This post is late because I came unstuck on a piece about food shortages and revolution and must entirely rethink my argument. So instead I present you with a soufflé of a post: a reflection on this year’s list of Top 50 restaurants which was announced on Monday.
For a long time I’ve wanted to discuss the kind of cooking labelled ‘molecular gastronomy’, practised most famously by Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck and, originally, at El Bulli in Spain by Ferran Adrià. I suppose that given last week’s rant about the adoration of the pavlova on MasterChef Australia it would be reasonable to assume that I am deeply critical of the food served at these restaurants. On the contrary, I’m fascinated by it and am a fan of both Blumenthal and Adrià.
This may seem like I’m trying to square the circle, but let me explain. It’s worth defining precisely what I mean by molecular gastronomy because, depending on context, it can refer to two separate, yet related, activities. Firstly, it describes what has also been dubbed ‘modernist cuisine’: a type of cooking which uses a range of unorthodox methods and equipment radically to alter familiar foodstuffs and dishes. For example, in a recent television series, In Search of Perfection, Blumenthal entirely reinvented, among other things, that classic of 1970s dining, black forest gateau. Adrià dislikes the term molecular gastronomy, preferring describe his cooking as ‘deconstructionist’, and I think that this is a useful way of understanding his and Blumenthal’s technique.
Heston Blumenthals revamped black forest gateau
Blumenthal reduced the gateau to its most basic components – chocolate, cream, maraschino cherries, and kirsch – and then reassembled it using aerated chocolate and cream jelly to emphasise the intensity of the dark chocolate, the richness of the cream, and the sweet-sourness of the cherries. Drawing attention to its origins during the 70s, the cake was spray-painted with a mock wood veneer in chocolate. Finally, Blumenthal poured the kirsch into a spray bottle and spritzed it in to the air as the cake was being eaten: we use our sense of smell to taste (which is why everything tastes of boiled knitting when your nose is blocked), and the scent of the kirsch combined with the taste of chocolate, cream, and cherries blends together as the cake is eaten.
In its second, more exact, meaning, molecular gastronomy describes a branch of food science which pays particular attention to the process of cooking. It was invented in 1988 by Nicholas Kurti and Hervé This, who explains:
Despite having a huge impact on other aspects of our lives, scientific advances have done little to change our cooking habits. When it comes to preparing food – the most important aspect of our life from a physiological point of view – citizens in developed countries still cook almost the same way as their ancestors did centuries ago. … Kitchens are equipped with basically the same pans, whisks and sieves that cooks used in the seventeenth century.
Indeed, cooking was the last of the ‘chemical arts’ to become the object of scientific scrutiny and it still relies on telltale and anecdotal knowledge rather than solid science. As recently as 2001, an inspector from the French Department of Public Education said, during a public lecture, that her mayonnaise failed when she was menstruating. Such old wives’ tales were partly the reason behind the creation of molecular gastronomy: I first started experimental studies of cooking after encountering a recipe for cheese soufflé that advised adding egg yolks ‘two by two, never by fractions’. Another reason was that the late Nicholas Kurti, professor of physics at Oxford University, UK, was upset by the poor and unscientific way that people cook. …in 1988, Kurti and I decided that we should create a new scientific discipline to investigate culinary transformations.
Originally, molecular gastronomy had five aims: ‘to collect and investigate old wives’ tales about cooking; to model and scrutinize existing recipes; to introduce new tools, products and methods to cooking; to invent new dishes using knowledge from the previous three aims; and to use the appeal of food to promote science.’ This has since been reduced to two: to look at how food is described or defined (a mayonnaise is a thick, jelly-like emulsion of egg yolk and oil, for example), and the range of hints, tips, and advice that accompany instructions for making food (when making mayonnaise, heat the bowl and add the oil in a thin trickle).
