British architect Charlotte Skene Catling and her partner, artist Adam Lowe, know something about structure and space. They also know about representation and taste. Their the latest project about the painter Diego Velázquez's is the starting point to an intriguing conversation (and recipes) with this unparalleled and adventurous couple.
A theory of the creation of a dish
By Besim Hatinoglu
PART I – A MONOLOGUE
Food is art. We often hear this stereotyped premise and it is utterly vague. What is food? Does it refer to ingredients or a dish? The most plausible answer is that a dish is a work of art and cooking is a form of art. Yet, we do not have a satisfactory definition of art. There have been serious attempts over the last decades to expand the scope of art to include food. We can illustrate this with Ferran Adrià’s participation in documenta, a quinquennial contemporary art exhibition, in 2007. Adrià’s restaurant, elBulli, became a documenta pavilion and two people were chosen randomly from the visitors daily during the 100-day exhibition to dine at elBulli. Some critics and artists questioned the inclusion of a chef as a documenta artist. The exhibition’s artistic director, Roger M. Buergel, justified his choice as follows:
“I have invited Ferran Adrià because he has managed to create his own language, something that has turned into a very influential issue on the international scene. This is what I am interested in, I don’t care if people consider it as an art or not. It is very important to mention that artistic intelligence does not depend on the format; we should not relate art only with photography, sculpture, painting…, neither with cooking in its most strict sense. But under certain circumstances, cooking can also be considered as an art.” (1)
I am not in possession of reliable data to indicate what most chefs would think, but I know several celebrity chefs see food as a form of art. Dominique Ansel said “food is a more intimate form of art compared to others, as it incorporates all of the senses”. José Andrés agrees with Ansel, saying “art should be a thrill for all of our senses”. On the other hand, Elena Arzak recognises that not all food can attain the level of constituting art: “sometimes, particular aspects of cooking develop extraordinarily high levels of creative expression and can be compared to other artistic disciplines. In those cases I do regard cooking as an art form”.
Food is a more intimate form of art compared to others, as it incorporates all of the senses.Dominique Ansel
I tend to agree with Gombrich that “taste in art is something infinitely more complex than taste in food and drink”. (2) It is also quite common to qualify the art of food as a simple and minor art. (3) Still, Nathan Myhrvold (author of Modernist Cuisine) asks sanguinely “if music can be art, why can’t food?” Steven Poole responds that “it should be obvious that a steak is not like a symphony, a pie not like a passaglia, foie gras not like a fugue; that the “composition” of a menu is not like the composition of a requiem; that the cook heating things in the kitchen and arranging them on a plate is not the artistic equal of Charlie Parker”.(4)
Art critics, Blake Gopnik and William Deresiewicz, are also opposed to the idea that food is art. Gopnik who actually experienced Adrià’s dishes at elBulli, found that:
“All but the most radical dishes at elBulli come off as relatively tame, at least when compared with the most daring contemporary art. A surprising amount of this cooking is still mostly about what goes on in the mouth: some new ingredient that comes as a shock (until you get used to it) or new flavors and textures conjured from old foods. In fine-art terms, you could say that a lot of it is still stuck in abstractland, riffing on the same old palette (or palate) of sensations; whereas today’s best art can try to say important things about the world and change the way we think about it. It’s about new content as well as novel sensations”. (5)
If music can be art, why can’t food?Nathan Myhrvold
Deresiewicz is equally severe in his critique of food as art:
“But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion. An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one. Meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things. […] Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art. A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul”. (6)
Why does the premise that food is art matter? In an earlier piece, I noted that there has been an increasing tension between ingredientistas and modernistas over the last few decades. Should we adopt an ingredient-oriented approach or a technique-oriented approach? For modernistas, the ingredient-oriented approach correlates with a boring, mechanical race to source top quality ingredients. On the other hand, avant-garde chefs with a technique-oriented approach aim to go beyond simply sourcing quality ingredients, to direct their attention to elements of surprise and creativity. We see a parallel tension in relation to art and gastronomy. Some constantly experiment, their cuisine must never remain the same. The opposing approach does not exclude experiments per se. However, they are more focused on perfecting their dishes rather than embarking upon a new adventure to create new dishes. Perhaps, this difference is somewhat similar to the distinction between fine arts and applied arts. I believe that this idea of food as a form of fine art is still a very strong claim. It is much stronger than “traditional phrasing such as “the art of cookery”, a more modest attribution of creativity and craft (techné rather than poésis) to quotidian activity”. (7) When food is seen as a form of art, this prejudices both art and gastronomy. It prejudices art because “what does it say about our expectations of art if food can meet them so easily?” (8) And, it stigmatises the significant values in gastronomy such as repetition, mastery, artisanship, tradition and so on. In what follows, Vedat Milor will join me in a hypothetical conversation again to explore how art or what aspects of art are relevant to gastronomy. None of us are experts in art. Therefore our conversation will mostly be limited to a very strict understanding of art: the creation of a dish.
