You know you're living in a late culture when a chef—in this case, three-Michelin-starred Catalan Chef Ferran Adrià—serves you shrimp broth in a pipette, foie gras that has been frozen and ground to a powder, and a mushroom appetizer spritzed with a custom-made woody fragrance. Historically speaking, such baroque food isn't the best indicator for a society's fate: Apicius wrote recipes for flamingo tongues and stuffed dormice shortly before Rome burned, and France's revolutionary deluge followed Louis XIV's marathon feasts by a mere few decades.
So, it is with a shiver of foreboding that I made my way through the recently published English translation of El Bulli 1998-2002, a coffee-table book (and CD-ROM) celebration of the eponymous restaurant started by Adrià and his partners, Juli Soler and brother Albert Adrià. For its price—120 euros, plus international shipping—you could almost fly to Spain to visit Adrià in person, but the publication is a true lust object, even if its clunkily translated prose and cryptic flavor charts make it read like a kooky patent application. The combination cookbook/catalog raisonée/creative manifesto is packed with extreme close-up photographs of El Bulli's most famous and infamous dishes from the past several years: the pasta made out of jellied meat stocks, the carbonated sugars (think Pop Rocks), and—of course—the foams. Like other three-star chefs, Adrià works in the rarified air of the high-end kitchen, with an army of assistants, ingredients of the highest quality, and a clientele eager for amazement. But it's the incredible feats of culinary engineering detailed in the book—the cuttlefish shaved into translucent pasta skin and the man-made caviar—that have made Adrià, even without the help of a TV show, the most talked-about chef in the world. And with his fame, Adrià has played a big role in leading haute cuisine down the same path other art forms have taken in the past century—to the sometimes-messy convergence of high and low culture; in this case, a blending of haute and mass-market cuisines.
Adrià is most famous for his foams—slithery, liquified blobs (made of anything from cod to raspberries to potatoes) that have been frothed up with a whipped-cream dispenser. The appeal of the foams is simple—they feed our hunger for novelty—and they have almost single-handedly made Adria the oft-profiled superstar he is today. Chefs around the world, most of whom are less skilled than Adrià, use the froths to announce their avant-garde culinary aspirations. Adrià, however, retires his recipes at the end of each season and has moved beyond ordinary forms. Not long ago he sat for the cover of the New York Times Magazine holding a bowl of carrot-mandarin "air"—the foam's evanescent descendant.
Adrià is often grouped with other inquisitive chefs who have embraced food technology, including Heston Blumenthal and Pierre Gagnaire; their style of cooking has sometimes been called "molecular gastronomy." Like Adrià, these chefs are devoted to a semiscientific research into new taste combinations, techniques, and presentation. (They sometimes partner with food scientists.) Adrià and Blumenthal have also participated, with several food technology companies, in an EU-funded project (inicon.net), the main goal of which is to promote the modernization of gastronomy and "prepare a world where chemistry would not be perceived as a danger, but instead a help in the kitchen." Ironically, such tech-y gastronomy has reached its apogee at the same moment as has its near opposite, the preservationist Slow Food movement, which seeks to preserve the oldest, most traditional methods of cooking. Each culinary movement is reacting to the mass food culture: One rejects industrial food in favor of culinary authenticity; the other uses industrial food techniques to ruffle up the rarified realm of haute cuisine.
So how, exactly, did we get here? In the late 19th century, the invention of processed cereals like shredded wheat and corn flakes started consumers craving highly processed textures and flavors. In the late '50s and early '60s, home-cooking convenience became a key focus, and TV dinners, cake mixes, and canned soups swept into American kitchens. In recent years, packaged foods have focused on a different kind of convenience, eating on the run; bagels are thus injected with cream cheese, and plastic containers are filled with tiny potato chips to be poured directly into one's mouth. (In 2002, Adrià offered puffed paella-flavored rice, served in a single-dose plastic pouch, that is similarly meant to be sucked down.) Another recent trend is an intensification of flavor through the use of powders (as with Extreme Doritos) or by way of other, more mysterious processes—such as treatments sold directly to food processors to help them amp up their cold cuts or soy burgers. (Kraft Food's "grill flavors" or "vegetarian meat flavors" are examples.)
The subtext of both the Adrià and the mass-market approach to food is the notion that eating has become boring and that for food to be interesting, it needs to be hypermanipulated. This is obviously the philosophy being peddled by mass-market food producers who would encourage us to snack ourselves to obesity with technological marvels like McGriddles (pancake sandwiches with the syrup "baked right in"), Dippin' Dots ice cream, and Hot Pockets. And even though Adrià and his tech-y ilk use exquisite ingredients (organic vegetables, fish that were swimming just hours before dinner), they are also deploying junk-food tactics without questioning where this industrial food aesthetic might be taking us. The form of Adrià's food, for example, echoes that of mass-market snacks. His liquid-filled ravioli are reminiscent of the liquid center of the '80s phenomenon, Freshen Up gum; the mushroom-gelee "slurps" resemble the suckable packets of yogurt sold in grocery stores today, and his phyllo "pizza" snack, coated in tomato powder and parmesan, seems a step away from a Dorito. To make his cuisine more gripping, Adrià also uses elements other than flavor: transparency, extreme textures, and surprising temperature combinations (a cocktail that is half-frozen and half-hot).
In pursuing the new with a modernist zeal (as Pound said, "Make it new!"), Adrià has also embraced ingredients once limited to highly processed mass-market food: Alongside the wild strawberries are seaweed-based stabilizers (the industrial standard is carrageen; Adrià favors agar-agar), carbonated sugars, dehydrated fruits and vegetables, and natural flavorings like the aforementioned food perfume. In this way, Adrià set himself apart from chefs of the past. Haute cuisine emerged as a retreat from the mass-food market, and so the tacit understanding has been that a chef wouldn't stoop to using preprocessed foods or additives even if they were deemed "natural." (The occasional punning dish, such as the gourmet Twinkie or the luxe hamburger, excepted.) If you follow "molecular gastronomy" to its logical extreme, chefs will soon be working with chemically isolated flavorings that "flavor houses" have been manufacturing for snack and soda companies for years. Ordinary fruits, vegetables, fish, and meat might begin to seem inadequate without a dust of this, an injection of that. Although Adrià makes fun of genetically modified food with his "genetic" basil brushed with natural flavorings to intensify its flavor, he flirts with it, too: By feeding the hunger for novel, bigger-than-life flavors, he's encouraging a kind of Technicolor food spectrum far beyond nature's scope. No cooking is "natural," but as trend-setting chefs and the food industry keep widening the gap between raw ingredients and finished food, the consumer's ability and desire to create tempting, nourishing food at home continues to atrophy.
I'm still looking forward to a meal at El Bulli, eager to enter Adrià's dream world of culinary surrealism and—here I'm relying on written accounts—mind-blowing flavors. But I don't have much confidence in the reproduction of his style, where lesser cooks value form and performance over flavor and the integrity of ingredients and where the shock of the new becomes the only item on the agenda.
Of course, that might not stop me from picking up some agar-agar and seeing if I can follow El Bulli's recipe for transparent ravioli.