Usually I cut my fellow culinarians some slack in the way they depict the dishes on their menus. If they feel it is absolutely indispensable to give information about certain ingredients (where the baby octopus on your plate took its first swim) and other key details like the exact time, place and date the potato was planted well, that’s their choice but you know you’re living in a dying culture when a chef serves you Foie gras that has been frozen and ground to a powder, or a mushroom appetizer shpritzed with a woody fragrance and served in a test tube. In times gone by preparing and serving such baffling foods wasn’t the best indication of a society’s future. The Romans used recipes for flamingo tongues and stuffed dormice shortly before Rome burned, and France’s revolutionary zeal for lopping off the heads of the aristocracy followed Louis XIV’s marathon feasts and food binges by a mere few decades.
So, it is with a shiver of foreboding that I have noticed the increase in these bizarre dishes making their way into our very own menus and some times I feel that I need to have a degree in molecular science to understand the menu (exactly what is floating in a cloud of ethereal something or other?)
I must be honest……. I freaking hate this “new age gastronomy” Blended gloop poured onto frozen marble or sticking stuff together that simply doesn’t belong together, the carbonated sugars (think Pop Rocks) and pasta made out of jellied meat stocks and—of course—the foams, those slithery, liquefied blobs (made of anything from cauliflower to bacon and eggs) that have been frothed up with a whipped-cream dispenser. The appeal of these “foods” is simple; they feed our hunger for novelty, the chef’s hunger for notoriety—but not to satisfy our appetites. I mean let’s face it if you can’t make your food with a knife, a stove and a frying pan then piss off! (Ok, maybe a few more items of equipment can be forgiven, but you get my point. What next; deconstructed roast chicken “air”?
OK maybe this makes me a culinary dinosaur but at least I know that old mother nature, if left alone (with just a little help from her friends) can produce the most awesome and delicious morsels. I love pasta and I love calamari and if you combine a beautiful hand made, Durum wheat pasta with fresh squid sautéed in pristine olive oil with a touch of garlic and chilli….well…I mean…who needs sex! But cuttlefish shaved into translucent pasta skin and man-made caviar? Give me a break!
As luck would have it such techno-gastronomy has reached its high point at the same time as has its exact opposite, the culinary green preservationist Slow Food Movement, which seeks to embrace the art of eating at a slower, more harmonious pace with the aim of appreciating all the natural textures and flavours of food and wine using the most traditional methods of cooking. I would hazard a guess that both of these opposing culinary revolutions are reacting to the deluge of fast food outlets, the industrialization of foodstuffs and the standardization of taste: One rejects industrial food in favour of culinary authenticity; the other uses scientific techniques to challenge the domain of established culinary norms.
And don’t get me started on so called “fusion”. Actually most of the world’s ethnic cuisines are a fusion of cultures anyway. It is just a matter of semantics. But this dammed rush to create and over create is making it harder to come up with useful labels for menus and a definite pain in the butt for any honest chef that just wants to cook good food. All of this does point to a direr situation though: The cuisines of the world are imploding into one enormous, ill-defined mass. Supposedly it is stimulating that chefs opening up their kitchens to other influences, discovering new and exotic ingredients and creating multi-ethnic menus. And truthfully some of these the creations can be utterly yummy. The problem is, too many chefs are creating dishes that meander across so many borders and allude to so many traditions and that lesser cooks value form and performance over flavour and the integrity of ingredients that the shock of the new becomes the only item on the agenda and they—we—lose any sense of place and taste. Maybe they should just try cooking good ingredients properly and serving it in a recognizable way!
I must admit that unfortunately I never made it to El Bulli, proclaimed as the “the world’s best restaurant” but how much of this was media hype and even Chef Ferran Adrià’s brother and partner Albert admitted it was time to “tame the monster” There is no Doubt that chef Adrià was the master and father of this new world culinary surrealism as it spread like a virus throughout the culinary world with chefs every where scrambling to reproduce faint echo’s of the “master’s” creations, foaming everything that could be emulsified and deconstructing everything until it bore no resemblance to the original product but I don’t have much confidence in the longevity of this style, and it will, in all likely hood, be relegated to the trash can of culinary history like the cooking styles that have gone before: cuisine minceur, nouveaux cuisine etc. at the end of the day the Adrià brothers are business men and like any good business men they recognized that they had taken their creation to the max and now they are going on a different course with the El Bulli Foundation and I for one look forward with trepidation to more new and surprising culinary innovations if only for the novelty because after every one of these innovations in culinary ideas we are getting closer and closer to the idea of a global cuisine.
Of course, it is yet to be seen whether the world’s regional food traditions will, at the end of the day, survive this impending globalization of cosmo-cuisine, design, culture, cosmo-everything.
In an interview, chef Paul Bocuse said, “People are travelling an enormous amount, and they tend to want to find the dishes and tastes they’re used to wherever they go.” I’m hoping he’ll turn out to be wrong.
I still prescribe to the theory of Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the most influential of past gastronomes, as he summed it up nicely: “Animals eat. Men and women dine. And men and women of discrimination dine well.”