When food is seen as a form of art, this prejudices both art and gastronomy. It prejudices art because “what does it say about our expectations of art if food can meet them so easily?” And, it stigmatises the significant values in gastronomy such as repetition, mastery, artisanship, tradition and so on.
PART II – CONVERSATIONS
Besim Hatinoglu: Vedat, today I would like to discuss different aspects of the creation of a dish with you. Let me refer to a quote by Ferran Adrià here:
“Food has an artistic component when creating and when experimenting [with] it, but never when reproducing it. That’s craftsmanship.”
It would be very simplistic to take this quote as a guiding definition, but I think that he does a good job to clarify the fundamental distinction that we are concerned within this conversation. Firstly, very few foods could be considered art. Secondly, creating and experimenting is not sufficient. It appears that Adrià actually has something more than that in his mind. For food to be a work of art, it needs to go beyond something that would come within, say, applied art. Adrià sets a higher bar here; he is aiming for fine art. At this point we are faced with a normative question: should we adopt an approach that values food as fine art or one that values craftsmanship, artisanship, and tradition? So let’s start with that artistic component… How important is it for you, or gastronomy?
Vedat Milor: First of all, I value a specific element of the artistic component. In simple terms, that is openness to new things; to constantly experiment. My Gastroville partner Mikael Jonsson and I were the same in the sense that we both preferred simple cooking, using just a few ingredients of superb quality and letting them shine. He of course makes the effort to find the best there is to find and intervenes with the ingredients as little as possible. However, as he once said, one easily deprives oneself of many pleasures by being too stubbornly limited by prejudice with respect to what must or must not be served with certain produce. For example, there is the idea that cheese and fish or shellfish is forbidden. As Mikael notes, this is not respected by Italian chefs, as well as by traditional French chefs: for years, Ducasse and Cerutti served parmesan crisp with a salad with pan-seared scallops or gamberi at Le Louis XV. They used to serve risotto with shellfish at Le Louis XV with parmesan or mascarpone. I recall Mikael saying “if cheese would be prohibited with shellfish or fish, then the step from cheese to cream is not very far”. Several amazing seafood dishes with cream come to mind. For example? Pacaud’s langoustines with curry sauce or his smoked salmon with dill cream.
Food has an artistic component when creating and when experimenting [with] it, but never when reproducing it. That’s craftsmanship.Ferran Adrià
BH: This is a good starting point, almost a property that anyone interested in food should have. I know that you suffer a lot from such prejudices in Turkey.
