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What can a home cook take away from the Modernist Cuisine’s food movement? Personally speaking, I have not bought a Pacojet or a whipping siphon, though I know one or two home cooks who have done so. I did find a kit online that included lecithin powder (for foams), agar agar (a forerunner of gelatin made from seaweed), calcium lactate and sodium alginate (for balloons). One hilarious afternoon was spent concocting Balsamic Pearls and Mojito Balloons, but that was as far as it went.
A two-part series
It has inspired in me a new Modernist “Ten Commandments,” motivated by the version that journalists Henri Gault and Christian Millau laid out more than 40 years ago on the fundamentals of nouvelle cuisine. My first five Modernist commandments appeared in Part 1 of this series. These are the final five:
Rule VI: Explore fantasy. Symbolism is a recurrent theme in Modernist Cuisine. Modernist chefs love to turn the world upside down and you never know what you may find. Ferran Adrià’s giant white globe, when cracked, shatters like an edible eggshell, but what looks like white chocolate proves to taste of gorgonzola cheese. At Alinea restaurant in Chicago, ayu tuna is perched on a giant, dense black morel mushroom, the ocean and the earth. Amid the drama and intrigue of Modernist dishes, appearance is often left to speak for itself. You can take or leave Adrià’s desiccated Braque-like skeleton of a real fish on your plate; it has no garnish at all. (“Ugh,” a friend said.)
Rule VII: Be inventive. Modernist Cuisine is certainly amusing. Who could not smile at Alinea’s bottomless “plate” supporting a liquid truffle ravioli, a single, earthy bite that explodes in the mouth. Often in Modernist Cuisine, things are not what they seem — at the U.K. restaurant The Fat Duck, a trio of tiny retro lollipops proves to be an apple sorbet with walnut and celery; a chilled mousse of foie gras; and oddest of all, a striped ice cream of avocado and salmon flavored with horseradish. Modernist cooking implies a sense of adventure. I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed Red Cabbage Gazpacho with a Grain Mustard Ice Cream at The Fat Duck, but it sure made me pay attention.
Rule VIII: Play with temperature. Only in the last 100 years have chefs been able to play with hot and cold when cooking and serving food. Today’s precise temperatures and timings have opened a whole new world. Professional kitchens have become laboratories demanding a new approach to cooking. This leads to playful presentations such as Adrià’s white chocolate soufflé that evaporates into thin air within five minutes, or the Roca brothers’ anchovy stuffed olives dipped in caramel.
Rule IX: Avoid static presentation. For Modernist chefs, presentation can be a challenge. The landscaped plates of nouvelle cuisine, and the towers on the plate that came later, are gone. Today’s eyes are sated with the movement and color we see on all sides at all times. In the dining room, the solution seems to be a return to nature with wood, slate, green leaves, trees, rocks and pebbles; glass is a strong component that extends to the table itself and the general surroundings. Many chefs opt for simplicity, with small plain white plates (often in curious shapes) geared to tiny portions that speak for themselves. At Spain’s elBulli (sadly now closed), even the flatware was miniature.
Rule X: Keep the diner busy. Finally, expect to participate in a Modernist meal. You will be asked to stir, crush and crack the food in front of you, and often to eat it with your fingers. You may be blindfolded, or asked to lick the anonymous purées in an array of tiny spoons. At Alinea a balloon floated to my table and it was an effort of will to pop and devour the sphere of apple taffy tied with a fruit leather string, as instructed. I’ve always been an inflator, not a popper of balloons.
Reflections on the Modernists
The Modernist Cuisine’s practitioners are an odd lot. Most stay behind the scenes, sometimes greeting at the door, more often leaving a more personal relationship to be established by the server.
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In Europe, service tends to be discreet, so on a recent visit to Alinea I was touched that chef Grant Achatz himself created a chocolate pie with a sweet pastry crust on our tabletop. This gave us a chance to talk, a pleasure he repeated for every table, not just for special guests.
