Mastery AND Manipulation
The Ephemeral Medium of Contemporary Haute Cuisine
Written by Matthew Bedard
Flaunt Magazine (www.flaunt.com)
We can be sure French philosopher Jacques Derrida dined with finesse. After all, he was French. And cuisine, like most modern art, has seen its fashionable, intellectualized, and, at times, pretentious approbation smeared across imperial bibs for centuries. French novelist Alexandre Dumas posthumously published a dictionary of culinary terms, recipes, and anecdotes in 1873, and a decade or two later, the northern end of Western Europe’s dining table was busily bellying up over India, leaving its own colonial canon of published recipes and musings in its wake. A hundred or so years later, some warring, some globalizing, and some science gone by and the purveyors and participants have expanded. A lot has changed, a lot hasn’t. Of the last several decades’ voyage of cuisine pretension from Europe to the U.S. (and its citizens’ resultant treatment of “food as anxious social theatre”), The New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik writes, “We are the worldly, corrupt ones at the table now, and the Europeans, in this regard at least, are the innocents. Even their philosophers eat for pleasure.”
So Derrida stuffed his gob with port-molested veal and butter-dunked escargot and rinsed with Chablis then tinto, all while founding deconstructionism. Thus, his school of philosophy is as fair an approach to exploring the wanton cerebral exercise that is contemporary cuisine as any. Jabber and snoot as much as one might over a meal and its component parts, food as an artistic medium possesses
a foundationless, irretrievable, irreplicable context. We eat; it can be magical, but we’re inevitably forced forward from the moment.
This context, or medium—in this case “the meal”—is as varied as the global medley of what there is to eat. For many, that’s nothing or very little. Still, despite this context as “high art” being somewhat contained by the monies of only
a few nations, astonishing incantations of, say, baby potatoes or pork cheek or persimmons can be found the world over. This is harder to say of other ‘‘high art” offerings like photography or theatre or cinema.
Culinary savage Grant Achatz, brushing Mellow Gold-era bangs from his focus, speaks on cuisine-as-art from the kitchen of his Chicago pleasure palace, Alinea. “What food has over any other art form is the physical interaction. You put it into your body and you’re physiologically changing. This triggers the common thread of any art form: nostalgia, pleasure points. Unlike other forms of expression, dining is transient, gone forever. Music recordings are eternal, and sure, a live performance differs every time, but for the most part, photographs, paintings, are all eternalized. Cuisine is uniquely subject to human error, interpretation, and judgment.”
Despite national treasure Achatz—winner of a number of prestigious awards this decade and considered one of the edgiest chefs in the world—the U.S., at the moment, is but a mere contributor to modern cuisine’s rampant global basting. Many would argue, in fact, that its crown sits atop the laissez-faire palate of old, colonizing sunspot Spain and, more specifically (and appropriately), its rogue and perpetually low-boil upper haunch, the Basque Region—home to a number of premiere haute cuisine destinations.
Neo-naturalist Spanish chef Andoni Luis Aduriz’s assemblages build upon this unique cultural and geographic locale. At his San Sebastian restaurant, Mugaritz–recently ranked the number four restaurant in the world by the reputable San Pellegrino awards–sees vegetables baked in clay and ash, sexy dairy coagulations, and burnt fern breathing heavy over ewes’ milk and curd cheese. “Spain, and much of the Basque Country, possesses a social context that organically accepts the coexistence of tradition and the vanguard,” says Aduriz, “Society should see this openness as an opportunity, not a risk.”
Every January, Spain hosts Madrid Fusion, cuisine’s most reputable conference on molecular gastronomy—a dated term for those in the mix. And yet, it’s a rather esoteric event, hardly an engine for heightening the populist palate. Instead, America has largely shouldered this task, as its array of televised pleasure and high-speed stupefaction have evolved the ‘90s niche of chefs-in-front-of-cameras to
a round-the-clock broadcast buffet. For Aduriz, this popularization is merely a product of evolution. “It was only a question of time that cuisine and, consequently, cooks had more visibility in society. Personally, I think the notoriety is fairly justifiable, like a famous actor, musician, athlete or politician. Perhaps, though, the mistake is to believe that success in one area can be projected onto everything else. I believe the cognoscenti call it the ‘halo effect,’ like what we see in the media–cooks talking on politics, or actors forming opinions on science, or politicians talking about artistic matters.”
Over some gracefully gutted eel flanks and a vibrant spread of mollusk wizardry, the eccentrically stoic Japanese chef and international restaurateur, Masaharu Morimoto, of ever delightful culinary battle program Iron Chef America, further adds (via his translator), “I hope that celebrity has contributed to the popularity of the art form. Master sushi chefs, I believe–with their graceful movement, the clean uniform, the sharp knives, the total air they carry–are very artistic. I realized after Iron Chef that children who saw the show wanted to grow up and become chefs. They wanted to become a kind of artist.”
Though “sophistication” often pairs with massive GNPs, all corners of the world have long had their poets. Derrida drew deeply on philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose seminal work, The Birth of Tragedy, spoke to the notion of art for the sake of ephemeral consumption: “The poet is incapable of composing until he has become unconscious and bereft of reason.” Forging ahead with the unconscious as a palate, Enrique Olvera—a featured speaker at this year’s Madrid Fusion, a Food & Wine Next Chef Superstar, and chef/owner of Mexico City’s premier gastro-destination, Pujol—draws on the rudderless human experience to ensure unique dining. “You need dreams and memory to create, a source for ideas and inspiration. Food without memory will hardly have a soul. Our personalized and collective memory separates us from other omnivores. At Pujol, we draw on our memories from childhood and travel, for example, to create comfort for our guests. That is what a restaurant and dining experience should be: comfort and restoration.”
Olvera would know, as Mexican food is among the hottest global cuisines at the moment. Unlike today, a decade ago one would be hard-pressed to find anything resembling a mole or asada in Tokyo, London, Seoul, or Dubai—a trend he attributes to “[Mexico’s] vibrant street food culture, our amazing variety of products found in the markets, and a fabulous combination of acidity and spiciness. We have a millenary gastronomic culture that can compete directly with French and Spanish restaurants, and in some cases, we’ve surpassed them.”