I had the opportunity yesterday to chat with Corby Kummer, the senior editor at The Atlantic and the author of many great cookbooks including the definitively weighty epistle The Slow Food Cookbook. He is the dining critic for Boston Magazine and a three-time Beard Award winner. He knows his stuff. Corby told me a cute story about the new generation of culinary alchemists, chefs like Grant Achatz, Homaru Cantu, Wylie Dufresne, Heston Blumenthal, and of course their patron saint, Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame. These are the guys that would rather make a foam and edible-paper version of pot roast than serve you the instantly recognizable one that has been served for the last 2,000 years, virtually unchanged.
I love what these chefs are capable of creating, using equipment that looks like stuff more suitable for a NASA moon shot than a casual workday dinner. Last time I was in Chicago I ate at Alinea, Achatz’s new restaurant and to my mind the most important restaurant in America. I ate dishes that were entirely composed of fruit and vegetable juices, cooked to a syrup, turned into a chewy ‘leather,’ cut and rolled in fanciful shapes, and then rehydrated to varying degrees and served on giant wire that dangled in front of my face. I tried dishes served on big air-filled pillows, the weight of the plate pushing out the air from inside oh so gradually, filling my nostrils with herbal perfume as I ate what was before me. I had a cheese course that was essentially freshly squeezed grape juice, turned to a reduced jelly, rolled in frozen blue cheese snow and served with a nut foam and a salad of wild celery. I had twenty-two courses in all, and each was more amazing than the one that preceded it, but Achatz for all his huevos cooks traditionally as well, and even his experimental dishes are firmly rooted in classic techniques. His seared squab with foie gras emulsion, served with root vegetables and truffle jus was as classic as can be, and arguably the best plate I have tasted all year. Not all the culinary wizards have that ability. Some just make crazy food to show off their pyrotechnical skills, they have no sense of balance, no real cooking ability, but instead they possess a chemist’s passion and a scientific skill set, and they can coax and manipulate flavors and ingredients in remarkable ways, but it makes for a weird dining experience.
Homaro Cantu makes edible paper on his Canon inkjet printer, and is developing a course that floats. He takes a cube of whipped edible silicone invented for astronauts by NASA and infuses it with flavors in an industrial smoker. It is served, spun above the table by the server so that it releases its fragrance. It floats because the silicone’s air pockets keep it aloft if the silicone is heated. Who cares?
Cantu is experimenting with class 4 lasers and liquid nitrogen freezers, and says that between the two he could make inside-out bread where the crust is on the interior. Big deal. Will it taste good?
Kummer tells me that when he asked one of the movement’s biggest stars about simple foods cooked well, with a minimum of fuss and contrivance, he was told, “If I wanted to serve you an apple I would have become a farmer. I’m a chef.” True. And god bless these guys. For them, what they can do to food is more important than the food itself. But for the food lover, the defining element in the eating experience is still the quality of the ingredient. I’m not sure some of these guys even like food. They just like to play with it.