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Cooks have long been travelers, moving from royal court to papal conclave, and Austrian-born Max Beyer is a great example of this restless spirit. Although still in his 20s, he has been executive chef of the Viking River Cruises ship Heimdal for two years now: a seven-day-a week, 12-hour-a-day job. He heads the kitchen of a boat that sails the Rhône River from Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France, down to Avignon, capital of medieval popes.
Max began in the family restaurant in Linz in the valley of the river Danube. “It was simple cooking, schnitzel, roast pork, that kind of thing. Grandma baked plum cake and strudel at the weekend, and I always helped. In Austria, we all know the basic pastries; they form part of so many of our dishes.”
After leaving school, Max followed an apprenticeship of both school and practical work, ending in the kitchen of a 50-year-old star chef. “He had 35 years more experience than me,” says Max. “It was amazing what he knew.”
The secret to shopping
On the Heimdal, Max guides an 11-member kitchen staff in providing three meals a day and constant snacks for 180 guests. A more gastronomic route could hardly be imagined, but how do you transfer such specialties as the pink pralines and the “rosette” dried sausages of Lyon, or the candied apricots and oranges of Provence, or the goat cheeses of the nearby Loire valley to the tiny galley kitchen of a large river boat? “You must know how to shop,” says Max, and his round face beams.
“We’ll go to the market, we’ll see some good things,” he declares, and thus ensues a deeply gastronomic afternoon. This proves to be no ordinary expedition. Les Halles de Lyon de Paul Bocuse is a covered market renowned throughout France for its more than 50 retailers clustered in aisles beneath a soaring roof. Chef Bocuse, who is often known as “l’Empereur,” had much to do with its development in the heart of Lyon city. “These are all artisan producers,” explains Max. “Restaurateurs shop here, but local residents drop by to collect their supper too. Everyone enjoys the market.”
From pork to cheese stands
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Nearly half of the merchants specialize in pork — Lyon is one of the sausage capitals of France, and it features dozens, hundreds probably, of versions of air-dried “saucissons” of raw, ground pork. Max goes into conference with the seller, who is clearly a friend. Half a dozen varied firm, dry sausages are plucked from the overhanging racks. Max pinches them: “We want them firm, but not too dried out, either” he says. He takes a sniff: “These seem just right.” In the chilled case below are ranged pigs’ ears, sweetbreads, tripe, pigs’ tails. Max casts a wistful glance but this is not ship’s fare.
On to the cheese stand and another huddled discussion. No question about it, cheese is my favorite food, and this display of 50 or more different cheeses makes me sigh. I used to live in Burgundy, not far north of Lyon, and the cheese display makes me sigh nostalgic. “Let’s have some goat cheeses,” says Max. “Valençay is shaped like a pyramid, and the St. Maur has been rolled in vegetable ashes; they both taste different. Then there’s the blue Roquefort that everyone wants, though I personally would go for Fourme d’Ambert or perhaps Bleu d’Auvergne at half the price.” I nod in agreement.
Challenges and chocolate cake
Back on the ship, Max lugs his purchases to his miniscule galley. The restricted space is used day and night, organized following the classic guidelines established by Escoffier more than a century ago: saucier (who is also sous-chef), entremettier (vegetables and smaller side dishes such as soufflés and crêpes), garde-manger (salads and cold kitchen) and dishwashers — “they have my admiration,” comments Max. “We all help each other. Last week I was peeling asparagus with the rest of them.”
Cooking on a ship
I ask about the problems of cooking on the move. “Let’s call them challenges,” says Max. “Just this morning the water was cut off, so we cooked with bottled water.”
Cooking is just the beginning of Max’s responsibilities. He keeps in close touch with guests, touring the dining rooms at each meal and keeping an eye on service. He gives a cooking class too, whipping up a popular recipe for chocolate lava cake one afternoon. Some brisk work is involved, and Max proves to have the gift of the gab. “You know, my grandma used to use a hand whisk, but faster!”
