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Cutting Edge: Innovation and Modern Cooking

By |  February 5 2016

There are many ways in which Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (The Cooking Lab, Bellevue; 2011) goes out of its way to provoke. There is the price tag, for instance: At $625, it is a remarkably expensive cookbook. And yet, there is value to be found in the depth of research and beautiful presentation of the five heavy volumes, plus separate kitchen manual. The photography alone redefines the possibilities for food-book illustrations. No, it is not the sticker price or the sheer size and weight of the compendious tomes that provokes. In the grand tradition of self-conscious revolutionaries since time immemorial, the first volume on History and Fundamentals contains a manifesto. Over a ten-point plan, Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet expound their principles of the modernist movement. Much is as one might expect-indeed, the greatest criticism of the manifesto is that it is merely describing good cooking versus bad cooking, whatever the ideology of the kitchen-but the first six points all emphasize the creativity of the chef. From the first bold statement, "Cuisine is a creative art in which the chef and diner are in dialogue," through to number six, "Creativity, novelty, and invention are intrinsic to the chef’s role," it is imagination and originality, as much as scientific or technologized methods, that define the modernist project.

Myhrvold and his coauthors return to the same topic when addressing the history of modernist cuisine. Considering the relationship between execution and invention in classical fine dining, they note that the reputation of a chef such as Joël Robuchon is built more upon the excellence and consistency of the execution than on the uniqueness of his dishes. In contrast, "The intense focus on novelty in modernist cuisine is a complete break from that philosophy. Designing new dishes is essential to a modernist chef’s livelihood." The same sentiment can be found from Ferran Adrià. Having closed El Bulli, his Catalan super-restaurant, in 2011, Adrià is now devoting his time to his El Bulli Foundation, the aim of which is to support culinary creativity. He writes, "[G]astronomy, for me, is not only about cooking techniques or ingredients-it is about innovation. Like music, business, or art, there can be no process in cuisine without an idea." To encourage these ideas, he aims to create the BulliPedia, a curated online database that aspires to contain all culinary knowledge. It is meant to go live by 2015.

One chef, two ideas

Creativity is a favorite topic for motivational speakers everywhere, and the act of invention in the kitchen is no exception. So, rather than proceeding through the well-meaning inspirational aphorisms that litter culinary social-media accounts, let us consider two dishes from the same chef and how they changed the world. Molecular gastronomy and culinary modernism were unheard of in 1978, when the French chef Michel Bras first put his composed vegetable salad on the menu of his eponymous restaurant in Laguiole in the Auvergne. He called it le gargouillou, and it was a 50- to 60-ingredient summation of what was best that day at market and in his own kitchen garden. Speaking to The New York Times in 2009, he put the inspiration down to a run in the countryside in June, when the fields and mountains were in full flower. The written recipe for the salad feels more like the briefing notes for a piece of improvised drama than the carefully sculpted and repeatable food that one would expect from a restaurant with the full three Michelin stars. The dish has a magical freedom; it is never the same. And in the fine-dining world of the late 1970s, it was a revelation. The produce that it elevated to star status would otherwise have been relegated to a supporting garnish.

We will see just how deeply the gargouillou influenced top-flight restaurant cooking-in concept as much as by imitation of the dish itself-but another of Michel Bras’s creations has reached far deeper into society. In 1981, Bras devised a method for serving a little chocolate cake with a center of molten sauce, le coulant de chocolat. It is now ubiquitous as a molten chocolate cake or chocolate fondant. A recent trip to a French supermarket saw three different brands commercializing instant packet mixes. Intellectual property is an awkward issue for chefs. Very few have attempted to copyright or patent their inventions, to the extent that there have been scandals when former stagiaires have copied entire menus. In almost all jurisdictions, copyright protection covers the published words of the recipe, not making the dishes themselves. With the chocolate fondant, there are rival claims to its invention. It is true that the Michel Bras method (the ganache for the sauce is frozen solid, and then the batter for the chocolate-biscuit exterior is piped around it in a mold) is not the most simple. In New York City, Jean-Georges Vongerichten claims to have invented the simpler alternative method in the mid-1980s, when he inadvertently removed some chocolate cake from the oven early and discovered that it had retained a liquid center. But whenever one encounters a chocolate dessert where the molten center is made of something other than uncooked cake batter (in the past six months, I have seen salted-caramel, pistachio, and blue-cheese centers), it is Michel Bras who gave uncredited inspiration.

