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:
In its eagerness to be so very now and forward thinking, the food at Viajante manages at times to feel curiously dated; it recalls the first flush of Hestomania, when even he has moved on and is now cooking up big platefuls of heartiness at Dinner.
Modern techniques are great. They’re brilliant. If you want to cook my steak by banging it round the Large Hadron Collider, be my guest. Dehydrate my pig cheeks. Spherify my nuts. But only do so if the result tastes nicer. At Viajante deliciousness is too often forced to give way to cleverness.
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:
by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended. … If we de-privilege all positions, we can assert no position, we cannot therefore participate in society or the collective and so, in effect, an aggressive postmodernism becomes, in the real world, indistinguishable from an odd species of inert conservatism.
So what follows postmodernism? Docx suggests that it is something he dubs ‘authenticism’. He explains:
we can detect this growing desire for authenticity all around us. We can see it in the specificity of the local food movement or the repeated use of the word ‘proper; on gastropub menus. We can hear it in the use of the word ‘legend’ as applied to anyone who has actually achieved something in the real world. … We can identify it in the way brands are trying to hold on to, or take up, an interest in ethics, or in a particular ethos. … Values are important once more…
…we can see a growing reverence and appreciation for the man or woman who can make objects well. We note a new celebration of meticulousness…. We uncover a new emphasis on design through making…. Gradually we hear more and more affirmation for those who can render expertly, the sculptor who can sculpt, the ceramist, the jeweller, even the novelist who can actually write.
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.
Last week some friends and I had supper at the Cube Tasting Kitchen. I should emphasise at the outset that for all the fact that I write a blog about food, I’m not a huge fan of the mad flights of fancy which characterise fine dining at the moment. I’m not into molecular gastronomy. I think it’s really interesting—and for a number of reasons, not only culinary—but given the choice between that and the sublime comfort food served at The Leopard and Woodlands Eatery, pizza at Stella e Luna, or dim sum at the South China Dim Sum Bar, I’d probably choose one of the latter.
But Cube was, really, entirely wonderful. And fun. It’s a small, box shaped, white walled restaurant in Joburg’s Parktown North, in a row of good and unpretentious middle-range restaurants, including Mantra which is one of my favourite places at which to eat saag paneer. It was an evening of delights over fifteen courses. We began with six starters, each themed according to a vegetable—tomato, cucumber, cabbage, potato—or a deconstructed—pissaladière—or reconstructed—Parmesan ice cream with balsamic vinegar made to look like vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce—version of a familiar dish. The cucumber came with a gin cocktail, the cabbage soup was blue and then turned purple, and the Parmesan ice cream didn’t really work.
Blue cabbage soup…
…that turns purple. (Apologies for the grainy photographs.)
That was okay, though. The fact that not every course was an absolute success was part of the fun. The infectious enthusiasm of the young chefs—who cook almost in the middle of the restaurant—and of the serving staff turned this into a game and an adventure. I had vegetarian main courses. The oddest, but most successful, was a combination of asparagus, humus, and shards of meringue with black pepper. The most delicious was a mushroom soufflé and a curry reduced to its most basic elements. The most beautiful was a Jackson Pollocked plate of beetroot and leek, which was also, paradoxically, the least flavourful.
Beetroot and leek.
And pudding—after baklava and cheese, and a palate cleanser of sherbet, pomegranate jelly, and orange sponge consumed as you would tequila with salt and lime—was a forest floor of pistachio marshmallow, rice crispy and cranberry cookies, chilled chocolate mousse, dried flower and chocolate soil, coffee biscuits, lemon gel, and wheat grass. Then there were chocolate brownies and coconut ice.
Forest floor pudding.
The size of the portions and the length of time it took to eat all of this—we were there for more than three hours—meant that we could digest at leisure. Because this was as much an intellectual and sensory exercise as it was supper. It would be easy to criticise this kind of dining on the grounds that its purpose is not really to feed people: it uses good, expensive food to allow fairly wealthy paying customers to have fun. But it is equally true that food has always been about more than nutrition. Human beings have long consumed—sacrificed—food in the name of status and power, in performing rituals, and marking celebrations.
It is, though, interesting that molecular gastronomy—which has its roots in the nouvelle cuisine of the 1980s—came to prominence before and during the 2008 crash, in a period marked by ever widening social and economic inequality. (On a side note, it’s worth thinking about relative definitions of wealth: our meal at Cube was expensive, but within the realms of financial possibility even for someone on a fairly modest researcher’s salary. I would never be able to afford the same menu at a similar restaurant in London, for instance.) Molecular gastronomy does not—despite the grandiose claims of some of its practitioners—represent the future of food.
It does, though, represent the past. What sets the foams, pearls, and flavoured air of molecular gastronomy apart from other iterations of fine dining is its reliance on technology. Indeed, the twin gurus of this kind of cuisine—academics Nicholas Kurti and Hervé This—were interested in researching the chemical processes which occurred during cooking. Their acolytes—from Heston Blumenthal to Ferran Adrià and René Redzepi—have used this knowledge to disrupt, deconstruct, reconstruct, and undermine what we think of as ‘food.’
This work, though, does not really fundamentally challenge our eating habits and choice of things to eat. Noma might serve insects and Blumenthal may have invented snail porridge, but molluscs and insects have been part of human diets for a very long time. I think that a more accurate name for molecular gastronomy is, really, modernist cuisine—the title of Nathan Myhrvold’s 2011 encyclopaedic guide to contemporary cooking. In all of is reliance and enthusiasm for technology, molecular gastronomy is supremely modern: this is the food of industrialisation. It is as heavily processed as cheese strings. Modernist cuisine is the logical extreme of an industrialised food system.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.