Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Failure to Thrive

As a science geek I cannot avoid being fascinated by the principles and technological aspects of the crafting of food that is generally and meaninglessly referred to as "molecular gastronomy" and "molecular cuisine." Of course, all of the science and most of the materials and technological processes used to produce this form of haute cuisine existed before chefs like Ferran Adria, Hestor Blumenthal and Grant Achatz decided to use them to produce meals for the ultra-fine-dining crowd. But just because all of the ideas and most of the tools and chemicals were already on the table before the first chef (Feran Adria is generally understood to be the first chef to articulate a complete menu that was heavily informed by physics, chemistry and neuroscience.) decided to marry what was essentially junk food technology to classical cooking, it does not take away from the fact that they produced something that is pretty rare in the world of fine cooking: a fundamental and viable change in the way that food is produced.

The techniques, tools and ingredients used to produce three-star food don't change nearly as fast as the dishes that they are used to produce. Even now, after Adria et al introduced the culinary use of liquid nitrogen, immersion heaters and aerosol cans, most cooks almost exclusively use cooking techniques and tools that have been in use for centuries to produce a seemingly infinite number of dishes. Cooking methods like roasting, boiling and grilling were first used by monkeys are as old as the habit of cooking itself and are still used, and despite an insatiable need for novelty by fine dining customers, are in no danger of being displaced from the majority of artisan kitchens anytime soon. However, in the handful of kitchens that have borrowed heavily from the laboratory to push out the edge of the envelope of creativity (And reciprocally, commonly held beliefs about what cooking is; there are lots of chefs who will tell you that extruding a noodle from an aerosol can into a customer's plate is not cooking.) one has to be very patient and persistent in order to see any traditional tools of cooking among the anti-griddles and microtomes.

There is no doubt in my mind that what we see in the kitchens of the most well-known chefs who are producing food in a way that demands a firm understanding of physical science is different enough from what goes on in most fine dining restaurant kitchens to represent a fundamental change in the way haute cuisine is produced. I think it is even more distinct from the way food is usually conceived than the nouvelle cuisine was from its antecedent. However, even though it represents an even more radical change than nouvelle cuisine, it is not as revolutionary in the sense that it has not caused a fundamental change in the way that most chefs cook. Perhaps this is because of the high cost of the tools required to make this kind of food. Or maybe the failure for the idea to spread is a function of the fact that it is so difficult to explain what it is to a largely science illiterate public and, let's face it, professional cooking labor force. Then again, perhaps the reason why we don't see more of this kind of cooking is that the majority of the demographic that can afford to eat at this link in the food chain just doesn't like the idea of paying hundreds of dollars more than once or twice in a lifetime for food that requires a minor in chemistry to understand . I suspect that the answer is All of the above.

At the end of the day, I think that despite my appreciation for its unique and radical identity, and in disregard for my love of the science, and sticking a big middle finger at my admiration for the chefs who have employed it to such astonishing affect (I mean, look at those fennel flowers!), I have to agree with those who believe that the hi-tech haute cuisine movement has peaked and will now enter of period of decline. Restaurants will close, eBay will see a spike in auctions of immersion heaters and vacuum sealers, and bottles of gums and alginates will be shoved behind boxes of salt and become obscure and arcane in jackets of grease and dust.

Of course, some of the tools and sensory gimmicks will continue to be used and there will always be a place for science in the kitchen because (Shush!) there always was. But as this article from The Wall Street Journal suggests, this whatever-you-want-to-call-it baby is a failure to thrive.


Scotty said...

"I suspect that the answer is All of the above."

I agree, but I lean heaviest on the last, and incorporate in that a term used earlier in the post - novelty. I'd amend the sentence to read: "doesn't like the idea of paying hundreds of dollars more than once or twice in a lifetime for food that requires a minor in chemistry to understand and is basically a novelty.

I am open to invention, but if budget constraints were removed I skip El Bulli or Alinea in favor of the French Laundry, or Le Bernardin or Momofuku or . . .

Tags said...

I think the immersion heaters and vacuum sealers are going to increase in popularity, but you'll still see them in auctions because they'll be stolen.

erikmandersen said...

I sort of agree with Tags about the immersion heaters and vacuum sealers. I think that sous vide may be the one method from this genre that stands the test of time. Especially with the Sous Vide Supreme, and I'm sure the imitators that will follow, I think sous vide may become a more common home cooking method.

Jessika said...

I've dined at el Bulli. I wasn't impressed with the gelatinous substance although my company was. I was blown away by the wild flower salad, among other things.

tyronebcookin said...

I would side with...hmmm my side! I have tried a few things here and there (eating, using, or making) but for the most part its never been 'my thing'.

SO I will suffer very little if it goes away.

I kinda like the natural cool science stuff, for example one of Rick Bayless salsa's has a point in it when you are heating/sauteeing the garlic and onion in a pan and it turns this cool blue/aqua color that freaks people out, but then you finish the recipe and its a killer salsa. Nothing weird, no weird colors.

And they already came out with edible underwear a long time ago! (tastes like a fruit roll-up in case you were wondering)


Jessika said...

I guess that chefs feels the pressure of coming up with the latest thing even though it might very well (or in many cases) is re-inventing the wheel. A way of cooking brisket was really something people in general did. Then it fell out of the general limelight. Then chefs "found" it. Another thing with a kind of hash, one of my favourites, I cook it all the time at home. It was also, if you'd believe restaurants newly invented rather than something people had eaten while it was not cooked in restaurants. They charged, of course, restaurant prices to it, making me think that I'll just go home and make a batch. Re-inventing the wheel or not, while things are not cooked in restaurants people keep eating the way they have most of the time with the addition of new influences here and now.