The economics of the fine-dining industry mean that many chefs are forced to play in order to capture the trickledown benefits of reaching a mass audience. A bright young thing might make his or her name cooking for a tiny number of people at a very expensive restaurant, but the real income will derive from the television series, the recipe books, and the endorsement deals for ready meals. But does the creativity with which they fashioned their reputation actually make it out to the wider eating public? It is a model for haute cuisine that derives from haute couture and the fashion industry. A three-Michelin-star restaurant is the equivalent of the Milan catwalk. Influential opinion-formers have the chance to see and select the season’s trends, which are then diffused among the wider populace by mainstream retailers. Alternatively, the more technically minded could think of fine dining as gastronomy’s Formula One racing. The cars-and the dishes-themselves are perhaps freakish and unsuitable for everyday use, but they serve as the test-beds for the next generation of technology to be found in family cars. Much is invested in making this model come true. There have been television series and books such as Heston at Home offering to domesticate the Heston Blumenthal Fat Duck experience. The SousVide Supreme™ promises a no-fuss entry into low-temperature cooking with precise temperature control. And Nathan Myhrvold and his collaborators have even launched Modernist Cuisine at Home (The Cooking Lab, Bellevue; 2012), a single-volume (plus kitchen manual) collection of modernist knowledge for the home cook at one third of the price of their original magnum opus. The problem with these models is that there is no clear mechanism sitting ready to raid the ideas of the heroic chef creators. Unlike the buyers for retail fashion houses, purveyors of supermarket ready meals do not wait to see what chefs are cooking. While it is highly likely that some dishes will enter the domestic canon, it is still far too soon to be able to tell what they might be.

In the world of fashion, of course, trends are not exclusively top-down. Groups of young people establish ways of dressing that reflect their identity. Occasionally these are picked up by the rest of society, and a trend is born. The music and dress of an otherwise marginalized community can suddenly become the new mainstream. This thought occurred to me when I first encountered the excellent Ideas in Food (Clarkson Potter, New York; 2010) by husband-and-wife team Aki Kamozawa and H Alexander Talbot. Building from a popular blog, Kamozawa and Talbot devote half the book to recipes that can be prepared at home with no special ingredients or equipment. While technically savvy, the recipes are thoroughly approachable; they are also delicious. The other half of the book covers the use of techniques and equipment that you would typically find in a professional kitchen, with extensive chapters on hydrocolloids, transglutaminase, and all the other modern toys. Although many of the recipes are playful ("Potato chip pasta"), they never push boundaries to the assertively weird. More than anything else, what comes from the book is the extent to which cosmopolitan modern society has integrated into American cuisine ingredients and dishes that would once have been regarded as ethnic food. Blond miso noodles and red cabbage kimchi sit happily among buttermilk biscuits and chocolate pudding. Genuine novelty comes from the dayin, day-out integration of different cultural traditions, rather than from the divine inspiration of a hero chef. Chefs are reflective of their societies. This is especially true of Modernist Cuisine at Home, a book that devotes chapters to steak, to cheeseburgers, and to mac and cheese. It is interested not in creating genuinely original food but in changing the techniques you use to prepare the dishes you eat already.

Novelty and raw materials

Every great chef-indeed, any competent cook-cares passionately about the ingredients with which they work. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the basic truth that no dish, however elaborate, is able to transcend the quality of its raw ingredients. That said, within culinary modernism there is a distinct trend to emphasize the skill of the creator as manipulator. Where Michel Bras conceived of his gargouillou as an ever-changing reflection of the local herbs and vegetables, his culinary processes made a virtue out of the inherent shapes and textures of the produce. Yes, the gargouillou features some seasonal purées, but in general it is quite possible to recognize each component for what it is. A flower is a flower; a turnip is a turnip. Virtue lies in the selection, preparation, and juxtaposition of the ingredients so that they sing in harmony but with readily identifiable individual voices. Nature is clearly the source of this bounty.

