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"Deconstructed" -- what's it mean?


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Over here, there's a discussion going on about the Chicago Tribune's take on the decade's worst dining trends. Number 10 is "deconstruction." San Francisco restaurateur Joyce Goldstein (whom I know and who is incredibly knowledgeable and incredibly narrow minded) is quoted: "I do not want a poached egg on top of carbonara sauce and the pasta on the side. I don't want the ingredients laid out before me anymore. I want a chef to show me how it is brought together."

I think she misrepresents (and possible misunderstands) deconstruction, but I'm not sure if I'm right. To me, "deconstruction" is not simply taking a dish, separating out the components and placing them in piles on a plate. It's separating the components and then recombining them in (presumably) unexpected ways. In other words, "deconstruction" to me is shorthand for "deconstruction and reconstruction." For instance, a couple of years ago at New Orleans' Mila restaurant, we had "deconstructed oysters Rockefeller" that was possibly the best oyster dish I've ever had, and it wasn't just separate piles of oysters, bread crumbs and spinach; the chef took elements from the classic dish and created something new and wonderful from them.

Joyce Goldstein might well not like that dish either. But before we start taking sides on "deconstruction" I think we should try to figure out what we're talking about. So, regardless of what you think of the trend, who's got the right definition? Do chefs use "deconstruction" literally? That is, do they merely take dishes apart? Or does the term imply something more, as I've always thought?

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Great topic. As mentioned in the other thread, I do feel as that it's one of those things that really just isn't understood by some, or looking upon as 'I don't get it, so it's wrong'. Personally I think 'deconstruction' is a great thing.

Personally I agree that 'deconstruction' is so much more than separating components. It's more re-interpretation, rather than just a simple deconstruction. I think it's about being playful, changing textures and the overall experience of something while keeping it's same profile, rather than just everything put together, as usual. It's a fun element I think to a dish, changing it in such a way. Which I guess it turn brings me to me argument I made over there, that keeping things 'the way they are' and the whole argument that deconstruction is silly seems like a somewhat old-fashioned and narrow-minded idea, in my eyes. And sometimes, it improves upon a dish. Making it more exciting, and possibly improving on other qualities the dish may have by making it in a new light.

Does that mean we should all try and deconstruct every single dish? No, it has it's places and times, but I think it's a great idea. It's playful, and I love that.

Cheese - milk's leap toward immortality.

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I think that the term contributes to the problem. It certainly isn't "deconstruction" in any literary theoretical sense (not sure what that would even be), but it also isn't anti-construction, in the pasta separated from sauce separated from egg example. Broken down into component elements, textures, flavors: yes. Broken down into the traditionally integrated ingredients and served next to each other: no.

I could imagine a deconstructed carbonara using, say, "pasta" made from thin ribbons of pancetta or lardo, egg yolk that's been dehydrated, reformed into a block under pressure, and grated, garlic and Parmigiano-Reggiano pureed, allowed to gel, and crisped... you get the idea. The pork becomes the pasta, the egg the cheese, the garlic and cheese the crisp.

Part of the pleasure of a deconstructed dish is that you're able to appreciate the conceptualization that lead to the dish, starting with analyzing something familiar and ending with something both reminiscent and new. Not sure that my example would be very pleasurable, but hopefully it's a useful example for this discussion.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Oh man ... "deconstruction" as a massive, messy can of worms. I'm an architect, and we went through this discussion in the late 80s through the 90s. To get at the root of this whole thing, you need to look at Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher who pretty much coined the term "deconstruction." You'll note, I didn't say to try to read his stuff - it's, er, challenging, to put it mildly. I'm oversimplifying it, but basically, he realized that a lot of philosophical arguments are internally self contradictory. When you carefully "deconstruct" the argument and how it is written out, you'll often see that the words and ideas that a philosopher needs to use to argue some point, actually undermine the overt argument. That's great for philosophers (actually, it's a serious problem for them), but what does it matter to the rest of us?

