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.

4.  Death by popular demand

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.

******

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.

The same, I would hold, is true of modern Spanish cuisine. What lies at its heart is not a particular dish—not even the emblematic foam. Rather, it's a spirit—a vigorous, often intellectual search for new flavors that takes place not just in gardens and pantries but in landscapes and art exhibitions, and, yes, in the laboratory. And that isn't going away. As Arenós told me in an interview, Spain's top chefs have plenty of staying power. "Ferran [Adrià] is the most influential chef in the world, and he was born only in 1962. ... All the other guys, Andoni [Aduriz], Quique [Dacosta], they're in their 30s. We can't talk about decadence when they're all so young."

They're not just young; they're motivated. Andoni Luis Aduriz, the chef of two-starred Mugaritz, is often hailed as Adrià's more serene but equally talented dauphin. For the past two years, he has been working on using ultrasound to achieve more precise cooking times and, in collaboration with Aponiente chef Ángel León, is developing a cooking fuel made from olive pits. "There are people who say, 'this is over, let's put it behind us,' but that's just marketing. I can tell you from my own experience that there is more research going on, more energy, than ever before."

That's the thing. The pressure to innovate (and among Spanish chefs, that pressure is largely self-imposed) means that Spanish techno-emotional cooking, if that's what we're calling it now, is going to keep changing, producing new and ever-wackier techniques and ingredients. Some of them, like Dacosta's platinum-coated oyster, will perhaps, mercifully, not withstand the test of time. But others, like that now-ubiquitous foam, will seep into the culinary vernacular, forever augmenting the range of possibilities chefs have at their disposal.

Lisa Abend is a freelance writer based in Madrid, Spain.

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