My monthly column at Three Quarks Daily has been posted where I discuss the current fascination with science in the kitchen.
Grading is coming along; I’ll be back to regular blogging within the week.
Food critic Jay Rayner is fuming.
My sauté of chicken liver and bacon “satay” was no less bonkers. Chicken livers. Peanut butter. And bacon. Believe me. However hard you try, nothing good could ever come of that, and nothing did. It was a mess of something dark and heartbroken.
The cause of his consternation is a restaurant aspiring to be on the cutting edge of the modernist food revolution, which has abandoned traditional dishes in favor of pushing boundaries and flouting convention with technical wizardry in an incessant search for whiz-bang novelty.
At least there was the distraction of those potatoes sautéed in Marmite, in a puddle of fat so deep you could measure it with an engine dipstick. Oh god. Never again.
Ewwww. Marmite? Really?
This is the persistent danger of modernism in food—cooks with loads of ambition, ideas, and technique but no taste. Modernism in the arts succumbed to the same temptation where the idea mattered more than its sensuous implementation. The result was unlistenable music and arid, repellant visual art.
Modernist cuisine does represent an enormous culinary advance and has boosted cooking out of the dark ages.
But it will have to weed out the poseurs.
Anthony Bourdain thinks progressive cuisine (modernist cuisine, molecular gastronomy) has reached its limit.
Eater: I guess another way of approaching that question about the modernist chefs is by asking if you think progressive cuisine is in crisis?
Bourdain: A number of its foremost practitioners have said to me that it is over. It’s utility in a restaurant setting is in decline, to say the least.
Eater: In what sense?
Bourdain: I don’t know anyone who practices molecular gastronomy and would confess to it. Go to anyone that would be accused of such a thing and they will say, “No, no, that’s not what we do!” David Chang has pointed this out: all of those best suited to be doing modernist cuisine have retreated to something else. They’re doing something else. They didn’t like what they saw down the road — their prospects — and ended up doing something else. I think everyone is now doing that.
Eater: Is it because they never stopped getting heat for it or because they’ve taken it as far as it can go?
Bourdain: I think a lot of chefs realized that people wouldn’t like it and wouldn’t make a living off of it. It’s not going to work and it won’t pay the rent.
Bourdain has a point. Modernist cuisine is difficult to do, expensive, and forbiddingly inaccessible to anyone outside a small circle of practitioners. A friend recently commented that it is impossible to look at a recipe that employs modernist techniques and ingredients and imagine what it will taste like. The same can be said for menu descriptions. Modernist cuisine in both its creation and consumption is an adventure—and food adventures are not everyone’s cup of tea.
I continue to think that for food to be art it must be understood as part of a tradition—otherwise it is just flavor combinations without much inherent meaning. Modernist cuisine is searching for its connection to tradition. Ferran Adriá of course did connect it to a tradition—the traditions of the Spanish Tapas and its small-plate, flavor-burst style of eating. Subsequent practitioners have had a more difficult time making a connection to a food tradition.
So it remains a difficult, peculiar, yet fascinating arena which is likely to remain a niche market for the time being.
But, at bottom, molecular gastronomy is the application of science to home and restaurant cooking. (Science has been part of industrial cooking for decades). And the role of science in the kitchen is unlikely to retreat. The techniques and possibilities are simply too powerful. Furthermore, the food world is exploding with creativity these days with new and bizarre flavor combinations to dazzle our imaginations. The intersection of science and creativity that marks modernist cuisine is too tempting to resist. It will continue to be an area in which genius prefers to romp.
Is Bourdain right that modernist cuisine is over for now. Perhaps.
Will it be back?
You can bet on it.