In a strict sense, probably not much - when philosophically minded architects picked up on this, Derrida himself expressed a lot of skepticism - to him "Deconstruction" was a technique for examining philosophical arguments. The thing that was most useful to non-philosophers was that "deconstruction" invited us to examine the underlying structure of what we were doing - often challenging the taken-for-granted elements and assumptions that went into making something. Sometimes, this produced really interesting, revelatory results. Often, it was just an excuse to "blow stuff up" and create big jumbles. Aesthetically, that could be fine, if that's what you're into. A few people tried to differentiate between the more intellectual "Deconstruction" and the more stylistic "decon" stuff. During that initial "Deconstruction" wave, there were some lousy, leaky buildings built, fashion designers were charging thousands of dollars for garments that were a few pieces of oddly cut fabric, partially sewn together with loose threads hanging off, and mediocre linguistics professors were claiming that no one could ever actually understand what anyone else meant.

So sure, there are probably bone heads out there serving separate piles of ingredients and calling it a "deconstructed" dish, but at best, they're missing the point. It's probably nearly impossible to strictly apply Derrida's Deconstruction to actual cooking, but you can get a bit of the underlying "spirit" sometimes. This would mean something more like taking a traditional, complex dish and splitting it into two or three components, hopefully each delicious on their own, so that when the diner eats the separate components, they understand something new about the traditional dish as a whole. Hopefully, this is done in an in-obvious way, just propping some blind-baked pastry on top of a ladle of stew and calling "deconstructed pot pie" would certainly be missing the point.

In the end, though, you can waste a lot of time arguing the semantics and not get anywhere.

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To me, a truly deconstructed restaurant experience would be one where you, the customer, go into the kitchen and cook, and the chef sits out in the dining room and eats. Who pays?

Unfortunately, I've had more than my fill of deconstructionist stuff in the literary world. I give Derrida credit for being on to something; I would not say the same for many who followed in his footsteps.

"I think it's a matter of principle that one should always try to avoid eating one's friends."--Doctor Dolittle

blog: The Institute for Impure Science

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[Derrida] realized that a lot of philosophical arguments are internally self contradictory. When you carefully "deconstruct" the argument and how it is written out, you'll often see that the words and ideas that a philosopher needs to use to argue some point, actually undermine the overt argument.

That's about the best two sentence description of deconstruction, in the literary theoretical sense, I've ever read. And, as someone with a PhD in cultural studies, I've read a lot of descriptions of deconstruction. :blink:

That's great for philosophers (actually, it's a serious problem for them), but what does it matter to the rest of us?

In a strict sense, probably not much.... The thing that was most useful to non-philosophers was that "deconstruction" invited us to examine the underlying structure of what we were doing - often challenging the taken-for-granted elements and assumptions that went into making something. Sometimes, this produced really interesting, revelatory results. Often, it was just an excuse to "blow stuff up" and create big jumbles.

So perhaps the real fathers of bad culinary deconstruction are Big Jim and Billy Sol of SCTV's "Farm Report": "That there carbonara sure blowed up real good!"

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I agree with those who are saying that the term itself is misleading. A telling example of what this can lead to popped up on Top Chef a few weeks ago, when a chef, unfamiliar with the precess, was sent packing because he took the word literally. "Reconstruction" or "recombinant cooking" might be more apt.

Dave Scantland
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There was a very amusing piece by Jon Wiener in The Nation some time in the late 1980s that listed some fifty or so popular misuses of "deconstruction" to mean everything from simply "analyze" in reference to an argument to "demolish" in reference to a building. (For those seeking citations, he published another article in The Nation called "Deconstruction Goes Pop" in 1997 that pursued this further).

What's being "deconstructed" in any particular instance, for Derrida, is the idea that there is an essential, immutable, one-directional relationship between what the linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, called the "signifier" and the "signified." Saussure used these terms to distinguish his theory of meaning from various classical theories that suggested that a word always corresponded to a thing or an essential idea, and to broaden the idea of "meaning" to include all kinds of relationships of signification--sounds, pictures, symbols, novels, gestures, etc.--and not just words. Saussure added the notion that the relationship between the signifier and signified was arbitrary rather than natural or God-given. Derrida goes a step further and challenges the idea that a signified always points back to an origin or a center, and proposes that our only hope for understanding is to find the rupture in the structure that links signifier to a fixed signified (hence "deconstruction"), and to engage in "play" with meaning, giving up our belief in the unitary origin, and preserving the contradiction in discourse that was always there. For instance deconstruction might mean that understanding a painting might mean thinking about the frame rather than the story told by the picture, or that something we thought was trivial or peripheral might in fact be much more important than we previously had considered, and by exploring it, we might reveal previously hidden components of meaning.