In contrast, once Ferran Adrià seized upon the same idea at El Bulli, he made use of modernist techniques of spherification and encapsulation. In the words of American food writer Harold McGee, introducing Adrià at the inaugural Harvard public lecture on molecular gastronomy, "Ferran starts with the bounty of nature and then moves on to the bounty of the imagination to do things that have never been done before and that can give us something more from the experience of cooking and eating than we’ve gotten in the past." El Bulli might have closed, but his cooking made for a powerful ideological shift. In Adrià’s own words, "Avant-garde cuisine is like creating a new language, and you need a new alphabet. It has taken a long time to make people understand this new language. For this new language in cooking, we need new techniques and products."

The definition of "new products" is at the heart of a revealing disconnect between the modernist kitchen and the primary producer working on the farm. I only fully appreciated the difference during the tea break at a conference on dairy science. The conference was drawing to a close, and I had found the presentations on the links between farming practice, raw-milk biodiversity, and flavor in cheese fascinating. A publisher approached me, himself a distinguished figure in bringing laboratory science to the attention of chefs and other practitioners. "I find this all a little disappointing," he said. "Why is nobody using the science to make a unique and original cheese?" I muttered something about the inherent uniqueness that comes from sensitively handling raw milk; even if every cheesemaker present at the conference followed exactly the same recipe, all of their cheeses would be different, thanks to the distinctiveness of their milk. But this was not enough for the publisher. The cheeses were all still speaking the language of cheese; they were never truly unique. Following Adrià, whether consciously or not, for him creativity and originality lay within the human imagination. He wanted the cheesemakers to manipulate their products in unique ways.

In The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (Random House, New York; 2001), the American food commentator and activist Michael Pollan uses the metaphor of Apollo and Dionysus to discuss the human relationship with the natural world. Both sons of Zeus, Apollo represents order, clear boundaries, and control over nature, while Dionysus, the god who taught the Greeks to make wine, is the opposite. In Pollan’s work, these twin positions represent the enforced order and control of industrial monoculture versus anarchic nature. Although this shapes an eloquent critique of the excesses of modern agribusiness, it also applies directly to the role and attitude of the chef.

Unsurprisingly, there is a lively but desperately unproductive debate about what actually constitutes natural food. In his book Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (Random House, New York; 2010) Pollan enumerates his manifesto for eating. He is quite clear in his aversion to heavily processed foods: "Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients"; "Avoid foods containing ingredients that a third grader cannot pronounce"; "Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food." He would, one feels, not get on with the menu at Grant Achatz’s Alinea or any other temple of modern haute gastronomy. In part, it is simply a question of which particular processing agents are already familiar and accepted. Sodium chloride, for example, sounds like a sinister industrial-chemical processing ingredient, where simple salt is entirely benign and natural. Conversely, many of the thickening and gelling agents so beloved of the modernist kitchen-such as konjac flour, carrageenan, and guar gum-are themselves entirely plant-based.

Pollan and modernist cuisine represent two cultures of food that have a strictly limited capacity to talk with each other. While there are certainly key philosophical differences in the degree to which each side seeks to bind and control nature, this does not explain why modern cooking so heavily emphasizes the chef as manipulator, while simultaneously, the culture of primary production-and here, wine is a perfect example-instead concentrates upon the originality inherent in particular places. Even a restaurant such as Copenhagen’s Noma, committed to the development of a new Nordic cuisine of place, can branch out for a summer pop-up at London’s Claridge’s Hotel without being troubled by the inconsistency of the shift in terroir or any resulting shift in the food served. The New World adventures of distinguished Old World winemakers might attract attention because of the winemaker’s pedigree, but they set out to discover new and different terroirs. If Christian Moueix inadvertently made an exact Pétrus clone at Dominus in the Napa Valley, he would feel that he had failed.