VM: Yes, and it is very common in countries with a great cuisine in the Mediterranean. As I said, it is important to be open minded when it comes to food. But this does not only apply to chefs and their dish-creation process. It also applies to us, diners. Otherwise, chefs’ creativity would be one-sided. It would not work in practice. In general, developing some sort of authority in gastronomy entails constantly experiencing different dishes. This is how we possess what may be called, reference points in food. There is a similar process in trying what goes best with certain dishes too. You must be open to the new ideas and combinations, but at the same time you start to have an idea about what really goes well with those dishes. For example, I have developed some firm beliefs with regard to which dishes go best with truffles. The list is actually quite short and reflects what Piemontese locals have been saying for ages. Heading the list is fried eggs (sometimes with fonduta) with truffles. A close contender is hand-chopped raw veal. Carne crudi. Again it is not possible to have such a thing here as the Piemontese veal is very special and the labour-intensive process required to produce it, too costly. Third, some vegetable flans, cardoons with fonduta is a good match with truffles. Among the pasta dishes, the traditional thin noodles called tajarin are the best, even better than risotto as a match for truffles. The traditional agnolotti is good too, but perhaps a tad less suitable for truffles than tajarin. Apart from what I mentioned, you can serve white truffles with whatever you want (quail salad, raw fish, potato soup, veal scaloppini, even game) but Piemontese will sneer at you and for good reason.
BH: Once you go through this process, you also learn to apply its output to other dishes, ingredients and so on. In other words, that initial starting point helps with creating dishes later on. And what then? I think that there are certain values or aims in place that construct a restaurant’s “identity” and this as a result controls how dishes are created. The value system of a restaurant can be whatever a restaurant owner prefers it to be. I mean that these values will also have an impact on how dishes are created. Chefs will have in mind those overarching values in creating dishes. To stick with our examples from the last conversation, Joshua Skenes once made it explicit that food merely based on ideas was not his cup of tea and his overarching value was enhancing flavours. He does this by transforming the product into “its most concentrated form to represent the original flavor and magnify it in a respectful way”. (9) There is an elaborate process of ageing, preserving, and cooking when necessary. I think I mentioned this before, but he used to age fowl for 32 days, tuna belly for 80 days or beef for a year. (10) Yet, ageing is not the absolute answer: it is important first to conceptualise in your mind the ultimate result.
You must be open to the new ideas and combinations, but at the same time you start to have an idea about what really goes well with those dishes.Vedat Milor
VM: Yes, it is. I think that you summarised it very well, but we should also keep in mind that restaurants are commercial entities. To survive, they have to be profitable. A chef’s radical ideas as an expression of her artistic side will not be problematic as long as diners are happy with it. It is somewhat easier now to let your artistic component run free as a chef. It is the era of celebrity chefs. It sometimes takes a year to book a place at their restaurants.
BH: Indeed. I am also interested in how those overarching values produce concrete results. To continue with Skenes… In creating new dishes, he asks himself the following question: “here is the product and how do we get it as fresh and clean as possible?” Taking diamond turbot as an example, Skenes applies ikejime method to kill it instantly. By inserting a firm wire into its spinal cord, he paralyses the nerves and prevents the production of lactic acid, which would change the flavour. (11) Diamond turbot then goes into salted water with ice cubes to remove the remaining blood. Finally, it rests for a couple of hours before service begins. Then, a new process starts: “how we do use these in a certain way? How do we layer flavours?” In contrast to chefs’ aim to achieve stronger flavour compounds by ageing, Skenes’s preference to serve diamond turbot right after killing is due to his aim to capture the purity of oceanic taste and crunchy, almost waxy texture. There is a fundamental savouriness to it, not salinity. He discovered that the clean and vibrant oceanic flavour goes away after eight hours as the flavonoids develop and enzymes break down the meat. Diamond turbot is fattier in the winter months and tastes a little sweeter and cleaner. Skenes emphasises that this is how layering a single product—diamond turbot—is done. The essence of layering remains the same in creating a dish with different products. His grilled pheasant jelly uses butter made of seaweed and a little broth, as well as caviar draped in seaweed. When you eat it, there are just those layers of slightly different textures and mouthfeel.
Now I am curious about the other side of the story as well. I mean, how do you, as a food critic, evaluate dishes? What criteria do you use?