If you want to sort this out for yourself, I would start with Derrida's essay, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" (1966).

Some of Derrida's followers interpreted this mode of critique as a kind of radical skepticism about meaning--the idea that anything can mean anything, but Derrida is nothing if not a careful and close reader of texts. He is certainly willing to claim that some readings are more compelling than others, but not that there is one ultimate reading that closes off all other readings.

So what does this have to do with fine dining?

I would say that taking the elements of a dish and simply putting them in piles is more like analysis or perhaps even demolition than deconstruction.

A deconstructive culinary method would be opposed to approaches like Josh Ozersky's search for the Platonic ideal of the hamburger.

But what about Keller's "Oysters and Pearls"? This is a dish that seems to be as much about linguistic play as it is about being food, and that seems characteristic of Keller's dishes. Keller claims, famously, that he's never tasted it. The idea came from the linguistic coincidence that tapioca comes in pearls and pearls come from oysters. It's not such an arbitrary coincidence, since tapioca pearls are called that because they resemble the pearls that come from oysters, but of course they are completely different things, and it doesn't hurt that caviar is also pearl-like both in its appearance and its price. In The French Laundry Cookbook Keller says he tries to reinterpret traditional flavor combinations in ways that are surprising. If they reveal something unexpected about what is otherwise traditional and inspire further creativity, I would call that "deconstructive."

Edited by David A. Goldfarb (log)
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[Derrida] realized that a lot of philosophical arguments are internally self contradictory. When you carefully "deconstruct" the argument and how it is written out, you'll often see that the words and ideas that a philosopher needs to use to argue some point, actually undermine the overt argument.

That's about the best two sentence description of deconstruction, in the literary theoretical sense, I've ever read. And, as someone with a PhD in cultural studies, I've read a lot of descriptions of deconstruction. :blink:

Wow - thanks! :blush:

I think it sounded good because I left out a lot of important aspects or facets of what Derrida dealt with (personally, breaking down our hierarchical dualities was the most useful to me) David does a good job of getting at the real core, and makes a great point about our expectations and the role language plays with that.

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Those of you acquainted with the literary-theoretic sense of "deconstruction" -- which surely popularized the term -- do a real service by succinctly explaining that context here. I'll only add that terms like this, when they become fashionable, invite popular misuse (culinary or otherwise) because they look like something simpler or self-explanatory. Thus D. Goldfarb's reference to "50 popular misuses."

Same thing happened 1970s-80s with Lofti Zadeh's mathematics of "fuzzy logic," and more widely in the 1920s with Einstein's "relativity" work in physics. At that time, Bertrand Russell wrote (this is the gist of it if not the exact words -- I'm recalling something read circa 1965, that stuck in my mind) that it had recently become trendy for armchair philosophers who knew nothing of Einstein's work -- "and not just armchair philosophers, but let's be kind and just say armchair philosophers" -- to declare sweepingly "it's very simple, you see: everything is relative!"

Those are only a couple of famous examples of the phenomenon. (Another is "world wide web," whose coiners eventually conceded to the misuse when it became near-universal.)

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In the end, though, you can waste a lot of time arguing the semantics and not get anywhere.

Others may have liked your excellent summary of deconstruction a la Derrida but this one sounds like the history of philosophy encompassed in a short sentence :raz:

Let's not forget that semantics is bound by the structure in which it is encased, which is the language, culture and traditions within which it is written.

Now consider dishes as being embodied in a language, a culture, and a tradition.

Deconstruct the dish to its basic elements, respect the language, culture, and traditions without being slaves to them; then reconstruct while retaining all the elements except the dogmatism and you have the essence of "deconstructed" gastronomy.

For people from the culture, this removal of dogmatism means that they will often be surprised, sometimes entranced and, if they are traditionalists, more often than not offended.

Cooks who concentrate solely on the ingredients are really missing the point.

Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"The Internet is full of false information." Plato
My eG Foodblog

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So, regardless of what you think of the trend, who's got the right definition?