Just three days after my visit to Alinea, I heard the grand master of them all, Adrià, speaking in Chicago. He is credited with originating the whole Modernist movement and has trained many of the younger exponents. Adrià is a communicator, a ball of fire on the podium and in the kitchen, and he is the inspiration behind an online culinary encyclopedia to be called the “Gastropedia.”
What is there to be taken from all of this? Just as nouvelle cuisine is now long forgotten, it may turn out that the abstract, technically tricky concepts of Modernist chefs never have wide application. But right now, their vision and enthusiasm is trickling down to the tables of every hot spot in Hollywood. Their small plates and global ingredients are already creating a new world of cooking and eating. We are more adventurous and more curious. We are better informed about food. Cooking is becoming more a part of our lives, and a mom or pop actually cooking in the kitchen is coming closer to reality. Or so I would like to think.
Main photo: Lollies from The Fat Duck restaurant. Credit: La Varenne archive
It was almost 40 years ago in Paris that I opened La Varenne Cooking School, and the nouvelle cuisine movement was sweeping France. Today we’re in the midst of similar radical change, and novelties are exploding, literally, on our plates in the movement called Modernist Cuisine. To be asked to taste pop rocks in the palm of your hand that turn out to be Parmesan cheese is really very odd — and provocative. So is a pocket watch, marked with the hours, that is designed to dissolve in a bowl of hot consommé.
A two-part series
A dozen top chefs around the world — José Andrés and Grant Achatz in the U.S., Heston Blumenthal in England, the Roca brothers and Ferran Adrià, the father of them all, in Spain, together with a handful of others — share the same culinary principles, and often the same ideals. The original fundamentals of nouvelle cuisine were laid out by two journalists, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who named them the “Ten Commandments.” It inspired me to consider the Ten Commandments of Modernist Cuisine. Here, in Part 1, are the first five, and in Part 2, we’ll look at the final five.
Rule I: Appeal to all the senses. You can count on a Modernist chef to tickle every sense. Tastes roam freely among such favorite ingredients as sea urchin, anchovy, olive, wild game, liver, blood, lemon and honey. At the table, we’re kept busy, mixing and matching mysterious seasonings, dried powders, foams, marinades and dips. Our Modernist noses tingle as casserole lids and glass bells release the pungency of fresh truffle or the lemon vapor from a single whole scallop in its shell. We listen too to the crack of a breaking crust, or the snap of shattering ice. At Achatz’s Alinea restaurant in Chicago my ears perk up at the trickle of water beneath the mini-iceberg sheltering foamed-topped Kumamoto oysters. The same multi-sensory appeal is true of our favorite traditional foods. Modernist cooks are simply exploring more ways of doing it.
Rule II: Explore the global cooking landscape. Modernist chefs are global players; they seek ingredients, staff and, most important, inspiration from all over the world. Often they themselves have trained away from home, gathering knowledge of new techniques and multinational styles of cooking. Top kitchens welcome bright young people who are willing to learn new ideas and work hard, and many have waiting lists of applicants.
Leading chefs have always enjoyed passing on their knowledge to the next generation, but today it is different. The students come from all over the world, they are younger and half a dozen languages may be used in the kitchen. This means that culinary knowledge — techniques, ingredients, cultural backgrounds — is now flying around the globe. At the very top restaurants, the diners too come from a multitude of countries, lining up for a year or more for a table.
Rule III: Create another world. All four of the Modernist restaurants I’ve visited pulled me into their own world before I’d even stepped inside the door. In a couple of cases it amounted to a long, featureless entrance corridor cutting off the outside from the splendors to come. Britain’s The Fat Duck lives in its own environment, surrounded by cottages in an archetypal English village. The now-closed elBulli in Spain involved a minor pilgrimage up and over a deserted hillside (except for the sheep) to arrive at an unobtrusive seaside villa on the Mediterranean.