The value system of a restaurant can be whatever a restaurant owner prefers it to be. I mean that these values will also have an impact on how dishes are created. Chefs will have in mind those overarching values in creating dishes.Besim Hatinoglu
VM: It is important how well preparations respect the ingredients used; how well the appearance and true flavors of the ingredients have been enhanced; and with what clarity the ingredients shine in the preparations. When you eat a plate with several vegetables, all too often, you won’t be able to taste each of them. One benchmark-example in this respect is a plate like Michel Bras’ Gargouillou. I identified 16 vegetables in Gargouillou, and clearly they were all cooked separately in their own pot prior to assembly ensuring that every component in the dish respects the true taste on its own. The plating was clearly a work of art. Most people thought that the total result was a symphony of tastes that together enhanced the impression of the true tastes by offering all those clear tastes of the garden at the same time. However, I could also see that it is the gorgeous plating that makes an indelible impression on most people. There was one major problem with the dish: it was devoid of a binding element to bring the disparate parts together. Of course there was a tiny slice of outstanding quality ham thrown in, which certainly imparted an extra dimension. On the other hand, the four vegetable purees painted onto the plate (I detected bean, red pepper, pesto, aioli) were extremely tamed and restrained, and their inclusion caressed the eye rather than the palate. Each ingredient was of high quality and tasty, but I failed to understand the inner logic of why they were selected. It is, as if all of the seasonal vegetables were included, and the dish hits you with sheer quantity rather than symbiotic interaction.
Restaurants are commercial entities. To survive, they have to be profitable. A chef’s radical ideas as an expression of her artistic side will not be problematic as long as diners are happy with it. It is somewhat easier now to let your artistic component run free as a chef. It is the era of celebrity chefs. It sometimes takes a year to book a place at their restaurants.Vedat Milor
Secondly, it is important to me how much of the chef’s magic touch is displayed in the preparations and how well the chef has calibrated and married tastes to achieve greatness. The magic touch in preparations is often what separates the contenders from the pretenders. The magic touch can often be very subtle elements such as clever seasoning, presentation, temperature control and so on.
BH: Are you referring to originality by this?
VM: Sort of. I think that originality is a criterion in itself. Is it just a copy, has the chef actually tried to take another dish to a new level or is it a completely new approach with little influence of something that has been done before? Chefs with ambition should strive after originality in their cuisine and try to form their own style. Sometimes it is, even with dishes that at first sight may seem original, easy to find preparations in the culinary history that seem to be the obvious source for inspiration, but it is often difficult to conclude if the chef has used that source or came up with the resulting dish on his own. It is often easy after eating a number of dishes at a given restaurant to determine the level of originality and style of the cuisine. And finally, when everything is said and done, one must always ask: could it be better?
For me, the criteria above can be applied regardless of the style; whether it is traditional or highly innovative avant-garde cuisine. There is a clear trend among certain chefs and writers to stress the importance of the emotions that a dish or an array of dishes brings to the diner. Clearly, this is not unimportant to us, but for discriminating gourmets it is highly difficult to recognize such emotional value in a dish made with inferior ingredients, and where there is easily-recognizable room for improvement. There are many guides and food critics that place the originality of the technique used as one of the primary criteria for judging food regardless of the result. I take a different approach, for us the applied technique adds nothing on its own to a dish and we are not going to give any style points to chefs who use certain techniques just for the sake of it. Chefs focusing on just discovering new techniques and leaving prototype-like food with little culinary interest after them should perhaps get into another line of business.
It is important how well preparations respect the ingredients used; how well the appearance and true flavors of the ingredients have been enhanced; and with what clarity the ingredients shine in the preparations.Vedat Milor
BH: I personally feel that most dishes are “prototypes”. I accept that this is not invariably a bad thing. I remember your review of elBulli. You specifically referred to “tuetano con caviar” (bone marrow with caviar) as one of the best dishes you had eaten to date and requested to try it once again. If I remember correctly, Adria was not interested in reiterating old favorites:
“At the same time, the majority of new dishes are such that one gets the impression of getting some snapshots of what they may become in the future, rather than a full picture. These dishes which parade before you in consecutive fashion are more like prototypes developed at Beta testing level and, at best, one can surmise future possibilities. Chances are that these possibilities will be explored by chefs in the coming years both in Spain and elsewhere, but then, Adria himself will have moved on to the next stage”.
