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Posts tagged ‘nouvelle cuisine’

New Wine

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...

Blue cabbage soup…

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…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.

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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.

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.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Square Meals

The best television chef ever is Adam on Northern Exposure (surely the greatest series ever made). Dirty, self-centred, arrogant, appallingly rude, yet phenomenally talented – he once turned down a job at the legendary Tour d’Argent – Adam appears periodically, often accompanied by his neurotic, hypochondriac, and equally selfish wife, Eve, cooks incredible food, and then vanishes.

Adam is the anti-foodie. His enthusiasm for cooking isn’t borne out of snobbery or a desire to demonstrate either his sophistication or moral superiority, but, rather, out of a liking for food and eating. And possibly a hatred for the people for whom he cooks.

He is a world away from the TV chef-celebrities who populate cooking-driven channels like the Food Network. Indeed, when Northern Exposure aired between 1990 and 1995, the idea that a single TV channel could be devoted entirely to food was relatively new. In the US, the Food Network launched in 1993, and the now-defunct Carlton Food Network – for which, incidentally, a young David Cameron did PR – aired for the first time three years later in the UK.

Now, food is everywhere on television, and food programmes have evolved from their most basic format – a chef cooking in a kitchen – to embrace travel and reality programmes. There’s been a lot of fuss about the launch of the most recent incarnation of the unbelievably successful MasterChef franchise in South Africa. In fact, the evolution of MasterChef says a great deal about how food on television has changed over the past few decades.

The original MasterChef series aired in the UK between 1990 and 1999 and was presented by pasta sauce entrepreneur and mid-Atlantic accent promoter, Loyd Grossman. It was all very serious and restrained and most of the contestants were terribly tense ladies from the Home Counties who replicated the nouvelle cuisine they had eaten at Le Gavroche, with varying degrees of success and anxiety.

It was revamped in 2005. With two shouty judges and considerably more socially representative participants, its popularity demonstrating the shifting significance of food within middle-class Britain. The new series’s focus on training contestants to be good, highly skilled chefs is meant to produce people who could, conceivably, run their own restaurants – which, to the credit of MasterChef, winners like Thomasina Miers and Mat Follas have done successfully.

The Australian, American, and South African versions of MasterChef have increased the emphasis on teaching would-be chefs how to work in professional kitchens. Of course, people watch these series for the same reasons that they tune into The Amazing Race, Strictly Come Dancing, and Project Runway. But MasterChef has the added appeal that it aims to teach its audience about cooking: the master classes offered by its presenters are aimed as much at those watching the series as at the contestants.

In fact, the earliest and most enduring TV cookery shows were intended primarily to educate, rather than only entertain, audiences. Dione Lucas – who claimed, incorrectly, to be the first woman graduate of the Cordon Bleu Cookery Institute in Paris – taught classical French cooking to the affluent American middle classes during the 1950s. Julia Child, an altogether warmer and more appealing presenter, did the same in her long-running series. Their aim was to teach Americans how to cook properly – and during the 1950s and 1960s, ‘proper’ food was French food.

Even Fanny Cradock, despite her increasingly ridiculous television appearances towards the end of her career, cooked a version of French cuisine which was meant to be affordable and accessible to her audience. Delia Smith’s first series, Family Fayre, in the mid-1970s was intended to teach its audience how to cook. Her success – built partly on the fact that her impeccably-tested recipes always do work – owed a great deal to her ability to teach and to de-mystify processes which may at first seem difficult and complicated.

Many of the cookery shows of the 1980s and early 1990s were made by the BBC’s Continuing Education Department: Madhur Jaffrey and Ken Hom, among others, owe their early success to the Beeb’s efforts to educate audiences. It was only with the coming of Graham Kerr – the ‘Galloping Gourmet’ – and, more successfully, Keith Floyd, that cookery programmes began to shift their emphasis from education to entertainment.

I’ve never really understood Floyd’s appeal, as Paul Levy writes:

Keith Floyd was a television cook who enjoyed and profited from a large audience despite having no outstanding talent, either as a cook or as a TV presenter, no great knowledge of his subject, or any apparent passion for anything but drink.

But he could be amusing – and more so than most of the considerably more serious presenters of food programmes in Britain. In many ways, the entertainment- and lifestyle-driven series presented by Nigella Lawson, Ainsley Harriott, Sophie Dahl and others are part of Floyd’s unwitting legacy.

I’m more interested in the way that presenters of food programmes have linked their teaching to wider, social projects. In post-revolution Cuba, cookbook writer Nitza Villapol used her long-running television series to teach Cubans a cuisine which was at once ‘authentically’ Cuban but also compatible with the country’s system of food rationing. During the Special Period, she provided recipes and advice for making limited supplies go further. She is still – regardless of her association with the period – seen as the pre-eminent expert on Cuban cooking.

In Egypt, Ghalia Mahmoud has recently emerged as a popular TV chef on the 25 January cable channel. From a working-class background, Mahmoud teaches audiences ‘traditional Egyptian food, such as mahshi (stuffed vine leaves), bisara and keshk, simple fava-bean and buttermilk-based stews.’ Not only do her recipes respect the differing dietary requirements of Egypt’s range of religious groups, but she cooks with an awareness that many members of her audience have limited resources. This is patriotic cuisine for a new Egypt: one which demonstrates how to feed a family on only 250g of meat a week.

It’s particularly telling that the TV chefs of the final years of the Mubarak regime were, as Mahmoud says, ‘bigger than movie stars and spoke English and French.’ The most popular cookery teachers on television – and this includes Ina Paarman in South Africa – have been lower- to middle-class women. It’s a common observation – even complaint – that while the majority of people who cook family meals are women, the best-known and most feted cooks are all male. This isn’t entirely true. Arguably, the most influential cooks of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries – those who actually teach their audiences how to prepare food – are women.

Creative Commons License 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:

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.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food, Love, and Molecules

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.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by <a rel=”cc:attributionURL” href=”https://tangerineandcinnamon.wordpress.com/”>Sarah Duff</a> is licensed under a <a rel=”license” href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/”>Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License</a>.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.