Rule IV: Escape into a new landscape. The Modernist menu is formless with little sense of beginning or end and you will have no written list as guide. In a while, after say eight courses of what may become 15 or even 30, the meal becomes a timeless fugue, an ebb and flow of blending and contrasting dishes. In principle, fish comes first and sweets last, but this pattern is interrupted all the time. Japanese kaiseki banquets follow a similar theme. Indeed there are many parallels with the Japanese and Modernist tradition, particularly with the unobtrusive decor, designed to focus on the food itself.
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Rule V: Take advantage of technology. New techniques are so much a part of the Modernist movement that it is often referred to as scientific cooking — or even less accurately, molecular gastronomy. Both terms are nonsense, Blumenthal and I are in agreement here. “Science is not the point,” he declares. “Today’s cooking has not come from nowhere. Everything has roots including science in the kitchen. For instance, there was a Futurist Cuisine movement in Italy led by Filippo Marinetti in the 1930s and today’s Modernist Cuisine has clear links with that.”
In contrast, Blumenthal is completely at home with the term “Modernist Cuisine.” The successful chefs of today are far more than scientists. They may use modern techniques such as slow cooking in a vacuum pack, controlled dehydration, or the low temperatures created by liquid nitrogen, but they display the same originality as Futurists and other innovative cooks of the past.
Main photo: A beautiful rose is shaped with a knife from a single apple at elBulli. Credit: La Varenne archive
I was lying in bed, thinking about the family tree hanging in my closet, when I hit on the concept of The Cookbook Tree of Life. Just four cookbooks are the ancestors of all the cookbooks that are on our shelves today. Would it work? Were there clear links between each generation of cookbooks just like people? I honestly wasn’t sure whether I could connect the dots and slept on the idea feeling dubious.
The following morning I found that it did indeed fly. I stuck more than 120 cookbook titles all together on a great big sheet of paper and took it from there.
By Anne Willan and Mark Cherniavsky
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In my own way, I have tracked the development of cookbooks across four centuries and six languages. It is fascinating to see how all genres lead back down to just four original cookbooks, one in Latin, one in French, one in German and one in English.
- “De honesta voluptate et valetudine,” by Platina, written in Italian around 1474.
- “Le viandier,” by Taillevent (Guillaume Tirel), written in French in 1486.
- “Kűchenmeisterei” written in German in 1485 by an unknown author.
- “Boke of Cokery” written in English in 1500 by an unknown author.
These were cookbooks, meaning they have clear recipes with ingredients and instructions. A cookbook is a collection of recipes, or blueprints that allow a cook to recreate a dish. Cookbook bibliographer Henry Notaker has said that to be defined as a cookbook, a book should be about two-thirds cookery instruction and that roughly half of the volume should be written in recipe form.
The earliest cookbooks
Surprisingly early, right from the start of the age of printing, a number of published books fit this description. The recipes in them may be embryonic, expressed in just a few lines, but their purpose of instruction is clear.
Early books with recipes covered wide topics as well. Some sought to preserve the wisdom of the ancients, others offered advice on how to live a healthy life, and still others were preoccupied with glorifying the banquets and feasts of a wealthy patron.
In later centuries, the voices of the authors come through more clearly, and indeed, a few such books seem designed to showcase personality rather than to instruct their readers.
Before 1501 there were only about 700 books in existence, of those 700 the above four titles could be considered cookbooks.
When deciding which books belonged to which branch I gravitated to the first books that seemed to clearly break through or create a genre. Some books focused on stewardship and the early books on gardening were clearly about an original idea. Books of secrets would be household secrets and it is clear to see how those evolved into books by women and books for women, a genre that we see in full force today. The same can be said about regional cooking books, books about ingredients and even books about molecular gastronomy and celebrity chefs.
Finding a printer
It was two years before I found the right printer for “The Cookbook Library” and even then a long six months from agreement to actually printing on the press. I knew that I wanted the tree to be more than lines on a sheet of paper. I wanted it to be beautiful and handcrafted much like the books it describes.
When the artist asked me what kind of tree I would like, I said it has to be an English oak. Many of the books mentioned are English, and after all I am English, too. And now, after so much planning, you can finally see the results.