Leaving aside exceptions, it is more common to come across dishes which appear to be uncompleted. They are at the early stages of their development. Yet, they are served to you. And, you should not be surprised if you never see it again on the menu. Have we taken this constant strive towards innovation to an extreme? We can contrast this with the perfectionist chefs’ dishes who stay in the kitchen and try to perfect the dishes before they are included in a menu.
I think that originality is a criterion in itself. Is it just a copy, has the chef actually tried to take another dish to a new level or is it a completely new approach with little influence of something that has been done before? Chefs with ambition should strive after originality in their cuisine and try to form their own style.Vedat Milor
VM: Exactly! These chefs are not carried away by the temptation to create newer and newer dishes all the time and to impress the inexperienced diner with a series of small tapas which follow one another in dizzying speed. Their menus, even in the 3-stars, are generally shorter and change often according to season. But, at the most exalted levels and when we are talking about the greatest of the great chefs, such as the old Robuchon at Jamin and Girardet (although not French) and Pacaud and Passard, these chefs are not conservative. They have stayed abreast of new culinary developments, such as in molecular gastronomy, and they are not threatened by, say, what a culinary “enfant terrible” is concocting in Catalonia or the Basque country. If new and previously undiscovered combinations are suggested by looking at the molecules present in various ingredients, these chefs are willing to experiment. But they experiment carefully. Indeed I will go out on a limb and suggest a tentative conclusion that being an avant-garde chef does not necessarily mean that one is a non-conformist. Innovation for innovation’s sake to the detriment of natural flavors is also a conformist attitude when it achieves the status of a cult following, and we see plenty of examples of that, not only in Spain and the US, but also in France…
BH: Could you please elaborate on this and perhaps provide a more concrete example?
VM: Sure. My standard for dishes in haute cuisine restaurants is also to ask the question “can this have been any better?” Let me focus on Pacaud and L’Ambroisie since we have mentioned it several times during our conversations. Over the years and after many meals I have reached the conclusion that this tiny establishment that shuns the limelight comes as close to perfection as any establishment to have made such a claim. In fact so many dishes I have had the chance to try are such that one can hardly conceive a way to add or detract an ingredient from the dish. All of these dishes consist of 3 to 4 ingredients whereby one ingredient is clearly the “king” but the associative ingredients are also treated regally and form a perfect symbiosis with the leading part. Pacaud treats all ingredients with such an utmost respect that instead of making vocal statements a la Gagnaire or evoking baroque themes a la Ducasse, he works more like a miniaturist, working meticulously to bring out the details and full potentiality of each ingredient without losing sight of its unison with the main theme. A typical Pacaud dish displays three characteristics. First, Pacaud is obsessed with ingredient quality, and he is not prejudiced among ingredients in the sense that he will choose the best of the ingredients regardless of price and only serve them at their prime time and only and only if he is content with the quality of the delivery. So it is quite possible that the restaurant may not serve black truffles in mid-January if the chef does not think that they are fully ripe and complex. Second, he is obsessed with harmony without sacrificing the intensity and clarity of particular tastes. The emphasis on clarity may imply that most dishes there contain very little or no butter and cream, as the chef does not want to mask flavors. In this sense, it is apt to call Pacaud the last true nouvelle cuisine chef, and it is especially interesting to have a meal at Ducasse’s Parisian temple for many pre-nouvelle dishes, and experience the classic sauces in all their glory, and then try, say, a cream sauce with vin jaune at L’Ambroisie to see the contrast. And lastly, Pacaud is also obsessed with technique in the tradition of an artisan.
