For the first part of this blog, go to Interview with Jose Andres and Wylie Dufresne, part 1.
Pacojets and Thermomixes
If you want to be a vanguard chef, you might as well get a PhD in chemistry.
The movement has actually been labeled molecular gastronomy because, to truly think outside the lunchbox and use food like no one has before, you have to know how to manipulate the cellular structure of your ingredients. So practitioners end up learning many of the same theories and tools that are used by biochemists when they’re splitting stem cells. Maybe that’s why Adria’s famous cookbook, “El Bulli 1998-2002,” is over 500 pages long.
And just like chemists, the best vanguard chefs build laboratories and fill them with high-tech equipment. Gadgets include the Pacojet, a Swiss-made, 2,000 r.p.m. frozen-food processor. And for $945, you can have your very own Thermomix, a German all-in-one kitchen aid that grinds hazelnuts to a powder in 5 seconds.
Even if you’re willing to hand over thousands to get this gear, the panelists all agreed that the techniques of molecular gastronomy aren’t for your average Joe Gourmet. Wylie gave the crowd that old, “Don’t try using your CO2 dispenser to convert liquid into an ethereal froth at home,” cliché. And when someone in the crowd asked the panel to recommend the best brand of sous-vide machine for preventing toxins, Jose suggested that the guy just stick with the microwave. It’s not that cool, but neither is botulism.
Death by News Cycle
Winner for most awkward moment of the night was Wylie’s attack on American food writers for not supporting this country’s avant-garde movement. “Spanish journalists have done a lot more to encourage avant-garde,” Wylie said. Just when it looked like Coleman Andrews was about to get his skull cracked with a Pacojet food processor, Wylie caught himself. “Look, I’m not going to criticize American journalists, especially with one sitting right here.”
Despite the effort at diplomacy, it seems like Wylie’s got a point. American vanguard cuisine has been criticized in a number of articles, including one in which the New York Times called it “shallowly theatrical.” Slate writer Lisa Abend counted five signs that vanguard cuisine was no longer haute, including Death By News Cycle. Abend explained, “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.”
Wylie’s on-stage rant reminded me that I recently saw him on Bickering Foodies getting huffy with cookbook author Barbara Kafka when she claimed that vanguard food is half-baked.
“Where does one cross the line between experiment, and searching, and the final result in terms of pleasure?” Kafka asked.
Wylie said he thought his cooking was more than just experimental. It tasted good, too. “I wouldn’t put my good name on it if I thought it was disgusting.”
“Oh, let’s not get bitchy,” said Kafka.
Even Jose, whose ego is bigger than Adria’s 500-page cookbook, acknowledged that the backlash hurts. “You’ve got to cook first to please yourself,” he said. “But, sure, I get upset when people tell me my food is too out there. It’s like, in this museum, you wouldn’t say, ‘let’s change that Matisse.’”
But is it possible that bad press actually helps vanguard chefs? In an interview for the Slate article, Aponiente chef Angel Leon suggested so: “There are people who say, ‘this is over, let’s put it behind us,’ but that’s just marketing.” If the mainstream ever really celebrated avant-garde, would the movement lose meaning and disappear like the vapors from Jose’s mojito mists?
Jose Andres’ Green Card and Foie Gras Cereal
Throughout the evening, a projector showed photographs of the chefs’ best dishes, while Jose and Wylie explained the creative processes behind each. Every time they showed a new picture, my friend Rupa’s stomach growled.
One photo was Jose’s deconstructed New England clam chowder (picture below), which he serves at Minibar in D.C. “Now, what is wrong with the traditional New England clam chowder?” Jose rhetorically asked the crowd.
“Nothing!” said Wylie, who happens to be a native of New England. This comment got the biggest laughs of the night. Wylie might be a freedom fighter for avant-garde cuisine, but don’t mess with his hometown’s clam chowder. That’s not cool.
Jose disagreed, saying that the clams in the traditional version are “so overcooked.” Jose breaks the classic dish down into its component parts: cream, potatoes, clam, clam broth, onion, bacon and chives. From each of these elements, he creates a puree, or sauce, thickening them to a slightly unexpected viscosity: the onion, for example, is a thick jam. He adds a raw clam and a sprinkling of potato chips to the surface for textural contrast. The diner’s spoon gives the final stir that blends the ingredients and sets the “chowder” in motion.
Another celebrated vanguard dish is foie gras cereal: corn flakes are combined with little balls of foie gras, which provide a liquid burst that mimics the textural experience of milk.
“American food is an excuse to get involved in creative cooking,” Jose told the crowd. To him, our cuisine is just a black and white movie in need of Technicolor.
But the purpose isn’t just to improvise and shatter tradition. The main criticism of vanguard chefs in the U.S. is that they get caught up in flamboyance and irony. In so doing, they overlook a key tenet of Adria’s philosophy: innovation, in addition to being playful, should also enhance flavor. Mr. Adria once told Frank Bruni that, “what he was always after was ‘the pure taste of things,’ and that his manipulations were paradoxically in the service of that.” And Bruni reports that, “Most of the meals lived up to his motto.”
Spain’s Snobby Embassy
As the dialogue wrapped up, Rupa and I were disappointed to note the absence of any food carts in the back of the room. Not only was it dinner time, but for the past hour we’d been looking at pictures of some of the best food in the world. Maybe it was a bit much to hope that Jose would serve everyone his famous cotton candy foie gras, but no edible swag at all?
I staved off hunger and focused on the business of autographs. Wylie was an easy mark. He was lingering by the stage and his entourage of groupies was sparse, possibly due to his bad haircut. Still, he was in a good mood – he’d found out a few hours before that his wife was pregnant with his first – and when I told him how much I enjoyed the evening’s dialogue, he seemed to genuinely appreciate my input. If he ever gets in another fight with Barbara Kafka, I’ve got his back.
Jose, on the other hand, was enjoying the admiration of his chef groupies way too much to be bothered by me. At least one tightly clothed female groupie (a Tom Colicchi-ho?) eyed him like he was a deconstructed clam chowder as he talked about his PBS show. I finally got him to sign, but, as you can see from the action shot below, he wasn’t interested in a photograph with me. Thanks to Rupa for taking one anyway.
As we made our way from the auditorium to the lobby, I noticed a roped off section of the room that was only being penetrated by the Spanish Embassy crowd. Dressed up in black ties and evening gowns and walking with a purpose, they appeared to be headed for food.
I was still wearing my suit from work, so I figured I had shot of fitting in. I maneuvered so I was right behind Jose as we neared the roped dividers, and when he made what appeared be a joke in Spanish, I cracked up. I did everything but roll my r’s and wave a red cape, but when I told the swarthy Spaniard who was standing guard at the ropes that I’d left my Embassy id at home, he turned up his nose and pointed me back to the commoners.
If only all embassies were like Korus House.