The tree is a beautiful artisan print featuring seven colors on heavy 100% cotton paper. It boasts original watercolor art and the craft of centuries in its letterpress type. I have so enjoyed making this tree come to life, a project that has been more absorbing than I could possibly have thought.
Top photo: Printer Norman Clayton of Classic Letterpress in Ojai, Calif. Credit: Maria Hildago
It was a sweltering day outside the classroom at The Greenbrier when Julia Child came to visit. She would come each year to teach and enjoy a little vacation with us in West Virginia. And, in the air-conditioned classroom where we held Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne classes, she seemed larger than life.
By Anne Willan
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Towering over the demonstration table, she had total command of the crowd with her unmistakable voice and her larger than life persona. I stood in the back of the classroom in support of my friend, admiring her expert movements and ability to multitask while narrating her every move.
This visit and many others came to mind as I worked on my new memoir, “One Soufflé at a Time: A Memoir of Food and France.” The times I’ve shared with my good friends gave me a treasury of stories and recipes. Julia was describing every detail of making a Hollandaise sauce, that silky combination of clarified butter emulsified in a mousse of egg yolks and water. Whisk, whisk, whisk, Julia first added the butter drop by drop and then in a slow steady stream. The sauce should thicken creamily but it remained obstinately thin. Fat spears of asparagus were simmering, the oven was calling with cases of puff pastry already browned. It would be fatal to stop whisking because the butter would separate.
“Anne, Anne, come and save it!” cried Julia, and I sprinted to the stage. Whisking like a maniac, I peered at the sauce. It was not lumpy and curdled, so not overcooked. I had seen Julia adding the ingredients and the proportions were good. Could it be too cold? Had the Greenbrier’s blasting air-conditioning got to it?
As Julia yanked baking sheets from the oven and drained the asparagus, I raised the flame — a dangerous tactic with delicate Hollandaise. But it worked, the sauce thickened just at the right moment and Julia gave me a congratulatory hug for the camera.
Top photo: Anne Willan and Julia Child at the Greenbrier in West Virginia. Credit: Courtesy of the Greenbrier
It was my 75th birthday, and I had no idea what to expect. My family insisted it be a surprise. We edged our way through a busy commercial street in Girona, Catalonia, and an open doorway beckoned us into the peaceful, sunlit courtyard of El Celler de Can Roca. “A glass of Cava perhaps?” smiles our server, and so begins five hours of unparalleled feasting. El Celler de Can Roca opened 27 years ago and is run by three brothers: Joan at the kitchen range, Jordì the pastry chef and Josep the sommelier. The three have created a gourmet destination that combines past and future with extraordinary brilliance. This March it was named best restaurant in the world on a website sponsored by San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna.
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Within the restaurant, the surroundings are strongly linked to the earth, with trees, pebbles and wood-paneled walls enclosing views on a miniature forest of birch trees, giving a feeling of the outdoors. In any restaurant, what’s on the plate should tell you where you are, and with our drinks arrives a tiny bonsai olive tree, instantly setting the scene. We crunch the hanging olives and our mouths burst with salty sweetness — the anchovy-stuffed fruits have been veiled in a whisp of caramel. What could be more symbolic of the ancient city of Girona in the mountains of northern Catalonia, flanked by olive groves running down to the Mediterranean Sea.
The olives lead into a tour of the world in tiny bites: a tomato and coriander guacamole from Mexico, an explosive ball of ceviche broth representing Peru, and pickled vegetables with plum cream as an echo of China. Visit on a different day and the world tour will be different we are told.
Eager to explore, we opt for the menu of the day, which leads to some 25 eye-catching, palate-teasing tastings, several of them among the most intriguing I’ve encountered anywhere. Just a small spoonful of zarzuela, pungent and concentrated, sums up the essence of the rustic Catalonian fish soup. A single prawn from the nearby port of Palamos provides astonishingly intensive tastes of raw tail, dried feelers, toasted liver meat, and jus from the shell — I would never have thought such a barrage of varied flavors could be extracted from one small beast.
