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?

Here in Spain, the avant-garde culinary season has just come to a close. Madrid Fusion, that exuberant annual showcase that brings cutting-edge chefs to the Spanish capital to muse on the state of contemporary gastronomy and show off their latest tricks, ended a month ago. BCN Vanguardia, its less well-known Catalan counterpart, wrapped up on March 14. The program for each was pretty much what I've come to expect. In Madrid, Marcos Morán cooked up a fine plate of fish blood, and the Roca boys painted swabs of truffle, hare, and dirt across a plate and called it "Winter." In Barcelona, Angel León used algae to clarify soup, Ramón Freixa turned liquid-nitrogenized pineapple into dessert, and Martin Berasategui talked about something called "synergetic elaboration."

And so, I have to ask: Isn't anybody tired of this stuff by now?

Nearly two decades ago, Ferran Adrià started a revolution at his El Bulli restaurant that thoroughly transformed modern cooking, not only propelling Spain's chefs to the pinnacle of culinary acclaim (displacing France's in the process) but spreading a manifesto of high-impact, scientifically informed cuisine through top kitchens around the world. Mango juice "spherified" with hydrocolloids until it looks like caviar, olive oil frozen with liquid nitrogen until it forms lingot-shaped "butter," Parmesan cheese spun into a cotton-candyesque "air," and everything from espresso to squid ink turned into foam—it's all part of a cooking style that places a premium on innovation. At its best, the Spanish version of "molecular gastronomy" stokes the emotions, shocks the senses, and, in the words (if not exactly the intentions) of that hedonistic gourmand Claude Lévi-Strauss, is "good to think." It's also often delicious.

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But, from the beginning, some critics have scorned a mode of cooking that relies, in their opinion, too heavily on technology (as if an oven weren't a machine) and often chooses form over substance. Twenty years into Adrià's revolution, those criticisms have only grown. In a recent e-mail, Gerry Dawes, an American expert on Spanish food and wine, wrote, "I am getting a little weary of the Catalan-driven techno-cuisine. Many of these 'experiments' would be better off if they didn't show up anywhere but at chefs' conferences." His words sum up the critical attitude: It was fun at first, but enough with the chemistry kit! I'd like some real food now, please.

So, is it over? At the very least, Adrià and his cohorts are no longer quite so avant-garde as they once were. In fashion, you know your haute couture is no longer haute when you see it in the Gap. In food, there are different indignities, all of which the Spaniards have suffered as of late. To wit:

1.  Death by foam

Adrià hasn't served a foam in years, but that hasn't stopped most everybody else from whipping up their own versions of flavored, stabilized air. A couple of weeks ago, I had lunch at an utterly nondescript hotel restaurant in the industrial-warehouse outskirts of Salamanca. There, in a place that a few years ago would surely have been serving stewed chickpeas with salt cod, I had sous-vide hake topped with chorizo foam. It wasn't bad. But that's hardly the point. Culinary trends are like peak oil: Demand hastens decline. (In this, the role of the California Pizza Kitchen franchise in the demise of California cuisine is surely instructive.)

2.  Death by scholarship

Spanish journalist Pau Arenós has gotten a lot of attention lately for coining a new name for the kind of cooking that Adrià and his disciples do: techno-emotional. At Madrid Fusion, he elaborated 10 points that define techno-emotional cuisine ("Addresses all five senses." "Initiates dialogue with scientists, but also with visual artists, novelists, poets …") and traced its origins back to turn-of-the-20th-century French chef Auguste Escoffier. It was all very interesting, but it made me wonder: If we're talking about the history of avant-garde cooking, doesn't it mean it's not avant-garde anymore? And worse: If being avant-garde includes prescriptions like "Diners are not passive but active," doesn't retrogradeness suddenly look a lot more appealing?

3. Death by democracy

If, as Barbara Kafka has said, the food processor spelled the end of that classic French dish the quenelle (the machine made it possible for any home cook to do the once-labor-intensive work of finely pureeing fish or meat with a touch of a button), one can only shudder at the impact that Texturas will have on dinner parties around the world. A handy kit that includes attractively designed tins of algin (sodium alginate) and Xantana (xantham gum), it allows the amateur to spherify mango juice and solidify squid ink right in her own kitchen.

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