How Today’s New Rock Star Chefs Challenge Alice Waters’ Dogma

What to eat. What not to eat.
June 4 2014 8:39 AM

Noma vs. Chez Panisse

How today’s rock star chefs reaffirm and challenge Alice Waters’ dogma.

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Alice Waters and René Redzepi.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Sean Gallup/Getty Images and Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images.

This essay was originally published in the Breakthrough Journal. It is reprinted here, in edited and condensed form, with permission.

“If, for some crazy reason, you decide to make this dish, then we’ll need to have a talk about the lichen powder.” So begins the recipe for “Prather Ranch Beef Encrusted in Lichen,” a typical selection in San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson’s new cookbook, Coi. Fresh lichen powder, needless to say, is not available at the grocery store. Nor can you order it online. You have to venture into the woods, find the best-tasting lichen, and scrape it off trees. Then you have to turn technology loose on it: clean it, rinse it several times, boil it for one to three hours, dehydrate it overnight, and grind it, before dusting it on a cylinder of grass-fed tenderloin and cooking it sous vide.

Patterson’s pal and contemporary, René Redzepi, also has a new cookbook out. Redzepi’s restaurant, Noma, was recently voted the world’s best by the London-based Restaurant magazine. Redzepi shot to fame by running a fine restaurant using only local ingredients in a place everyone assumed was devoid of interesting local flavors: Copenhagen. Redzepi’s recipes are just as exotic, oceanic, deep woods-y, and uncookable as those offered by Daniel Patterson. Think “dessert of carrot and sea buckthorn” and “silken fresh cheese and crispy beech leaves.” And as with Patterson’s, if you hope to cook from Redzepi’s book, make sure to plan ahead: The latter recipe requires you to pickle beech leaves in a vacuum pack with apple balsamic vinegar for at least a month.

The food portrayed in these books takes the locavore ethic far beyond the garden-variety farm-to-table ethos that has become commonplace in recent years, pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s by the creators of the then-revolutionary California cuisine. A meal cooked from the recipes in these cookbooks, or served up at Noma or Coi, tastes deeply wild. Ingredients are dragged straight from the forest or high-tide line to the kitchen, where their wild essences are amplified—think earth, tree, and smoked hay flavors, live shrimp and ants. But though fundamentally new in its aggressive wildness, Patterson and Redzepi’s cuisine is nonetheless a reflection of, and a response to, the underlying culinary milieu in which their tastes and creative impulses have been forged and refined.

* * *

In 1965, at the age of 19, culinary legend Alice Waters went to France and had a gastronomic epiphany. Once, she ordered trout à la meunière and was treated to the sight of the fish hoisted on the chef’s rod, gasping for breath, before it was cleaned, prepared, and served to her. “I think I just absorbed that love of fresh ingredients through osmosis,” she told an interviewer. “When I came back to California, I wanted those same foodstuffs here.”

Waters came home to Berkeley and opened Chez Panisse, where, together with Jeremiah Tower, she invented California cuisine. Over the years, dishes at Chez Panisse became increasingly simple, showcasing high-quality ingredients with as little mediation as possible. Waters’ “Zucchini Ribbons With Lemon and Basil,” for instance, consists of cleaning and slicing a raw zucchini and sprinkling it with salt, pepper, basil, lemon juice, and olive oil.

By focusing on the local, Chez Panisse sought to establish itself outside of, and as a challenge to, the industrial food system. Sensitive to the charge that hers was a cuisine for the rich, Waters launched programs to bring organic gardens to schools serving underprivileged youth. More recently, she and Michael Pollan have led efforts to cut federal subsidies to conventional agriculture and to increase public support for organics and farmers markets.

By the 1990s, fresh, local, and organic had moved out of hyperelite circles into the wider world of upscale dining, and even into chain restaurants. Every food prognosticator, from industry consultant Technomic to NPR, is predicting that “local” and “authentic” will be key values in every dining demographic this year. Fast-food chains are jumping on the local and sustainable bandwagons, and sales are soaring at early adopters such as Chipotle. (Not that Waters would approve. In 2010 she criticized In-N-Out Burger, even though it relies on fresh and local ingredients. “It’s probably better than any other chain,” she said to the Los Angeles Times, “but it’s not real or authentic. I’d rather eat from a street vendor in Sicily.”)

Today, it is Waters’ world: We all just cook in it. So successful was her recipe for authentic food that the values she braided together into Chez Panisse’s winning formula—fresh, local, seasonal, sustainable, traditional, and simple—now seem inseparable.

It is difficult not to see the high-tech, highly processed food offered by Patterson and Redzepi as at least in part a reaction against the new culinary mainstream that Waters has created. Not long before he opened Coi, in 2005, Patterson suggested as much in the New York Times:

Alice Waters … has become to us what Beatrice was to Dante: a model of righteousness and purity, reminding us of our past sins while offering encouragement and inspiration on the path to heaven. The only path to heaven. So deeply embedded is the mythology of Chez Panisse in the DNA of local food culture that it threatens to smother stylistic diversity and extinguish the creativity that it originally sought to spark.

Patterson and Redzepi use tools and techniques that are unavailable to the home cook, including Pacojets, which blend frozen things; Thermomixes, which heat and puree simultaneously; commercial-grade food dehydrators; and dry ice. Their claim, embodied in their dishes, is that these nontraditional, advanced technologies can take us closer to the essential experience of an ingredient.