Old and new cuisine combine in the two or three mouthfuls of crisp baby pig belly moistened with a Riesling jus, and the pigeon in a classic salmis blood, and liver sauce spiked with nuggets of candied walnut, a mastery of richness and intensity. Though the tastings are tiny, the ingredients are not treated as playthings (one of the great drawbacks of today’s Modernist cuisine). As the meal progresses, it’s clear that Chef Joan is focusing on regional ingredients — fish such as red mullet and bream, are typical of the Mediterranean, the green and black olives are local, pork comes from Iberian pigs, and game from the foothills of the mountains. Some seasonings hark back to the Arabs — rose water, honey, ras el hanout, saffron and orange.
The cooking at Can Roca has roots, but no way could it have been achieved without an ultra-modern kitchen. On arrival, we had been welcomed backstage to see the banks of buttons, stainless steel and gadgetry. The restaurant has lots of staff, too: 35 cooks in the kitchen and a couple dozen servers for perhaps 50 guests. The staff is as international as the diners, John from Philadelphia had just completed seven months at the stove, and Rocio, our server and guide, was from Valencia in southern Spain.
Among the abundance of dishes, the astonishing truffle soufflé stands out, a 2-inch round of feather-light hot truffle mousse enclosed in discs of fresh black truffle, set on a round of warm bone marrow and served under a glass bell which, when lifted, pervades the air with a hint of BBQ smoke. I like to think of myself as a soufflé expert, but I cannot imagine how this tour de force could be carried from the kitchen to diner after diner with never a hint of collapse.
Are the Roca brothers a successor to their former neighbor, Ferran Adrià at el Bullì? The two restaurants share the same Catalonian spice-perfumed air, the freshest of fish, the olive oil and garlic and warm registers of cardamom, cinnamon and cumin that date back to medieval times, backed up the rust red of paprika brought from the New World.
But Adrià, who creates imaginary images and flavors, the Roca brothers focus on real food on the plate. What distinguishes them from other Modernist chefs is their use of modern techniques against a background of tradition. If this is where the gastronomic future lies, let’s pursue it with gusto!
Guests exclaim in surprise when tasting these salty olives dipped in caramel. They will hold up an hour or two, perfect with a glass of cava sparkling white wine, or a very dry martini.
Makes about 30 to 40 olives
1 cup (about 5 ounces) anchovy-stuffed olives in brine
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1. Drain the olives and dry them very thoroughly on paper towels, squeezing slightly to extract as much brine as possible. This helps the caramel remain crisp. Spear each olive on a toothpick. Set them on a tray lined with paper towels and chill them, uncovered. Prepare a large bowl of hot water, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil.
2. Mix the sugar and water in a small, deep saucepan. (You will have leftover syrup, but this amount is needed for dipping.) Heat gently until the sugar is dissolved, stirring once or twice. Bring the syrup to a boil and boil without stirring to the hard crack, 294 F/146 C on a sugar thermometer. The syrup should be just starting to color. Take at once from the heat and plunge base of the pan into the bowl of hot water to stop cooking.
3. Holding an olive with the toothpick, dip it into the syrup (the syrup sets quicker on cold olives). Lift out, twirl so the olive is lightly coated, let cool a few seconds so the syrup solidifies, and set the olive on the parchment paper. Repeat with the remaining olives. The syrup may start to set, and if so reheat it until liquid and keep going.
4. Transfer the olives to a platter for serving. Serve them at room temperature.
Top photo: Anchovy-stuffed olives wreathed in caramel hang from a bonsai tree. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry
Whatever happened to white sauce? Has that wonderfully comforting creamy sauce thickened with butter and flour disappeared for good from our plates? Forty years ago white sauce was as much a staple as gravy, the foundation of fritters and soups, soufflés and fricassées, and indeed the starting point for a whole family of Southern cream sauces. There was a time when we revelled in chicken à la king and creamed oysters and onions au gratin.
