Wednesday March 17, 2010
Flaunt Magazine: Mastery AND Manipulation (part 2)
(continued from part 1)
So it seems the meal is impossible to anchor to any one concrete pretext or idea. But what of the actual food? Can we really call haute cuisine a deconstructive art form when its composition is not merely listed on menus, but indebted and made quantifiable by advancements in science? Is it really without a formalized foundation, floating in the visceral? After all, the dishes that presently inspire gasps and whispers around the world are made possible by extremely inventive and ballsy fusions of natural elements. For example, sodium alginate, a brown algae cell-wall product, when cleverly combined with liquids such as, say, blueberry or passion fruit syrup, makes caviar-like spherical pearls possible. This presentation marvel, by the way, was brought to fame by Madrid’s fabled Ferran Adria, who helms El Bulli, considered by many to be the best restaurant in the world. Adria has been known to credit Derrida’s school of thought as inspiration for his aims to reincarnate “the spirit” of his foundational ingredients into new pleasures like cauliflower mousse and basil jelly.
There’s also transglutaminase, or “meat glue,” enabling pasta-like formations from the fatty bellies of shrimp. There’s methyl cellulose—a thickening cellulose derivative—thermo-reversible and oh-so instrumental in the viscous gels responsible for the radical desserts and treats on spend-heavy plates from São Paulo to San Francisco. And of course, a milieu of syringes and bake bags and cans of silly soluble fibers ideal for accentuating tempura batters, or giving morning dough some nouveau attitude, can be found online for those questing guttural glee.
Still, while ingredients can be made explicit, even available on Amazon, the gingerly touches, caresses, and mandates that bring this chemical order to edible ecstasy are few and far. It’s absurd, really, that some recipes are made to seem replicable. Certainly, though, they’re inspiring at-home artistry and getting some people laid. “Dining is enjoyment, taste, and ceremony,” waxes Morimoto on the sensuality of swallowing down his deep sea-sourced delights. “I don’t intentionally seek to make my food sexy, but if when I serve it there’s a romantic mood around the table, I would like to help the mood.”
Olvera adds, “There are few things that give such pleasure as a good
dish. [Famed 18th century politician and gastronome] Jean Anthelme
Brillat-Savarin used to say that ‘the discovery of a new dish confers
more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star’. To eat
well is to live well, and the most sexy thing is to be well with
At this point, let’s take a breather from Derrida (who some feel was intentionally sloppy in the philosophic kitchen anyway) and the insurmountable task of associating something as sociologically wrought as the dining experience with post-modern schools of heavy-handed wording and referential back-scratching. We’re a few courses in and the pairings are exquisite. Pish posh to the electrolyte variance of raw cheeses, the resting temperature of our escarole, or how muted our cocoa emulsification flair can become. Leave behind the red lard, marine rock, and gelatinous cod stock. Not forgetting the aformentioned imperial bibs, what we’re further concerned with is the crucial exploration of gluttony and conquest, palate and palace.
Because really, there can only be so many cooks in the kitchen. As Achatz explains, regarding a recent award acceptance at the culinary conference Lo Mejor, “The conference was previously held in San Sebastian for the past ten years. The number of high-end, important chefs in that region have helped to draw people to the congress. It turns out the event organizer had a falling out with the chefs of the San Sebastian region—Andoni [Luis Aduriz], [Juan Mari] Arzak, [Pedro] Subijana—and they publicly said they would not support the congress in the future, so the chefs from Northern Spain did not participate.”
Yet unlike the media-laden squabbles of other artistic masters of craft (see allegations of Seattle Symphony Orchestra conductor Gerard Schwarz’s “vandalism aimed at players, including a dented French horn and a razor blade planted in a mailbox,” as quoted by The New York Times, or Robert Hughes’ denunciation of Damien Hirst), the show must go on. And not for other artists. These orchestreurs are behind the closed doors of sparkling kitchens, not under public scrutiny, and as Aduriz says of his time working under Adria at El Bulli, “I learned to respect the guests there, to believe in ideas and dreams, to be risky and anti-conformist.” At stake is the glowing dining room of Mugaritz, and patience, precision, and emotional restraint can all but guarantee its artistic enjoyment.
