Does 'Molecular and Modernist' Cuisine Still Matter?
Recently, The Daily Meal's editorial director, Colman Andrews, took critic John Mariani to task for maintaining that "molecular" and modernist cooking ("M&M," as Mariani calls them) have had "next to zero" lasting influence on the way people eat in America today. Mariani has offered this reply.
When I wrote that Adrià's "modernist razzle-dazzlements are few and far between in American restaurants" except for foams that Adrià has himself disowned, I estimated that "99 percent of America’s acknowledged best chefs — from Eric Ripert to Michael White, from Dean Fearing to Donald Link — use next to zero M&M [molecular and modernist] techniques. Ripert, for one, has distanced himself from them entirely. Heston Blumenthal says he hates the untutored would-be Ferran Adriàs. Spanish chefs shake their heads at what Adrià has wrought. Many speak to me both on and off the record how they think that M&M is at best a publicity stunt and at worst a way for uneducated cooks to avoid learning to cook. And meanwhile just about every steakhouse in New York City will each serve 500 guests a night what they want to eat.
Colman, let’s get real: twenty years ago if served five hearts of palm stuffed with foie and peanut butter on little white pedestals, you would have walked. You would have been appalled spending $500 to eat at Grace a dish I had that was a literal Br’er Rabbit thicket of twigs hiding mostly sweet morsels of lemon jelly; a gougère with puréed fava beans and sweetened lemon; a dehydrated tapioca chip (one) with lardo and scallion purée; a Medjool date with ultra-sweet hibiscus syrup; and a green strawberry with red strawberry tart. And you would have shaken your head at an empty bowl that just smelled like fish once served at elBulli.
Last, when you flippantly says things like, "Salt is the same thing as any other chemical. Doesn’t yeast change the substance and taste of wheat flour? Doesn’t distillation make good whiskey?" I answer that if you say all cooking methods and all ingredients are the same thing, then there is nothing really new about M&M cuisine. They are simply using more chemicals, like on the ingredients labels of the kind of processed food the Food Media loves, rightly, to deplore. They’re no different from Tom Carvel, who inkjets children’s faces on birthday cakes (which Homaro Cantu believes he invented). Or General Mills creating Count Chocula and Lucky Charms. Those are gimmicky items that don’t taste real good unless you’re 9 years old. And let’s give a little respect to those people (not chefs) who over the last, oh, 100,000 years found fire and food work well together, that salt is so good — and essential to health — it’s worth an empire, that drying fish and meat is a way of getting through the winter, and that aging cheese is a way of preserving it. Those things are not quite in the same category as Dr. Myhrvold’s billion-dollar chem lab.
By definition, the M&M cooks intensely try to change and manipulate an ingredient. That is their modus operandi. Can you imagine their horror at a silly woman like Alice Waters (and you can throw in Escoffier, Paul Bocuse, Paul Bartolotta, Eric Ripert and thousands of other chefs) who believe the less you do to an ingredient the better? What fools! How could they ever hope to make a name for themselves doing so little to change their ingredients?
I guess I've never really understood why Ferran made olives into a slurpy ball on a spoon when I could just eat an olive.