Will Spanish avant-garde cuisine stand the test of time?

What to eat. What not to eat.
March 26 2008 8:07 AM

Fish Foam and Spherified Mango Juice

Will Spanish avant-garde cuisine stand the test of time?

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4.  Death by popular demand

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In an episode of his TV show No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain visits Adrià's workshop and undergoes a grudging conversion—from molecular skeptic to gaga techno-emotionalist. José Andrés, of Washington's Minibar and Café Atlántico, who whips up "cotton candy avocado" in his occasional appearances on the Food Network, has a new show coming out on American television. Mario Batali spent last fall traveling around Spain with a camera crew, New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, and Gwyneth Paltrow. According to Batali's blog, the show, which will air on public television, confines itself in the main to cocido and stewed pig's ears. But an episode at Carme Ruscallada's Sant Pau includes "a cube of gelatin with royal shrimp head in a lozenge." And if Batali is gushing about gelatin cubes, isn't it just a matter of time before Rachael Ray pulls out a jar of Xantana and calls it "yum-o"?

5.  Death by news cycle

Daniel Patterson, chef and owner of San Francisco's Coi, told me he had detected signs of a backlash against Spanish avant-garde cuisine. When I asked for an example, he replied, in a tone that managed to be mostly unaccusing, "Well, articles like this one." He's right: Food writers have to write about something, and if we can't write about a new trend, we might as well tear down an old one.

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The press and the public have officially caught up to the Spanish revolutionaries: Adrià's kitchen is no longer the source of the new new thing. But I won't sound the death knell on techno-emotionalism, because food movements often prosper long after journalists have lost interest. The Asian fusion craze passed years ago, but miso-glazed salmon has become a staple; California cuisine is woefully unhip, but I still find alfalfa in my sandwiches. Perhaps the most relevant comparison is nouvelle cuisine.

That movement started in the late 1960s and early 1970s and emphasized color, lightness, and freshness over the heavy sauce-based cooking that had characterized French—and therefore upscale—cooking for the previous century. Nouvelle cuisine was a kitchen upheaval that coincided historically with the upheavals going on in the streets of Paris in 1968 and that likewise took as its inspiration the overthrow of old ways (in this case, cream- and butter-laden old ways). It found an eager reception in the United States. But by the 1990s, it was showing all the signs of stagnation I listed above—clichéd dishes, academic analysis (one sociological study actually counted the number of nouvelle dishes, like salmon in sorrel sauce, that appeared on French menus), overexposure, and a culinary press that seemed to gleefully celebrate its imminent demise in the form of comfort food. By the turn of the millennium, nouvelle cuisine's reduced portions and sometimes unlikely combinations had become a joke.

But the food itself never really went away. The techniques are still there, in every cream-free sauce that daubs a salmon filet, in every plate made colorful by steamed vegetables, even in that delicately flavored sous-vide hake I had in Salamanca. We may laugh at the excesses of nouvelle cuisine, but we eat it all the time.

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