Anne Willan’s trip on the Viking Heimdal was a gift from Viking River Cruises to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her marriage to Mark Cherniavsky.
Main photo: While on the move, executive chef Max Beyer of the Viking river boat Heimdal takes regular visits to local markets. Credit: Copyright 2016 Miguel Altamirano
It was November 1963 and I was living in the Château de Versailles overseeing catering for the American socialite, Florence Van der Kemp, who was married to the museum curator. The Van der Kemps were already well renowned as fundraisers for the restoration of the Château, and Florence decided to host a big traditional Thanksgiving dinner to thank all of her French friends. Having been raised in England, I did indeed know nothing about this very American holiday. “Leave it to Bernadina,” Florence exclaimed to me, “you don’t need to know anything about it, just come to the party!” Bernadina was the elderly chef from Mexico who could cook in three languages, so I was happy to pass on the responsibility.
I was sent to buy the largest possible turkey. “At least 25 pounds,” decreed Florence, but the poultry man was mystified. “We have nothing like that, the best turkeys are small, female and plump, about 12 pounds,” he explained. Clearly the American appreciation for sheer size did not extend to France. We compromised with two smaller birds and dressed them with large red bows for maximum effect. Then there was something called sparkling Burgundy, made for the American market and available only at Fauchon, the luxury gourmet store in Paris, which necessitated a special trip.
When at last I was seated in the middle of the long table in the magnificent dining room of Aile Colbert, I had plenty of time to observe. The Frenchwomen on either side of me had rapidly decided that a young, foreign neighbor was not worth a second glance. I nibbled the candied pecans and raisins in bowls beside my plate and broke into what I later learned to call a Parker House roll.
Turkey and oysters
I sipped the Burgundy, an adult version of soda. My friend Serge, the maître d’hôtel from the parties we masterminded together, set a bowl of borscht before me. The flavor and color were eerily similar to the Burgundy. Then came the turkeys, one for display, the other carved ready for serving; a murmur of approbation arose. Embassy service was the custom in those days, so Serge and his partner hefted huge platters of turkey, roast potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, turnips, Brussels sprouts and stuffing, maneuvering between the guests. A minion followed with boats of gravy, cranberry sauce and condiments.
As the platter reached my place, there wafted an unmistakable aroma of fish and I knew why. Another errand of mine had been to collect a couple quarts of shucked oysters for the turkey stuffing. When cooked, no one had accounted for the briny intensity of French oysters, as they are quite different from fatty American ones raised in warmer waters. I looked around at the startled faces of my fellow diners and Serge and I exchanged a wink. I tried the stuffing on its own; it wasn’t bad. Combined with the rich, meaty turkey it was, shall we say, an unexpected flavor.
And then there was dessert
It is impolite in France to refuse a second helping, so by the time dessert came around we all felt a bit stuffed. Having never been to America, I was determined to try novelties such as pecan pie, chess pie, mud pie and, of course, pumpkin pie; all considerately served in slivers for dessert. The slim, elegant Frenchwomen around me smiled politely and took the smallest portions offered.
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Finally, at last, arrived the cups of strong, bracing coffee with plenty of refills — I had seen to that. At this stage, it occurred to me that, with the exception of the turkey and stuffing, everything had been sweetened with sugar. Few were tempted by the petits fours, the elite chocolates and the offer of liqueurs. We eventually staggered, blinking, into the courtyard, and made our way carefully on the cobbles in our high heels. The ladies slid into their chic Morris Minis and I into my MG (at least I could keep up with them there!).
For all of us, Florence had achieved her purpose. Our first Thanksgiving had been unforgettable and, as a souvenir, we all took home candied orangettes; strips of orange peel coated in chocolate and packaged in a little bag with the label Château de Versailles.
