This fascinating article by Jacob Mikanowski tries to get to the bottom of the hi-tech food revolution that has turned cooking into an art form. His focus is on the culinary approach of René Redzepi, chef and proprietor of Noma, Denmark’s celebrated restaurant, which has been named the world’s best restaurant 3 out of the last 4 years.
Redzepi creates dishes such as “Blueberries Surrounded by their Natural Environment” with ingredients he finds by scouring the Scandinavian countryside. But unlike the farm-to-table and slow food movements which aim to evoke a sense of place with their choice of ingredients, often with a dose of nostalgia for a bygone era where location mattered, Redzepi is after something less traditional—to commune with nature in quite novel ways. As Mikanowski describes:
So this is Redzepi’s wish: to put a piece of ground in front of a diner and have him figure it out. And once you got over your dismay at being served moss on a plate, maybe you would. His cooking is an attempt to go beyond the world of language and culture and into the world of pure things. And like any real artist, Redzepi articulates desires we didn’t even know we had—not for nutritive powders or engineered foams, but for contact with another way of being. To taste the essence of rocks and trees, to creep through the forest like a snail, to sleep in the earth like onions, with our feet in the air.
The reference to “nutritive powders and engineered foams” is to another trend Mikanowski notes—the modernist cuisine of Ferran Adria and Nathan Mhyrvold. Adria and Mhrvold use science and whizz-bang technology to separate flavors, aromas, textures, and colors from their original source, and recombine them in ways that surprise and challenge diners:
In new modes of cooking, food gets dematerialized, turned into distilled scents and pure flavors. You can ingest whole meals with an eyedropper or a straw. It’s almost abstract, and indeed the move in haute cuisine of the past decade or so has been a modernist one: to try to liberate what we eat from its connection to its origins. More and more, chefs have been trying to make food that doesn’t taste or look or otherwise resemble the ingredients it is made out of.
But I suppose no discussion of contemporary food trends would be complete without mention of the Soylent project, the name of which is drawn from Soylent Green the cult film from the 1970’s. Computer programmer Rob Rhinehart uses science to take the next step—to separate food consumption from nutrition altogether by creating Soylent-a high energy mix of nutrients that apparently tastes quite bland but supplies all the body’s needs for a day, freeing us up to eat only for enjoyment—or not at all.
It is hard to know what to make of the “Soylent” project, which seems at bottom ascetic and anti-pleasure in the extreme despite the high-minded notion of eating only for enjoyment. The need to eat periodically throughout the day is a strong incentive to take pleasure seriously, periodically throughout the day.
Mikanowski takes these trends to exemplify the search for utopia, “testing the limits of food’s perfectability”. Perhaps. But “Soylent” aside, the much different projects of Redzepi and Adria/Mhyrvold share one important goal–to make flavor mean something, to use flavor to provide experiences of wonder, mystery, and intensity that, in the past, only vision or sound could provide.
Just as no painter has succeeded in painting a perfect painting, whatever that might mean, I doubt that perfection is the aim of these culinary trends. We will never reach an “end” where taste need no longer be developed. But to the extent all art is a vision of an alternative way of life, a promise of happiness, perhaps the search for utopia is apt as a description of what Redzepi, Adria, Mhyrvold and other creative chefs are up to.