However, we rapidly found this new programme insufficient as well, because the main aim in cooking is to produce good food, which is art and not technique. Furthermore, a dish can be cooked perfectly, but if it is not presented in an appealing way, all the art and science will mean little to the customer or guest; we therefore decided that we must include the ‘love’ component of culinary practice. Of course, science will probably never be able to fully explain art or love, but it can help; for example, evolutionary biology can contribute to the exploration of human behaviours, and, accordingly, culinary practice. Consequently, molecular gastronomy not only uses science to explore the technical aspect of cooking but also the ‘art’ and ‘love’ components, both of which are important for the main aim of cooking: to delight guests.
I think that this sums up why I am fascinated, rather than repelled, by molecular gastronomy: it melds scientific enquiry (why do we cook in the way we do?) with a recognition that much of our response to food and eating is emotional, aesthetic, and irrational. This argues convincingly that the usefulness of molecular gastronomy lies in its ability to tell us more about how food is cooked: ‘If we are able to use the knowledge gained on food preparation, we might find new ways to make healthy food more attractive, we might persuade more people to cook better food and, last but not least, we might convince society to regard eating as a pleasure rather than a necessity.’
It’s for this reason that I am interested in what top-end restaurants do: the two uses of molecular gastronomy overlap in that both require us to think more closely about how we prepare food, and then to use this knowledge to look again at how we eat. I agree that it would be impossible to accuse Pierre Gagnaire and René Redzepi of producing affordable, interesting, and healthy food for the masses – and the same is true of the three South African restaurants (Le Quartier Francais (36), Rust en Vrede (61), and La Colombe (82)) listed in the Top 100. But then none of them pretend to do so: these restaurants are spaces in which food is the subject of experimentation and where, paradoxically, chefs are at liberty not to take it too seriously (as on MasterChef). They are free to play with food, and to rethink the ways in which we eat and respond to food.
There is a connection between restaurant and home cooking. When the much derided nouvelle cuisine of the 1980s swopped heavy, flour-laden sauces for lighter reductions, home cooking gradually followed suit (although this change took place within a broader context of heightened concern about healthy eating in the West). When Blumenthal unveiled his snail porridge at the Fat Duck, the dish was greeted with derision and disgust. But now – around a decade later – deeply savoury snails on a risotto-like porridge of oats is no longer thought to be repellent. In fact, Blumenthal simply combined a collection of ingredients usually loved by diners in a slightly different format.
In this way, these restaurants can be seen as laboratories in which the food of the future – the jellies, foams, sous vide cooking, and new flavour combinations – is developed. It’s worth noting that Adrià has recently announced the closure of El Bulli, and the opening of a research foundation dedicated to spreading the lessons learned from the technology developed at the restaurant. In particular, he aims to show how cooking and eating can – and should – be both healthy and delicious. That love, in other words, is as important as technique in cooking.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Modernism, Postmodernism, Authenticism?
I’m not entirely sure what it says about me, but the first article I read in the Observer is always Jay Rayner’s restaurant review. (In fact, I started reading the Observer in high school because of Jay Rayner’s reviews – it came as a pleasant surprise that there was a really good newspaper organised around them.) Last week’s was on Viajante in Bethnal Green, which seems to specialise in a kind of sub-Adrià-esque complicated, miniaturised cuisine. Rayner was not impressed:
Rayner’s point is that the modernist cooking presented by Viajante is beginning to feel old hat. Even if – as he’s admitted – restaurant critics are ‘rampant neophiliacs,’ it does seem that enthusiasm for the molecular gastronomy espoused most famously by Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià has peaked. Or that, rather, it’s become so integrated into the repertoires of high-end chefs that it no longer seems to be so very experimental.
I was surprised when I first heard molecular gastronomy described as ‘modernist cuisine’ – a term now probably forever associated with Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young’s five volume tome Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. This was published last year – long after what most people would agree to be the end of literary and cultural modernism in the 1950s and 1960s. (I wonder how we should define the cuisine of the modernist movement during the early twentieth century? I tend to think of Virginia Woolf’s descriptions of feasts in To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own.)