The real origin of these differences is simply the practitioners at each stage of production seeking to emphasize their own inputs and consequent originality. Not only do farmers want to emphasize the excellence of their own agriculture, they also know that the unique properties of a product grown or raised on their farm is their greatest defense against becoming subsumed into the brutal economics of the commodity market. Terroir expression is an entirely rational business decision on the part of the primary producer. For the poor chef, it is simply not an option. As long as restaurants buy in the raw materials, chefs will locate their discourse of quality in a discussion of their own techniques and imaginations.

As a brief aside, this phenomenon can be found extensively in those wine regions where production is heavily split between growers and winemakers. Especially once a region is dominated by large négociant houses or their equivalent, the ideas of what constitutes a quality wine become shaped by interventions away from the vineyard. Sherry and Champagne immediately spring to mind as fine-wine areas where the definition of quality has been most heavily shaped by the flavors that it is possible for a skilled chef de cave to achieve. In both regions, traditional ideas of quality emphasize judicious blending and long aging-the two easiest interventions in the cellar. If superior-quality Champagne is held to have the brioche palate of autolysis, that is good for the chef de cave. To consumers accustomed to these flavors, the concentrated vinosity found in grower wines that are the product of low-yielding viticulture and a very short period of lees aging can seem entirely alien.

The "chef as creator" is also a useful business conceit. With its division of labor and compartmentalized specialization, a modern kitchen is nothing so much as a factory-an artisanal factory manned by skilled professionals, but a factory nonetheless. As such, it is a readily scalable concept for those with ambition and funding. Only the constraints of the fine-dining market prevent the existence of a three-star Michelin franchise restaurant in every shopping-mall food court. But an international approach allows for flagship restaurants in wealthy cities across the globe. Chefs such as Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon have become global luxury brands, managing extensive holdings of high-end restaurants.

Equally, where the chefs are themselves the farmers, so then the emphasis of their menus becomes the provenance of ingredients. Amid the bucolic splendor of his Ferme de la Ruchotte, chef Frédéric Menager would rather talk about his organic farming and rare-breed animals than about his techniques in the kitchen. But while Menager has established Ferme de la Ruchotte as a rustic auberge, tucked away in the Burgundian Haute Côtes (it is only open at the weekend, with a no-choice menu for the 20 or so guests who sit at the two long communal tables), his cooking exhibits fearsome precision. That in itself is hardly surprising for a chef who trained under both the great Alain Chapel and the iconoclastic Pierre Gagnaire. Menager’s food world, where you might go for a postprandial walk to meet the siblings of the duck that you have just eaten, is vastly different from the self-conscious novelty of Gagnaire’s molecular menus. But he is effusive in his praise for his old boss: Je serai à jamais marqué par ce créateur exceptionnel ("I will forever be marked by this exceptional creator"). Creativity and originality take place on the farm, as well as in the kitchen.

The most prominent American exponent of the same philosophy is Dan Barber, who initially made his name as a chef with his highly seasonal menus at Blue Hill in Greenwich Village in New York City. Four years later, in 2004, Barber opened Blue Hill at Stone Barns in the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. Essentially a restaurant situated within a working farm, Blue Hill at Stone Barns presents guests not with a menu but, rather, with a list of the ingredients thought to represent the best of the season’s produce. When Barber has himself written or spoken of science, it is of the use of precision agriculture or researching the genetics of heirloom wheat to begin a process of farming for flavor. Once again, his originality is located in the field.

What unites all of the chefs and food writers who have featured in this article is that they are all committed to the generation of knowledge. Whether the knowledge is in the form of understanding the physics of the phase shifts in ice-cream making, or how better to farm a particular corner of upstate New York, the greatest single trend in serious gastronomy has been toward the sharing and dissemination of information. From the BulliPedia, through the work of institutions like the Nordic Food Lab that publish all of the results of their experiments immediately for all to share, the high-end restaurant has become the last great repository of culinary knowledge. As domestic cooking becomes an ever more marginal activity, it will be to the restaurants that we will look to preserve knowledge and traditions. In such a circumstance, the real question will be how to get a wider public to engage happily with this knowledge. It will require more creativity than the making of any new dish.

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