John Mariani Misses The "Molecular" Boat

"Last year," my esteemed colleague John Mariani wrote recently, in both his regular Esquire column and his weekly newsletter, "chef José Andrés was named by Time as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. This year, Pres. and Mrs. Obama celebrated Valentine's Day [at his minibar restaurant]. With all that success, you'd think that the molecular cuisine Andrés is selling would take the nation's capital, and the rest of the nation, by storm. But the fact is, despite tremendous media hype... the expansion and influence of that avant garde cuisine has been next to zero."

Now, I don't like silly food, avant-garde or otherwise, any more than Mariani does, and the sight of a menu in which every kind of fruit and vegetable and animal protein has been turned into foams and powders and things that smoke and bubble is enough to send me running to the nearest Dairy Queen.

But Mariani's remarkable contention that avant garde cuisine has had no influence is so far off base as to be absolutely stunning. It reminds me of a preppy-looking soccer dad I overheard, four or five years ago in a park in Greenwich, assuring his tween-age son that "All that rap and hip-hop music is over now. Nobody listens to it anymore."

There are two big things wrong with what Mariani says: First, he maintains that, besides wd-50 in Manhattan and Alinea in Chicago, the "molecular" restaurants in the U.S. — I put the term in quotes because, though it has become common shorthand for a certain kind of cooking, it is essentially a meaningless description, emphatically denounced by the chefs who developed the idiom in the first place — can be numbered on the fingers of two hands. They are, he says, Schwa, Moto, and Grace, all in Chicago; Atelier Crenn and Coi in San Francisco; The Pass in Houston; Catbird Seat in Nashville, and Atera, Eleven Madison Park, and Chef's Table in New York City, the last three of which, he adds, "are using minimal modernist techniques."  

This is a perplexing statement. Surely, Mariani, who travels the country investigating new restaurants almost constantly, has heard of, and probably dined in, oh, say, AnQi Gourmet Bistro in Costa Mesa, California, or, up the coast, Manresa in Los Gatos and Baumé in Palo Alto; Castagna in Portland, Oregon, and Hugo's in Portland, Maine; Spur Gastropub in Seattle, Rogue 24 in Washington D.C., L20 and Tru in Chicago, Clio and Salts in Boston, Sustenio outside San Antonio, McCrady's in Charleston, Adara in Montclair, New Jersey, for heaven's sake, among many, many others. For that matter, Stephan Pyles, one of the chefs Mariani contrasts with the modernist crew in his piece, for "focusing on Texas cookery at Stampede 66 in Dallas," incorporates ginger sand, blue cheese pop rocks, beet sponge with goat cheese espuma, and guajillo chile "roe," among other avant-garderies, into his menus at his Stephan Pyles restaurant, also in Dallas.

Well, yes, Mariani might well argue, but these aren't full-blown "molecular" restaurants, just places that "are using minimal modernist techniques." Aha! That's the second problem with what Mariani is proposing.

Rap and hip-hop are everywhere today, maybe not as much in their old-school forms as they once were, but inserting their accents and devices all over pop music, movie and TV soundtracks, and commercials (not to mention fashion and language). As Jacob Rubin noted of Kurt Vonnegut's literary influence (in a review of a volume of Vonnegut stories in New York Magazine a couple of years ago), rap and hip-hop have become "so ubiquitous as to be invisible." The same is true of "molecular" or modernist or avant garde cuisine.

So Ferran Adrià's "modernist razzle-dazzlements are few and far between in American restaurants," as Mariani suggests? The hell they are. They're everywhere — at least they are if, by "modernist razzle-dazzlements" you mean the use of sous-vide cooking with immersion circulators, liquid nitrogen, anti-griddles, Rotaval distillation units, and other contemporary kitchen tools (which are, by the way, no more revolutionary today than the food processor or the gas range were when they were first introduced). They are if we're talking about the incorporation of techniques like spherification (which in effect turns liquids into tender solids enclosed by gelled layers of themselves) and the production of those much-maligned foams, and the addition of "chemicals" like carrageenan, xanthan gum, gellan, agar, sodium alginate, and calcium chloride to foods. (Can anybody explain, incidentally, why calcium chloride is a "chemical" and sodium chloride — table salt — isn't?)

Almost every serious chef in America today — that is, any chef who is attempting some level of haute cuisine — uses at least some of these tools. Thomas Keller does. Daniel Boulud does. David Chang does, even though he's best known for roast pork butt and savory buns. "Molecular" cuisine may or may not be thriving in its (highly) original sense — though I'd argue that it is, at least as much as experimental theatre or electronic music or any other artistic form that by nature and design appeals mostly to an audience of the initiated. Its influence, on the other hand, far from being "next to zero," is next to impossible to avoid.