Chefs focusing on just discovering new techniques and leaving prototype-like food with little culinary interest after them should perhaps get into another line of business.Vedat Milor
BH: You said that “so many dishes I have had the chance to try are such that one can hardly conceive a way to add or detract an ingredient from the dish”. I believe that this applies to most traditional dishes of a local cuisine too. I mean, some chefs attempt to modernise traditional dishes which are already perfect, but these attempts most of the time fail. They are phony creations. And this problem appears to stem from lack of artisanal skills. We dealt with this issue to some extent in a documentary. To quote a part from the documentary, the problem was:
“We have very talented, young chef nominees. They study gastronomy, but for reasons unknown to me, most of them, not all, but most of them envy popular, foreign chefs. These foreign chefs are award winning chefs. Our young chefs never tasted their dishes. Those bites haven’t been engraved to our young chefs’ memories or palates or souls. They are trying to build their own style on that, on a cooking experience they don’t understand. Well, that’s just wrong. On the other hand, there is a vast tradition. In our country using dough, using fire, setting the degree of fire, fermentation are very important now. We have masters who are specialized in these subjects, yet are very humble. I say, what if we build a cooking approach on those masters, and our young chefs create their own style based on that tradition, adding to that tradition. Wouldn’t it be nice?”
VM: I do not know why they just do not notice the treasure that is right in front of them. When you have a strong foothold on the tradition and artisanal skills, it makes things much easier and your creations are more powerful. Let me give an example. Once we visited Cordeillan Bages when Chef Thierry Marx was under the helm. I was told that the lamb was about two months old and that it had come from a small producer, called Monsieur Reyes, who is supplying the restaurant. Chef Thierry Marx has created a delicious and complex dish from this exceptional raw material. He serves four parts on the same plate: the leg, shoulder, chop and the back (selle). They are cooked differently, but all are in optimal condition when they appear on the plate. The lamb chop is grilled, the selle is roasted, the shoulder is cooked a long time as a confit, and the leg is spit roasted. Two side dishes accompany the center piece. The first is an artistic preparation from the escalope of the same lamb which is shaped like a cone, and different cones are dusted by different flavors: pineapple, walnut, pistachios. You can dip them in a mousse of cucumber, flavored by mint. A baby “club” sandwich of incomparable taste with lamb and sun dried tomato is also included as a complimentary element. The whole thing epitomizes both the personal philosophy of the chef and the spirit of French haute cuisine. Thierry Marx makes a very complex process based on the coexistence of different techniques look very simple. Of course, the simplicity is deceptive. Raw materials are outstanding, and their true flavors have not been compromised despite the complex preparation. Basic constituent flavors do shine, and the combination of these flavors creates a sensational taste. The dish is both original, and it also displays continuity with centuries old traditions. Bravo!
It is almost inconceivable to some that creativity can come in other forms than, say, aesthetic presentations or creating truly novel dishes. One of the most admirable traits of great chefs is that they do not shy away from making a dish look deceptively simple and unadorned, relegating his creative touches to the background in order to highlight the majestic quality of the products.Besim Hatinoglu
BH: It is almost inconceivable to some that creativity can come in other forms than, say, aesthetic presentations or creating truly novel dishes. One of the most admirable traits of great chefs is that they do not shy away from making a dish look deceptively simple and unadorned, relegating his creative touches to the background in order to highlight the majestic quality of the products.
VM: Yes, good point! I remember having grosses langoustines Bretonnes at Ledoyen when Christian Le Squer was still there. It juxtaposes two of the freshest plump langoustines on their shells, one cooked a la plancha, the other coated by a very light batter and fried, and looks extremely simple. But the subtle infusion of agrumes with its perfect harmony and the precise calibration between the sweetness of the shellfish and the scent of agrumes with a hint of acidity is so perfect that one wonders why it is that some chefs pair the royal langoustines with caviar and mask the quality of both. Maybe the Bretons have a particular knack for seafood. The other two examples of shellfish we tried, oursins de roche au goût iodé/vegetal and homard bleu/chataignes en cocotte lutee have garnered my vote as the best sea urchin and lobster dishes I had back in 2006. In both of these dishes, the secondary element more than complemented the main ingredient, that is, it actually served to unleash hidden intrinsic qualities of some of the world’s best shellfish. In terms of complexity, had these preparations been further simplified by the removal of some secondary ingredients, they would still have been very tasty given the pristine quality of the lobster and sea urchins, but they would have lacked the multidimensionality of French cuisine at its best. Conversely, if additional elements had been added or textures altered, they would have become overwrought and fussy. Herein lies the true creativity of a great chef: knowing/feeling the point at which he should refrain from further complicating the dish.
