EDITOR’S NOTE: On Feb. 12, the Wall Street Journal reported that Ferran Adria had decided to permanently close El Bulli, and replace it with a culinary academy.
When I saw the sous-vide water bath machine selling for $400 at a local kitchen store, I knew that “molecular” gastronomy had penetrated the public consciousness. I must admit, I rolled my eyes. Sous vide is simply a fancy word for a method — used by many chefs today — of cooking plastic-sealed foods in hot water baths. I’ve never understood what the big deal is: Years ago, Birds Eye frozen peas were sold in a pouch that one placed in boiling water. In any case, this method and many others utilizing scientific instruments are employed by a new breed of cooks exploring the boundaries of what we call cuisine.
Born in the kitchens of several renowned chefs, most important the one of Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Catalonia, the term molecular gastronomy was coined by the French chemist Herve at an academic workshop for scientists and chefs on the chemistry of traditional dishes. Although Adria continues to work with This, he and his colleagues are quite clear in rejecting this description. “The term ‘molecular gastronomy,’ ” he says, “does not describe our cooking, or indeed any style of cooking.” The term deconstructive gastronomy, taken from French philosopher Jacques Derrida, is more appropriate. Kitchens such as Adria’s have turned into chemistry labs, with familiar foods deconstructed to their essence and then reconstructed in surprising ways.
Ferran Adria’s deconstructive genius
In the words of Adria, deconstructive gastronomy “consists of utilizing familiar harmonies [of flavor] while transforming the textures, forms, and temperature of the ingredients. … The result allows the diner to recognize and relate the final flavor with the classic recipe, despite not having recognized the dish in its initial presentation.” For instance, griddled vegetables with charcoal oil [see photo] are not recognizable, and we can’t conceive of the taste of charcoal oil, but in the kitchen laboratory of Adria the essences are reconstructed so the taste is recognizable. He applies a trompe l’oeil aesthetic to taste. This culinary ingeniousness is reminiscent of artist Rene Magritte’s “this is not a pipe” declaration accompanying an image of a pipe.
As with all trends, deconstructive cuisine is sometimes reduced to cliches. For example, the technique of transforming foods into foams has been so overdone it sometimes seems like a parody. Deconstuctive chefs are emphatic that “foam” does not define their cooking; it became a cliche in the same way that tiny portions became the cliche of nouvelle cuisine 35 years ago. In the latter case, however, it was an unfair criticism because the restaurant-going public didn’t always grasp what the lighter nouvelle cuisine was a reaction against — namely, ancienne cuisine, the classic French haute cuisine and its butter, cream and roux-based sauces. That said, maybe the portions were too small.
Adria and his many proteges in Catalonia, as well as other deconstuctive chefs such as Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in London, Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago, Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 in Manhattan and a growing chorus of groundbreaking chefs around the globe are guided by the principals of excellence, openness and integrity. They work with the very finest ingredients and realize the full potential of their food. They argue that earlier generations of cooks were constrained by the limited availability of ingredients and ways of transforming them. On the chemico-physical level, modern science has provided contemporary chefs with greater insight into the transformation of the raw into the cooked. Their point is that the necessarily narrow definitions and expectations embodied in local tradition can now be transcended.
Deconstructive chefs do not reject tradition; they look toward world cuisines and build upon them in a spirit of openness. Don’t all modern chefs do that? Sometimes, they are simply focused on the exploration of ingredients. Innovation is the key for the deconstructionists — not just in terms of new ingredients and techniques, but also appliances, information and ideas. When presented with the rose of beet with mandarin and almond sherbet (see photo), we comprehend the playfulness and essentialism of Adria’s deconstruction. Here even the color of the beet suggests a rose, so why not shape it into one?
Food press welcomes chemistry
The restaurants of the deconstructive chefs are booked for months in advance. The food press, fascinated with the role of food chemistry and technology, writes paeans to their cooking. The chefs employ modern thickening agents, sugar substitutes, enzymes, liquid nitrogen, dehydration and other nontraditional means. Adria often speaks about essences. This is paramount to him. An example is his interest in the cooking of bivalves such as mussels, which have not played a great role in haute cuisine. Mussels are often overcooked, and seconds make the difference, which is clear in this Culinary Institute of America demonstration in 2009. The one topic lacking in the writings of Adria and other deconstuctive chefs, as well as the critical press, is exactly how tradition plays a role, although we know it does because they say it does. For example, is Adria’s cooking Catalan cooking?
Eating engages all the senses as well as the intellect, and preparing and serving food is a most complex and comprehensive performing art — especially when it comes to the deconstructionists. Whatever one makes of their dishes, and very expensive dishes they are, one cannot deny that these chefs are generous in spirit and cooperation. They are open about their cooking, they explain their creations, and there are no secrets. Yet, everything is a secret.
Coming up: Parts 2 and 3 will appear over the next two weeks.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.