If anything, this should be postmodern cuisine. The purpose of molecular gastronomy is to reconsider the processes which underpin cooking: to understand them, and then reconfigure them. It’s all fairly similar to Derrida’s deconstruction – and Adrià has described his technique in precisely the same terms.
When I was in London at the end of last year, I went with a friend to the V&A’s exhibition, ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990’. It was a strange exhibition: in an attempt to include all that could be considered postmodern in design and architecture, it had a scattergun approach as to what it included. It felt curiously empty – but I’m not sure if that’s the fault of the curator, or of the movement itself.
One of the oddest features of the exhibition was a strange preponderance of teapots. It was a pity that this was as far as the V&A got to thinking about postmodernism and food – because nouvelle cuisine, the food of the postmodern moment, was so design heavy. Even if the point of nouvelle cuisine was to liberate high-end cuisine from the heavy, meaty, and flour-based-sauce cooking of the 1960s and 1970s, it was also characterised by incredibly careful plating and presentation. In many ways, garnishes were as important as the food itself.
There are strong links, I think, between nouvelle cuisine and molecular gastronomy. Both disregard the orthodoxy established by classic French cooking and experiment with ideas and ingredients from other culinary traditions – best exemplified by the late 90s enthusiasm for ‘fusion food’, done well by Peter Gordon, done badly by legions of others – and the techniques of cooking itself. Other than the fact that molecular gastronomy is underpinned by the work of scientists Hervé This and Nicholas Kurti, it also differs from nouvelle cuisine in its playfulness – its refusal to take itself seriously, something which places it firmly within the postmodern moment. But, as Rayner suggests, it would seem that molecular gastronomy has had its day: Adrià has transformed El Bulli into a foundation, and Blumenthal is serving hearty, historical meals at Dinner.
Two years ago I taught an introduction to historiography at Goldsmiths in London, and was struck by how dated postmodern theory felt. When I studied it a decade ago – crucially, pre-9/11 – it seemed, even then, to be an exciting and useful way of understanding the world, particularly because of its emphasis on the relationship between language and power. I didn’t – and still don’t – agree with the critiques of history offered up by Hayden White and Keith Jenkins, but they were thought-provoking.
After the events of 11 September 2011, the War on Terror, the 2008 economic crash, and the Arab Spring, postmodernism appears even more the product of its time: of the prosperous, confident 1980s and 1990s, when the end of communism seemed to signal Francis Fukuyama’s end of history. I find it easier to take seriously the postmodernism and poststructuralism of the 1970s and earlier – when philosophers, linguists, and theorists were attempting to find a new way of thinking reality – partly by emphasising the extent to which narratives and discourses are contingent and rooted in their particular contexts. Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979) is still an arrestingly original document.
This act of de-privileging dominant discourses – or indeed any discourse – has also been its undoing, as Edward Docx argues in a recent article for Prospect:
So what follows postmodernism? Docx suggests that it is something he dubs ‘authenticism’. He explains:
It’s telling that the various manifestation of the new, global food movement – from Occupy Food to the hundreds of local campaigns for small-scale agriculture and unadulterated food – tend to refer to themselves as ‘real food’ (as opposed to Big Food – or the plastic, ‘Frankenstein’ food it produces).
This is a good way of understanding the recent trend in food – which Docx identifies – for the artisanal (whatever we may mean by that), the handmade, the local, the ‘old-fashioned’ (again, this is open to debate and redefinition), and the ethical. It says a great deal that the chef of the moment is René Redzepi, the Danish chef and owner of Noma, who sees himself as much as a cook as a food activist. This demand for ‘authentic’ food is, strange as it may seem, political: it’s a refusal to buy into the advertising and branding of the food industry, even if it’s an act that only a very small proportion of people can afford to do. But it’s a beginning, and a welcome one.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.