BH: Let’s go back to another issue that we barely touched upon above. I read somewhere—and not sure if I will be able to recall it accurately—that avant-garde chefs take things to the extreme by saying “it is either revolution or just a dish”. Even if we accept that food is art, only very few dishes can attain that level. Based on this, we could say that the successful avant-garde chefs have actually perfected their traditional cuisine. Do you have an example in mind about a traditional dish’s modern interpretation?
VM: I was impressed by the re-interpretation of Catalan classics and the way Joan Roca conceived them. When Juan Roca deconstructs a well known classic, such as “prawns with thin noodles and garlic” by relying on agar, he is able to create a dish which is at least as good as the traditional version, and when we cut a piece of the gamba and swallow it with some gelatinous noodles and a scoop of the airy mousseline of garlic and herbs, the three main flavors complement and enhance one another and highlight the sweetness of the wonderfully juicy prawns.
BH: In recent years, you have changed your opinion about El Celler de Can Roca. What has changed about it?
VM: I have dined fabulously at El Celler de Can Roca several times when they had two Michelin stars in their prior location. And I have dined a couple of times in the new location in Girona. Unfortunately, I can no longer stand behind my recommendation of Can Roca. My last meal there was good, but this very last meal proved that there are some problems. Possibly, Chef Joan Roca is overstretched, overextended. What made him unique in the past was that he was a master of finding complementary tastes, while also introducing a contrasting and interesting element in his dishes. He did this by respecting the integrity and quality of ingredients. In the past, his search for aesthetic perfection did not detract from deliciousness.
I feel that fame and a very busy schedule has taken a toll on Joan Roca. He has neither the time, nor the energy to conceive and perfect new great dishes. So what we are seeing at El Celler de Can Roca is also endemic to many of the world’s highly prized trendy hot spots. In other words, there is a shift away from creating memorable dishes at the expense of creating instead some sort of unique experience for the diner. The saddest irony is that, despite all references and stories about the three brothers and Catalan cooking throughout the meal, we witness the end of an era when Roca’s cooking had a distinct identity and was inspired by his background and Catalan cuisine. It now feels like a self-conscious, a-historical and universal “top” restaurant with its culinary techniques; tableware; language; decoration; plating; reference points; and shock and awe tactics. There is much “meat” here for the social media gurus, 50 Best influencers, and the fans of dining out as a spectacle akin to playing with your portable toy. C’est dommage mais quand-même c’est un triomphe. It is a pity for the minority, but a triumph for the movers and shakers who are intent on commodifying and rendering scalable what has been left from the historically and geographically-defined character of hedonistic fine dining.
BH: You praised Juan Roca for finding complimentary tastes, while also introducing a contrasting and interesting element in his dishes in the past. I also recall that you praised some dishes at elBulli which were composed of two or three ingredients at most, but, these ingredients complemented each other so well that they left indelible gastronomic memories. Could you tell us more about the importance of contrasts and complementarities?
VM: All great dishes are comprised of some contrasts and/or complementarities, and the creative chefs know better than others how to blend and contrast different ingredients in a dish without making the dish overly complex or fussy. Alejmo is a minimalist in the sense that some of his best dishes contain only 3 to 4 elements, and each of them shines and complement each other, rather than contrast with one another, a la Gagnaire. In successful examples, sometimes a noble ingredient, such as fresh foie gras, is combined with a pedestrian ingredient, such as crunchy cabbage, but when the blend is right and quality of the two impeccable, then the resulting combination can be ethereal, as was Senderens’ famous foie gras wrapped in cabbage. Others may introduce textural and savory contrasts to a dish, as Adria has done with its “foams”, which constitute a landmark achievement in the evolution of Western cuisine, as they captured the intensity of well made classical sauces without the heaviness of the latter. Adria then cleverly used his foams to emphasize rather than mask the clarity and intensity of different elements of a dish.