Orangettes au Chocolat
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Total time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Yield: About 10 ounces
6 large thin-skinned oranges (2 to 3 pounds)
2 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups water
3/4 pound dark chocolate, chopped
1. To cut the orange strips: With a serrated knife, cut off the ends of the oranges through to the flesh. Set an orange on one flat end, cut off the skin and pith in vertical strips. Repeat with the remaining oranges. Press the strips flat. With a large chef’s knife, cut each strip into 1/4 inch sticks, discard trimmings, and cut away any loose bits of skin.
2. For the sugar syrup, heat the sugar and water in a shallow pan over low heat until the sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally. Stir in the orange strips. Cover the pan and simmer the strips until they are tender and look translucent, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Stir occasionally during cooking and add more water if needed to keep the strips covered.
3. When tender, let the strips cool in the syrup. Set a wire rack over a baking tray to catch drips. Transfer the orangettes to the rack, spread so they do not touch each other, and leave them overnight to drain and dry. This may take 24 hours if the kitchen is humid.
4. When the orangettes are no longer sticky, coat them with chocolate. Put the chocolate in a bowl and melt it over a saucepan of steaming water, or in the microwave. Transfer the bowl to a pan of cold water to cool the chocolate, stirring often, until it starts to thicken, 3 to 5 minutes.
5. Line a baking sheet or tray with nonstick parchment paper. Remove the bowl of chocolate from the bowl of water. Using a fork, dip an orange stick into the chocolate, coating it completely or only half if you prefer. Transfer sticks to the paper and leave to set.
Note: To avoid a “foot” of chocolate on one side of the orange strip, twist and turn the strip on the fork so the chocolate sets evenly. Wrap and store the orangettes in the salad drawer of the refrigerator.
Main photo: The Château de Versailles, which was lovingly restored by the Van der Kemps during a 35-year period. Credit: Copyright 2012 Michal Osmenda/Creative Commons
I’ve just come across an old friend I have not seen for half a century, “The Olio Cookery Book.” The book itself must date back a century or more, but there is nothing rare or antiquarian about it. The Olio is a classic manual for housewives that explains how to bake scones and cakes, how to choose produce and run a kitchen, and how to treat burns, with optimistic cures for a bronchitis cough and lumbago. Under “Recipe for a Long Life,” British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone cautions, “Chew each mouthful 30 times.” He cannot have been a gourmet eater.
Lessons from the Olio
As a young child, my favorite place was the kitchen, the warm, perfumed domain ruled by Emily, who was too old to be drafted during World War II. Despite food shortages, Emily somehow eked out a ginger biscuit or jam tart for us each day for “elevenses,” when we sat down with a large mug of milky tea.
There were only three of us, but action in the kitchen seemed almost constant, far more fun than the garden, where my mother spent most of her time. She must have been stung by insects often, as she notes the kitchen remedies on the title page of the Olio “Ammonia bee; wasp vinegar.”
Learning at Emily’s feet
As soon as I had learned to read, in the down moments of the kitchen while a cake baked, I would huddle in a corner to avoid Emily’s feet and pick up the Olio. The limp, brownish cover enclosed surprising information among its 1,400 recipes. How to test for an old egg for instance (float it in a bowl of water; if stale, the rounded end will rise), and the renown of parsley for curing what are described as nervous troubles. I recognized Emily’s specialty, Queen of Puddings, and her luscious Steamed Ginger Pudding with a golden syrup sauce — sometimes by mistake it scorched on the bottom, even better!
A mainstay of cooks
I later learned that the Olio cookbook was the mainstay of cooks in the north of England. The curious title is nothing to do with the Italian olio or oil, but dates back to the 1600s and olla podrida or “rotten pot,” the Spanish name given to huge cauldrons of meat, birds and vegetables that were the fashion of the times. I can find no record of the first printing of “The Olio Cookery Book.” My mother’s copy, the 15th edition, is dated 1928 and ran to 25,000 copies, surely a huge printing for the time. In the preface, editor L. Sykes (a good northern name) mentions that 200,000 had already been sold.
By the time I went to boarding school, at age 10, I had absorbed the meaning of technical terms such as stock and roux, and I could imagine what a bisque, a risotto, a ragout and a salmi were like. A decade later when I actually went to cooking school and tasted the dishes themselves, I was prepared for what I would find. I was asked to stay on and teach the next influx of students, and the kitchen became once again my natural home. I’ve never left it.
I’m amazed that jam tarts haven’t migrated to America. During World War II, cooks who had fruit could take it to the nearby community hall and free sugar would be provided to make preserves. My mother’s raspberry canes gave bumper crops year after year so she would send Emily off to a jam-making session where she could gossip with her friends. The resulting raspberry jam, tangy and brilliant red, was perfect for Jam Tarts. For the pastry, you can either make your favorite dough, or try this deliciously crumbly English recipe that uses butter and lard.
Prep time: 25 minutes
Baking time: 30 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Yield: 12 tarts
6 tablespoons (about 3 ounces) raspberry or other red jam
For the pie pastry
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter, more for the pans
4 tablespoons lard
2 tablespoons water, more if needed
12 medium shallow muffin pans; 3-inch cookie cutter
1. For the pie pastry: Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt into a bowl. Cut the butter and lard in small cubes and add to the flour. Rub the fats into the flour with your fingertips to form crumbs. Stir in the water with a fork to make sticky crumbs, adding more water if necessary. Press the dough together with your fist to make a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and set aside.
2. Heat the oven to 375 F and set a shelf low down; butter the muffin pans. Sprinkle the work surface with flour and roll the dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Stamp out 12 rounds with the cookie cutter. Roll the trimmings of dough a second time to make the count. Press the rounds gently down into the buttered muffin pans. Drop 1 1/2 teaspoons of jam into each mold.
Bake the tarts in the oven until the pastry is lightly browned, 25 to 30 minutes. They might collapse slightly around the edges; this is normal. Let the tarts cool slightly in the pans before unmolding them. They are best eaten the day of baking but can be kept a day or two in an airtight container.
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Once or twice a year, our nearby farmer’s wife would make curd cheese from fresh whole milk. My mother would stir in a handful of currants, or chopped prunes when currants were not available, and bake curd tarts. I thought they were even better than the jam version, but perhaps that’s because they appeared so rarely.
Follow the recipe for Jam Tarts, lining the pans with pastry dough. Stir 1 1/4 cups ricotta cheese, 1/3 cup sugar, 2 teaspoons flour and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Whisk an egg until frothy and stir into the cheese mixture with 1/3 cup raisins. Fill and bake like Jam Tarts, allowing 30 to 35 minutes.
Maids of honor
Legend has it that these tartlets were made by Anne Boleyn for King Henry VIII of England when she was maid of honor to Queen Catherine of Aragon. I like to decorate the tarts with a strawberry, raspberry or whatever fruit reflects the jam inside.
Assemble Jam Tarts using 1 tablespoon jam per tart. For the cheese topping: Put 1 cup ricotta cheese in a food processor with 1 egg, 2 tablespoons melted butter, 1/4 cup sugar and the grated zest and juice of 1 lemon and purée until smooth, about 1 minute. Alternatively work the ricotta cheese through a sieve and stir in the remaining ingredients. Spoon the cheese filling on top of the jam and bake Maids of Honor as for Jam Tarts, allowing 30 to 35 minutes. When serving, top with an appropriate piece of fruit.
Main photo: Jam tarts are a staple on English tea tables and need only pastry and fruit jam, both preferably homemade. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack
Along a neon strip of Hollywood Boulevard, sandwiched between the Cabo Cantina and a male strip joint called the Hollywood Men, the Musso & Frank Grill does not catch your eye until you step inside. The room is packed with wooden booths, red leather banquettes and white tablecloths. The original wallpaper, a restful art deco mural of woodland and pastures, has faded to gentle browns and beige.