The rot began with nouvelle cuisine, that short-lived French aberration which one chef called “a little bit of nothing on a big white plate.” Flour was banned from the kitchen in favor of “light” butter-mounted sauces that relied on meat reductions and glazes for flavor. Flour, it was claimed, led to heavy, sticky, lumpy sauces with a depressing resemblance to library paste. Well of course it did — if the sauce was badly made.
But the new butter emulsions proved far trickier, needing a careful hand to create them, and a constant watch to maintain just the right temperature so they did not break. In a home kitchen, few cooks had the sharp eye and quick turn of the whisk needed for such fragile constructions. Professional chefs heaved a sigh, tried a few gimmicks like vacuum flasks for keeping such sauces warm (not hot), and moved on. Cooking the finicky embellishments to order was the only realistic approach, too labor-intensive for all but the most expensive restaurants.
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Sauces began to disappear, revealing the naked ingredients that had been artfully hidden underneath. Poached fish fillets and boneless chicken breasts were stripped, shivering on the plate. Colorful sides of vegetables were not enough. To hide the misery, the food would be coated in a colorful rub, or topped with a fresh chutney or relish. Flavors took on a new kick with global outreach. Once-exotic fresh ginger and chili, soy, sesame oil and cilantro became commonplace. Sriracha took pride of place in front of the Worcestershire sauce in the pantry. The underlying ingredients were masked, enabling parsimonious cooks to economize on quality — who would notice a stringy bit of chicken or a bland, mushy fish beneath a blizzard of conflicting flavors? But let’s not be cynical.
I’m on a campaign to revive white sauce and its cousin velouté, made with the cooking broth from the main ingredient. When young cooks come into the kitchen, one of the first things I show them is white sauce, and invariably they look mystified. I make them whisk a butter and flour roux in a figure eight, then stir in the milk and bring to a boil over medium heat. Quick, simple, with constant whisking the key until the sauce thickens. “But it’s easy!” they exclaim.
So I’m urging a return to homemade macaroni cheese and those vegetable gratins of chard or spinach topped with white sauce and a luscious crust of grated Gruyère. How about lobster mornay and veal blanquette and chicken divan? I yearn for a delicate fillet of sole, poached in fish stock and white wine that is used for the glistening coating of sauce suprême. Escoffier knew what he was doing!
Use white sauce to thicken soups and stews, or to bind gratins of cooked vegetables. Thin white sauce gives the creamy texture to macaroni and cheese or layered pastas such as lasagne. Thick white sauce binds fritters and forms a base for soufflés.
Makes 2 cups
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups cold whole milk
Salt and white pepper to taste
Note: For thick white sauce, use 4-5 tablespoons each of butter and flour for 2 cups of milk. For thin white sauce, use 2 tablespoons each of butter and flour for 2 cups of milk.
1. Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook until bubbling. Take from the heat and whisk in the milk (it should be cold), pouring it in all at once. Season with salt and white pepper if you have it (so the white sauce is not spotted with black pepper).
2. Return the pan to medium heat and bring the sauce to a simmer, whisking constantly until it thickens, just below boiling point. Lower the heat and simmer 1-2 minutes to thoroughly cook the flour. If by any chance some lumps have formed, simply work the sauce through a strainer into a bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
3. To store white sauce, pour it into a bowl and while still warm cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap so a skin does not form. The sauce will do fine in the refrigerator up to 2 days. It will have thickened slightly when reheated, so stir in a little more milk.
After the sauce thickens, whisk in 2-3 tablespoons crème fraîche and simmer 1-2 minutes longer. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Cheese (Mornay) Sauce
After white sauce has simmered, take it from the heat and whisk in 3-4 tablespoons grated Gruyère cheese or 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan. Taste and adjust seasoning. Do not recook the sauce as it will form strings.
After simmering, whisk 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley into the sauce, taste and adjust seasoning. Good with fish, especially salmon.
Top photo: White sauce over broccoli. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry