut egg dusted with curry powder. The olive, swimming in olive oil, looked ordinary enough but was in fact an intense olive emulsion encased in a thin, gelatinous skin made from Adrià’s sodium alginate process.
When I bit through the skin, the olive exploded, filling my mouth with silky oliveness. Surprise, texture, and flavor wrapped up in one ha-ha instant. It was served at the start of the meal with the most incredible gin fizz I’d ever had. I could have stopped there. I had a similar experience with the coconut egg. A large, smooth, ostrich-sized white egg, dusted with curry powder, was cracked at the table, revealing a hollow center. At first bite, it felt like coconut—firm and a little waxy—but very cold. But then it changed and started to melt, again filling my mouth with silky coconut flavor accented by a hint of curry. It made me smile. I loved it and I did want more.
Without a doubt much of the food was exciting, smart, and clever. Adrià is pushing (straining?) the envelope of what can be done with temperature, texture, shape, and, yes, flavor with food. But not food in its conventional sense. Remarkable as it was, nothing made me want to go back to his restaurant in a week or gave me reason to think I was experiencing the tastes closest to Adrià’s Catalan heart. He’s offering an intriguing esthetic experience, not a meal. And that’s the rub—when Adrià claims that this is the future of food, I think he’s wrong. But so what? Experimentation in the kitchen is a good thing.
Outliers like Adrià force the rest of us to reflect on our own often unexamined assumptions, to ask ourselves what constitutes a meal and why we value it. Undoubtedly some of his efforts will move in from the hipster margins, and even people like me will welcome one or two into their kitchens. But then they won’t be amusing—they’ll just be part of the chef’s creative tool kit. I for one am hoping to see those olives on a local shop shelf.
After spending several thousand dollars and traveling 3500 miles, I’m of the firm opinion that indeed the emperor is wearing new clothes. Ferran Adrià is very well dressed, in fact he’s in haute couture formal garb—clothes that most people would never wear but are thrilled every season to check out on the runway.
Jody Adams is a James Beard award-winning chef with a national reputation for her imaginative use of New England ingredients in regional Italian cuisine. Rialto, her four-star restaurant in Cambridge, has been named “One of the top 20 new restaurants in the country” by Esquire magazine and “One of the world’s best hotel restaurants” by Gourmet.
Beginning her culinary career as a line cook at Seasons restaurant, she went on to open Hamersley’s Bistro as sous-chef and then served as executive chef at Michela’s in Cambridge, where Food & Wine listed her as “one of America’s ten best new chefs.” Soon thereafter, Adams opened Rialto in Harvard Square, collecting many honors as a result, including being inducted into the National Restaurant Hospitality Hall of Fame. Adams has been featured in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Bon Appetit, among many others.
She was a recent contestant on the second season of Top Chef Masters, BRAVO TV’s popular culinary competition, where she prevailed through cooking challenges like offsite wedding wars, preparing a meal for a Lisa Simpson, and feeding the cast and crew of the television show Modern Family, before finally meeting her nemesis in the form of a frozen goat leg. She has a strong commitment to hunger relief and is known for her loyal support of The Greater Boston Food Bank, Share Our Strength, and Partners in Health. In October 2010, Share Our Strength presented Jody with the Humanitarian of the Year award.
Humans have benefited enormously from manipulating and transforming food. Whether by means of heat, salt, acid, sunlight, motion, bacteria, or, perhaps most simply, time, we have made the uneatable edible, the poisonous palatable, and the unbearable delicious. In one moment, we might interpret these transformations as art – a chef sprinkling a final garnish with a flourish as the plate leaves the kitchen. In another moment, we might read these processes as something putatively inferior, as craft – a grandmother preparing a well-worn and beloved recipe for the family. And in yet another moment we might label these machinations as science – in the middle school classroom, for instance, when we discover the temperature of boiling water, or perhaps again in the Harvard lecture hall, when we observe the viscosities of olive oils and isolate the aromas of burning leaves. And then there is food preparation, food transformation as mundane – as in the rushed dinnertime pasta that must be marshaled to some semblance of doneness before the kids begin to lose it.
In India these processes happen not in walled-off kitchens of stainless steel but out in the open, in the courtyard, on the street. In the village, families haul fruit up onto the roof to dry in the hot sun; men mix yoghurt in traditional rawhide bags. In the city, street cart vendors squirt sweet semolina paste onto hot griddles; women soak lentils in pots on the sidewalk. And the food is transformed into something that can satisfy your hunger, something that can burn the tips of your fingers through the newspaper in which it’s wrapped, something whose spicy sweetness tickles your throat as you swallow, dodging motorcycles and rickshaws on the way to wherever you’re going.
Certainly, some foods cannot be eaten, cannot even be nibbled until we have prodded them, spoiled them, mashed them, and mangled them. But that’s not all. That can’t be all of it. We also play with our food. We are lucky enough to be able to manipulate not just out of need, but out of sheer pleasure. This quotidian thing, this basic requirement, it can be varied, it can be fun, it can be new! During the Science and Cooking lectures at Harvard, José Andrés told the Crimson about the excitement of transforming food, “Breathing is boring, but food is more than just a social event.” Well, ask any yogi in Delhi and you will discover (at great length, likely) that breathing is far from boring, but perhaps this makes Andrés’s point emerge even more clearly: we humans are compelled to reinterpret our most fundamental processes as practices and our needs as desires.
Avant-garde cuisine – manipulation of food so precise and so deliberate we make sense of it with labels like science – is another way to play, prod, poke, pull, burn, break, brush, and bash that thing that we cannot live without. Of course, in some sense it is no different from what we have always done. It is the transformation of food without which the villager in the Indian Himalaya could not survive. So is that impossible gel injected with impossible finesse into that impossible puff of lightness at a magnificent restaurant in the French Alps nothing more than the tedious turning of the yogurt hide, the endless drying of apricots, the dutiful boiling of pasta water? Of course not — it is something new. And who doesn’t need an infusion of something new?
Emily Manetta is a professor of Linguistics at the University of Vermont, working on the syntax of Indic languages. She and her husband are spending the spring semester doing research in New Delhi, India, along with their two-year old son, who claims that he is “getting used to spicy food.”
For a society that constantly pushes its limits, molecular gastronomy or avant-garde cuisine is the natural next step in terms of gastronomic development, deconstruction, reconstruction, and experimentation. It is ideally catered to the 21st century diner – the being who is always connected, always searching for the next new thing.
Did it start off as an obscure fad that was available to the select few who could afford it and knew where to enjoy it? Yes! Is that still the case? Most certainly not! It has assimilated itself in culinary society — certain schools of thought frown upon it and others embrace it with open arms. To me, avant-garde cuisine is to the Kindle as classic culinary techniques are to the good old-fashioned library book. Used to holding a fork eating pasta with tomato sauce or reading that plastic covered book that you can turn each page in? That was so 20th century! Welcome to the 21st century, where dishes are composed of foams, soils, and turned on their heads with food science techniques and tools, and where an endless supply of books can be read on small digital devices.
It pushes one’s understanding of what food is/should be artistically, physically, conceptually, technically, and scientifically, and it encourages the diner to respect the simple phrase, “things are not always as they seem.” And why should they be? Don’t you want to live in a society that pushes you to learn and try something new on a daily basis? I know I do.
Rebecca Hoffman of the Fromagical blog — avid cheese lover, connoisseur, foodie, blogger, teacher, cheese curator, consultant, photographer and art gallery director.
Corky White and Gus Rancatore
The avant-garde and the skeptical part of the mainstream all believe in the myth of the avant-garde. Right now they believe that the vanguard of the culinary proletariat (always more creative than the aristocracy) can be found in labs rather than kitchens, and that that vanguard is more likely to speak Catalan than French or English. We would say that change is constant –always has been and always will be– and everyone should try to keep this in mind.
Creativity and innovation in the kitchen haven’t always been about the white-frocked lab technician in a stainless steel controlled environment. Italian grandmothers pride themselves each on her own recipe, each doing things no one has done before. There is no one slavishly-adhered-to recipe, no authority of the “authentic” – unless one is using it for ideological purposes. At least this is what one of us tells her food anthro class. The homey handfuls of the domestic kitchen seem far from the rigorous measurements of the laboratory, making us think that something hugely different takes place in these environments. That we have moved from inner to outer space in food production.
But thinking about cooking with rigor is at least as old as Escoffier, and consciously pushing the envelope in search of new ideas and tastes was all part of California Cuisines, Nouvelle Cuisine, Cuisine Minceur and even grandmother’s home cooking, when she wasn’t forced by ritual or religion to maintain a “tradition.” She would vary the heat, play with ingredients, incessantly experiment – using what she had in hand to perfect or create.
We have more to play with now. Foods move more than they did one hundred years ago, and our mises en place are full of novelties: sticks of lemongrass or racks of pink, black, and speckled salts. We now have lardo in our varied larders, vegetarian rennet for our homemade raw milk cheeses, and we make our own garam masalas. We read the Wednesday food pages looking for the latest trends, inciting us on a weekly basis to try things until the following Wednesday.
This year’s agar agar magic will probably be as stale as kiwifruit in short order, even while the resilient mainstreams (and we always prefer the plural) exhibit Marcuse-like durability, with its ability to incorporate new ideas from the most sophisticated and most self-important practitioners as well as very democratic and often anonymous sources of change, whether those are grandmothers or food trucks.
Corky White teaches anthropology at Boston University; her area is Japan and her topic is food. She has recently completed a book on coffee and cafes in Japan and loves noodles.
Gus Rancatore was born in a dangerous part of Staten Island and now lives on a quiet street in mid-Cambridge. He and his sister run Toscanini’s in Central Square. They sell ice cream and coffee.
Tagged: avant-garde cuisine, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Carme Ruscalleda, Clink, Corky White, Dan Barber, Emily Manetta, Ferran Adria, Food Muse, Fromagical, Gus Rancatore, Harvard School of Science and Engineering, Jody Adams, Jose Andre, Joseph Margate, Mary Vaughn, Molecular Gastronomy, Rebecca Hoffman, Rialto, Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter