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