AZ on the Legacy of Modernist Food

Some think modernist cooking is too edgy with no soul. AZ thinks we are witnessing the shift in an art form.

Photo by Steve Henke

John Mariani sees a perceived failure in modernist cooking. Mariani is a smart man, so I have to believe he is simply trying to stir the pot with outrageousness or believes that contrarianism is engaging. Regardless, his July 24 Eat Like a Man blog for Esquire was simply not factual, and by misleading his readers about one of the primary engines fueling our food world, he does a disservice to the beneficial aspects of creativity. Stifle that, and our world loses color. Sorry, Mariani, can’t let you go there.

In his blog, he refers to the molecular gastronomy work of the great José Andrés, and by extension many others, by saying that “the expansion and influence of that avant-garde cuisine has been next to zero.” He has long decried the influence of Grant Achatz and Wiley Dufresne (among others) on chefs here in this country, and his proof is that there are only a scant handful of restaurants in America employing these modernist techniques. That’s preposterous. Mariani believes that the modernist ideology isn’t where the “smart money is going” and even goes so far as to call it a fad. All of his arguments clutch at straws as he maintains his opinion that the modernist movement has stalled, gone nowhere in the last decade, and spawned only a few restaurants dedicated to the fully realized modernist format.

I can think of at least 70-odd places that he overlooked; after that I stopped counting. New restaurants fully engaged in the modernist style are not growing on trees, but young chefs all around the country are bullish on modernism, cooking to great acclaim, and influencing another generation of chefs. From Ken Oringer at Clío, to Jordan Kahn and Michael Voltaggio in L.A., to Voltaggio’s brother Bryan in Maryland, to Alex Stupak in NYC. It’s not a tidal wave, but it’s a steady break and everyone is grabbing their boards and heading into the water.

What Mariani has missed is that modernist food has a legacy that’s bigger than the copycat menu-making of 10 years ago. Chefs today, like Stupak, are using the modernist style when it fits. Stupak doesn’t make tacos, and then crumble them, hydrate them, and break out the rotary evaporator to turn his taco distillate into a jellybean, but his menus at Empellon have plenty of modernist technique behind them. Here in the Twin Cities, there are many chefs who do the same thing. Go eat your way through Piccolo, Victory 44, La Belle Vie, or any Travail project. Emulsification, meat glue, evaporation, slow and fast drying, spherification, fat powders . . . c’mon, Mariani, open your eyes. This style is everywhere. Even the Certified Angus Beef test kitchens in Ohio, part of one of the biggest commercial marketing associations in the world, are showing every cook that comes through their doors the same technique that Erik Harcey uses to turn bacon fat into powder to sprinkle on French fries. Modernist food is even a physics class taught at Harvard, for crying out loud!

When the impressionist painters exploded on the scene in the 19th century, they had all been formally trained at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. They could paint still life exactly as it appeared, but they chose to reject it. They were liberators—that’s how major creative movements are born. And 100 years from now all the books will be about Adria, Andrés, Blumenthal, Dufresne, Achatz, and others from the modernist school who turned cooking on its ear and asked the questions of “why” and “what if.” It’s called risk, and it demonstrates leadership and how new things are learned. It’s the willful disregard for the status quo; it is brilliant anarchy.

Some think modernist cooking is impersonal, too edgy with no soul. I think we are witnessing the shift in an art form. Modernists still touch the food! Still butcher a chicken. Still make stock. In truth, modernists are soulful romantics. They’re just trying to know more about their ingredients and equipment and want to be more engaged. Along the way, they’re discovering some amazing ways to look at, cook, and eat food. It’s avant-garde, sure. But eschewing modernism in the food world today is like telling 19th-century cooks not to use that new-fangled electricity.

Mariani is so wrong about his small-minded argument that he loses sight of the big picture. The avant-garde is experimental in every genre. Out of the world of modernist cooking will come a few solutions on how to best care for our planet, solve food insecurity issues, and end hunger. Dr. Pasteur would recognize that notion. So does my kid. I’m just shocked John Mariani doesn’t. Ignorance of the obvious is an obesity of the mind that stifles creativity, something we simply can’t afford.