Take Imported Sardines for instance. I haven’t tasted one of those luscious, melting, silvery canned fish, soaked in olive oil, for at least 30 years. They were one of the few edible items at my boarding school. Not everyone liked them, so with luck I would get my neighbor’s portion too. Corned Beef and Cabbage, Musso & Frank’s Tuesday special, was another school regular — made without much beef and a lot of rather stinky cabbage. Musso & Frank’s is far, far better.
I’m also happy to say that Musso & Frank remains a destination for the celebrities who live in the mansions just down the road. Perhaps next visit we’ll ask for the Marilyn Monroe or the Charlie Chaplin table, the one at the front where we could observe the antics of the passersby. Perhaps they were an inspiration for Chaplin’s classic mimes? Meanwhile, our waiter bounds up to the table. “You’re sitting in the Mickey Rooney seat,” he says. “Did you know?”
He is wearing a traditional tailored short jacket in bright red with black lapels, and to my delight, the kitchen uniform is equally traditional, all white of course, with cloth buttons to withstand laundry bleach. The sous chefs sport puffy, Escoffier-style toques, becomingly collapsed to one side, with white pillboxes for the commis, the least-trained members of the team. The chef himself is easily distinguished across the kitchen by his towering starched toque, not a hint of collapse there.
A glance at the menu shows why the kitchen staff is so large. Well more than a hundred dishes are on offer at lunch and dinner. Some, of course, are prepared ahead such as French onion soup and macaroni au gratin, but the vast majority are cooked to order. Boneless garlic chicken has the caution “Please allow 20 minutes.”
Vegetables come separately and you choose your own, be it broccoli with Hollandaise, French fried onion rings, or garlic toast (Why has that almost disappeared — it is so good!). At least a couple of gems such as shrimp Louie date back to the late 1800s. Chicken à la king, that staple of the 1960s fundraising circuit, was mentioned in the New York Times in 1893.
Timeless for a reason
Like Mozart, there’s a reason why these dishes are timeless — they are quite simply the best. Caesar salad was very probably on Musso & Frank’s original menu in 1919. Julia Child remembered eating it when she was a little girl in the early 1920s. Mind you, there can be ulterior reasons for their survival. When I once mentioned lobster thermidor to a French-trained chef, he smiled mischievously. “That’s a dish for Mondays, after the weekend closure. The seafood leftovers go in there so the Cognac and mustard sauce can mask the stale taste.”
No stale food here though; the sautéed scallops, lump crab cakes and grilled meats are spanking fresh. Fried oysters, baked escargots, grilled lamb kidneys, calf’s liver with onions, smoked tongue sandwiches like those my mother made to fortify me on the miserable journeys back to boarding school. All these bring a distant look to my eyes. Half-forgotten flavors, long-treasured treats. When all is said and done, eating well is the best reward!
I haven’t had deep, dark sautéed mushrooms since I lived in Paris in the 1960s. Musso & Frank’s version is “secret.” Nothing is secret in the kitchen, so here’s my version. These mushrooms are delicious with polenta, brown rice, or your favorite steak.
Prep time: 3 minutes
Cook time: 6 to 9 minutes
Total time: 9 to 12 minutes
Yield: Makes 2 servings
1/2 pound white button mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2 cup Madeira
1/2 cup consommé or veal stock
Squeeze of lemon juice
2 teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese
Ground black pepper
1. Trim mushroom stems level with the caps and cut them in quarters.
2. Melt the butter in a frying pan, add the garlic and fry until fragrant, about 1 minute.
3. Add the mushrooms and sauté, stirring often, until tender and liquid from the mushrooms has evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Add the Madeira and simmer until reduced by half, 1 to 2 minutes.
5. Add the consommé and reduce also by half, 2 to 3 minutes longer.
6. Sprinkle the mushrooms with the lemon juice and Parmesan with a little pepper and continue simmering until they are glazed, about 1 minute.
7. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve.
Main image: Musso & Frank’s lobster thermidor: A classic done right. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry
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