Achatz further speaks to cultural differences and the expectations
of an audience. “Chicago’s unique from New York, from San Francisco,
from anywhere, really. It always has been with art, with architecture.
And there’s something about the Midwest that is in complete conflict to
what people generalize: conservative, meat and potatoes… Midwesterners
aren’t caught up in what people are doing on the far coasts to preclude
them from enjoying this kind of food. Alinea couldn’t exist in San
Francisco. They think Alice Waters: farm at the table, pulling a carrot
out of the ground, rinsing it off, put it on the plate, simplest and
purest. They’re not into manipulation. In New York, they’re so wound up
and everybody is too important and too busy, and they won’t accept the
fact that you have to carve out two or three hours to come and sit in
the restaurant for the experience.”
Still, try as we might to abandon Derrida, we can’t, for we find our story’s foundation–the palate–impossibly unstable, unpredictable, and erratically vulnerable. In 2006, Achatz, after stirring Alinea into a press—and cuisine—world delirium, was diagnosed with stage IV cancer of the tongue. In the hopes of saving his tongue, Achatz elected for progressive treatments with doctors at the University of Chicago. He underwent three months of chemotherapy, successfully defeating the cancer. “The whole thing’s been surreal,” he says, then pauses. “I mean, I go from culinary school to the best restaurant in the country [Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry], where I’m second in charge in very little time, and then head of my own restaurant at 26, and after that Alinea and we skyrocket and Gourmet is calling us the best restaurant in the country, and six months later a doctor is telling me I’m going to die—a hell of a roller coaster.”
He continues, enlightening artistry’s cosmic unpredictability. “I’ve always been on a mission. My life is very calculated; I’m a control freak. You have a vision and you think, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’ And something like this—you realize you don’t have any control over anything, at any moment.”
Like these chefs’ flaming cinnamon, molecularly reconstructed vanilla beans, or duck fat spheriphication, art melds with science, and here, for Achatz, it’s one artist at the whims of another. Excusing a tangent in advance, Achatz says, “You know, front page of The New York Times today is the Anderson Clinic in Texas, and it’s pretty popularly known as one of the best in the world. And it makes me kind of angry knowing that had I gone there, my outcome would be extremely different. I worked with some doctors who think about medicine the same way we do with food–outside the box, different methods. It’s all down to the way people approach their craft.”
The manifold euphoria, conversation, and sensory pleasure available with modern cuisine owes itself to many factors: the media in the kitchen, advancements in lab science, the complexities of heightened global trade and communication. But it’s today’s contemporary practitioners of haute cuisine that sprinkle their shamanistic dust over creations which might otherwise only move us toward sustenance. They operate from within a universal medium, pairing and refining and manipulating, and advance cuisine to an unequivocal art form.
This craft, and Achatz’s health ordeal, is a reminder that the human body, in its ability to taste, and feel, and physiologically partake in this medium, is art’s one true, preciously mortal vestibule—a vestibule continually reified by the meal. At a point, this is much less about the ornaments of global conquest, trendy uptown tables, or fashionable company. That’s all just jive, really. No, cuisine as art is more about a conquest of fleeting pleasure. As humorist and author S.J. Perelman writes in his 1951 satirical essay, “Nesselrode to Jeopardy”: “I ought to explain that my people (poor bourgeois dears) left me a goodish bit of money. Praise be to Allah–and the automobile wax my father invented–I don’t have to fret excessively about the sordid aspects of life, and hence I’ve applied myself to living graciously, which I do think is all that matters, really. I mean I sometimes wonder if a properly chilled Gibson or a superb coq au vin isn’t basically more important than these grubby wars and revolutions everyone’s been so hopelessly neurotic about.”
Reprinted courtesy of Flaunt Magazine