This said, I witnessed at elBulli something similar at that time to what happened to Juan Roca recently. I was quite taken by the lack of finesse and by the too obvious contrasts in his new concoctions. Throughout the meal we were pounded by salty/sweet and bitter/sour contrasts, as if Adria’s full attention had been consumed by textural issues (and to some degree by interesting plating where black and white contrasts were constantly introduced), at the expense of taste and ingredients.
All great dishes are comprised of some contrasts and/or complementarities, and the creative chefs know better than others how to blend and contrast different ingredients in a dish without making the dish overly complex or fussy.Vedat Milor
BH: After giving some additional thought to what you said, Gagnaire seems to be the perfect example to illustrate the complex relationship between the focus on ingredients, creativity, art, tradition, constant experiments and so on. What can Gagnaire’s cuisine reveal about our topic?
VM: I think you have a point here. Gagnaire knows about the globe’s best ingredients perhaps more than any other practicing chef, and he is always eager to design complex dishes with many complimentary and contrasting elements. This may lead to spectacular results, but to failures, as well. He always treads a very fine line between achieving a high level of harmony or dishes that lack balance. He calls himself an artist, and he is one, but one wonders at times whether his spontaneous way of cooking and his overconfidence is an impediment to perfection which requires more experimentation and fine tuning before dishes are put on the menu. Another issue with this type of overly ambitious cooking is the availability and quality of ingredients. When one or two elements are missing and/or they are sub-par, they upset the whole harmony. This was the case with one of the courses we selected with my wife, the rouget. This dish featured neither the kokotchas of bacalao, nor the bacalao tripe. Without these elements the course lacked an important part, i.e. the fat/gelatin which was necessary for overall balance. It is also interesting to note that the servers simply recite the menu and are not properly trained about the ingredients. We were first told that the dish had kokotchas of merlu, then of bacalao. At any rate it did not matter. It was also disheartening to note that one course on the written menu that I wanted to savor the most, i.e. Adour Salmon, was unavailable as they had not received the shipment. I made another reservation for the following week to try it as I am a fan of this rich and juicy wild salmon without fat, but when confirming my reservation I was told that they still had not received the shipment. Clearly there is a discrepancy between the capacity to procure so many ingredients and the design of the menu. My best guess is that Monsieur Gagnaire is overstretched and is not dealing with procurement and the implementation/execution of his complicated dishes.
BH: Thanks a lot for joining me today, Vedat. It has been extremely illuminating. I realise that we talked more about creativity than art. Or, art in a very limited sense… As much as chefs like to see themselves as artists, it is very rare for chefs’ creations to qualify as art. Even when it does, is it art that is on par with the works in other areas of art? As Telfer notes, it is simple and minor art at most. It may be futile to discuss whether food is art to some, and I would mostly agree with them. However, I can also see how this issue lies at the heart of the shift from substance to form; from gustatory pleasure to superficial novelty in gastronomy. Therefore, I feel that the balance is overwhelmingly tilted towards food as art and this inevitably downplays the significant values such as craftsmanship, artisanal skills, and tradition. It is similar to success stories about self-made people in business life. These stories distract us from the actual determinant of success. The reality is simple and obvious: your success is largely determined by whether you come from an affluent family or not. In the same vein, only very few chefs possess the necessary genius to create dishes that can be qualified as art. The rest pursue an objective that cannot be attained.
VM: Also, if it is remotely possible to attain art in gastronomy, then surely it will not be achieved in this conversation!
- Gombrich, Story of Art, p 17
- Telfer, Food as Art, p 26: hettingern.people.cofc.edu
- (Gopnik, “Palate vs. Palette”). opencommons.uconn.edu
- (Deresiewicz, “A Matter of Taste?”) opencommons.uconn.edu