Where Waters’ cooking conjures French and Italian pastoral cuisine, the food prepared by her younger counterparts aims to replicate the pasture, or wild nature, itself. A Redzepi dish uses milk skin, grass, flowers, and herbs. “The garnish came from the field, where the cow that had supplied the milk had walked, grazed and defecated,” he writes in Noma. “The plate itself was a small closed ecosystem.” Similarly, Patterson cooks local matsutake mushrooms with pine needles because the mushrooms grow and are collected in pine forests.

While Waters seeks to return cuisine to its rustic roots, Redzepi and Patterson have no room for even the most modern interpretations of traditional food preparations like pasta puttanesca, beef bourguignon, or steak and eggs. Rather, the new generation revels in being rootless. “We’d made a dish with no reference points in the past nor in other lands,” Redzepi writes triumphantly of his dehydrated scallop chips on boiled grains with winter cress, squid ink, and beechnuts.

Both Waters and the young chefs are, of course, serving haute cuisine. The cost of a dinner at Chez Panisse may not quite achieve the same stratospheric price as dining at Coi or Noma, but it is no bargain. Waters’ food, though, is routinely described as “unpretentious,” which means that rich people can eat it without feeling like Gilded Age robber barons dipping lobster in melted butter.

Like Waters, Patterson and Redzepi shun typical luxury ingredients like foie gras and filet mignon, but they don’t tend to attract the label unpretentious. Their ingredients may be modest, or even marginally edible by most cultural standards, but the preparations are not. The person-hours that go into each dish boggle the mind.

In the food world, at least, labor has replaced scarcity as the definition of a luxury good. It’s the labor of hand-rearing; of organic farming; of hunting, fishing, and foraging; of dehydrating and canning and pressing and distilling and all the rest. If artisanal is the new gourmet, it is because that which is conspicuously consumed in the former are the hours that highly educated craftsmen have spent bent over a stove, a still, or a deep woods trove of matsutake mushrooms.

It is easier to see that when you read about Patterson scraping lichen off trees, but this labor is part of the luxury offered by Waters too. And that’s somewhat problematic for her politics. She cooks peasant food, but only rich people can afford it. Even her recipes can fall flat for the average home cook, since we are generally not cooking with the peak-of-perfection produce that Waters uses.

The conceit that farm-to-table cuisine comes straight to the diner unmediated by the kitchen obscures the enormous cost and expense associated with producing such food in the field and pasture. If nothing else, places like Coi and Noma do us a service by making those costs more apparent.

Whatever its flaws, Waters’ philosophy offers a coherent vision of what food is and what it should be. Waters’ is a didactic cuisine, a moral project that instructs us on the correct way to procure, cook, and eat food: support the local farmer, treat animals humanely, plant gardens for underprivileged children, luxuriate in vegetables, scorn processed food. It is explicitly value-laden and political.

Inside the test kitchens of the new generation, the culinary philosophies, such as they are, are weirder, more postmodern, and harder to parse. Where the Waters oeuvre tells us how to live, the “cookbooks” of Patterson and Redzepi barely tell you how to make a steak. The proper use of these cookbooks is not to replicate the recipes, much less a whole way of living, but rather to draw creative inspiration and to start thinking and tasting anew. The exhilaratingly odd plates served up in the stark, modern dining rooms of Coi and Noma are elite art, not a lesson in how we should all cook or eat every day.

Still, even as they reject Waters’ simplicity and traditionalism, Patterson and Redzepi affirm her other values: fresh, local, seasonal, and sustainable. Yet, by challenging the idea that the six elements of the Chez Panisse recipe are inseparable components of a natural category, the cooking of Redzepi and Patterson also suggests that other combinations of values might be possible—and moral.

The food production methods that Waters champions, for instance, would be nearly impossible to scale up to feed the country, let alone the world. James McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, estimates that if the United States’ 100 million cows were converted to grass-fed production, it would take half the land in the country to feed them. The solution he proposes is that everybody quit eating so much beef already, and Waters agrees with that. But it doesn’t negate the fact that beef is on her menu and in her cookbooks and that her solution to the environmental impacts of beef is to go grass-fed.

Similarly, local is generally quite sustainable on the scale of a few high-end restaurants, but it won’t actually be the greener option for every single ingredient. In certain cases, field tomatoes from far away might be better for the planet than greenhouse tomatoes from the neighborhood, and so on. Ingredient by ingredient, these debates are matters for scientists and economists, but it is safe to say that if all people ate like the patrons of these restaurants, not all their ingredients would continue to be sustainable, especially those which are foraged.

If the message from the new generation might not be as clear as Waters’, that very ambiguity may be valuable. They begin by teaching us that we can eat well—very well—without relying on the Chez Panisse formula. They hint at other solutions to the problem of ethical, green, appetizing food, solutions that don’t rely on an impossible-to-scale return to a romanticized version of our agrarian past. One could imagine a cuisine, for instance, that is sustainable but not local. In fact, one might want to imagine such a thing: fresh-sustainable-innovative-technological-global.

These chefs’ food is about the future, a future both highly technological and wilder than our world today, where our relationship to nature is closer and more delicious than ever.

This essay was originally published in the Breakthrough Journal. It is reprinted here, in edited and condensed form, with permission.

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