Deconstruction is a loaded term, as others above have eloquently explained. During my years in Architecture grad school, Post Modernism was supplanted by Deconstruction with Derrida as the Godfather, and that experience will always influence my opinion of the term. That said, I believe any creative act can be deconstructed. There are important differences among museums, sculptures, ballgowns, poems and meals -- but the essence of deconstruction can be artfully applied to each. Identify the elements, explore the relationships, reunite them in new and meaningful ways.

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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I take it as a given that the term "deconstruction" doesn't apply all that well to food, and that the people who throw the term around are on the whole unfamiliar with actual deconstruction. That being said, the term is entrenched in many disciplines so we sort of need to figure out what it should mean in context. When it comes to food, I think deconstruction, properly understood based on looking at what its foremost practitioners (Adria being number one) are doing, refers primarily to the liberation of food from traditional restrictions of form. This can be the case on an individual-ingredient basis (e.g., potato foam) or a whole-dish basis (various disassembled and reassembled takes on traditional, expected dishes). As with anything else, some chefs are great at it and most suck at it. What Goldstein is objecting to, at least given her example, is a very shallow form of culinary deconstruction that no serious practitioner would propose. But even with simple disassembled dishes there can be some interest, because we so often think of ingredients in certain combinations that it can be interesting to taste them separately.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
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It seems like many of the culinary backlashes aimed at high-end trends have more to do with the word than the food. When the average person on the street becomes too familiar with a concept then it's no longer cool enough for the elite (even if their elitism is entirely self-proclaimed) and they begin the backlash against it. The whole "I liked it but now that you like it I don't... so I'm still more cool than you" thing. Backlash against a concept abused and done poorly is okay, backlash against a concept in general is ridiculous unless it can be demonstrated that there are no well-done examples to be found.

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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Can anyone pinpoint how this philosophical term entered the culinary world?

Was this a self-conscious move on the part of a chef to try to play off his understanding of Derrida's work? Or was it a practice that developed and after the fact was labeled by critics?

And where did this start? My totally uninformed guess would be France, given the prominent role that philosophers play there in popular culture.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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There may be a first instance of which I'm unaware, but the term gained traction in the food context on account of Adria or, more precisely, writing about Adria.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Oh boy don’t you people get knotted up in a word. I was given a deconstructed tiramisu the other day - all the parts spread all over the plate. It would have been much better if someone had bothered to construct it - it is amazing just what some chefs get away with these days and it still cost a fortune! :rolleyes:

Pam Brunning Editor Food & Wine, the Journal of the European & African Region of the International Wine & Food Society

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Oh boy don’t you people get knotted up in a word. I was given a deconstructed tiramisu the other day - all the parts spread all over the plate. It would have been much better if someone had bothered to construct it - it is amazing just what some chefs get away with these days and it still cost a fortune! :rolleyes:

What do you mean you people? :biggrin:

You're right to suggest that there's no point in deconstruction if it's simply a dish pulled apart.

Edited by Peter the eater (log)

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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Oh boy don’t you people get knotted up in a word. ...

What do you mean you people? :biggrin: / You're right to suggest that there's no point in deconstruction if it's simply a dish pulled apart.

Yes, and the word has a special charge, at least in the US. Both because it's a technical, jargon term from literary theory that was very fashionable in the 1990s (frequent references in media like the New York Review of Books), and secondarily because that spurred all kinds of other usages by people who liked to assume they understood it, without taking the trouble do so. Consequently it can be played off of from diverse angles.

In the early 1990s, visiting friends at Duke University, I was asked if I wanted to see any particular sights. Yes, I replied: Deconstructionists or the like. So I was obligingly shown Stanley Fish's office (much like any other; Fish himself was absent).

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  • 3 weeks later...

A plate of al dente pasta in creamy sauce with a perfectly poached egg on top of it so that it melds into the plate when you put your fork into it sounds pretty good to me! Especially if it had wonderfully crispy bacon croutons scattered over the top.

Deconstruction isn't just a little pile of lettuce in one corner of the plate and a little pile of tomatoes and so on... it's taking the ingredients and making something new from them.

Edited by Kajikit (log)
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Can anyone pinpoint how this philosophical term entered the culinary world?

Probably through misunderstanding, just as many terms from philosophy, physics, or other specialized disciplines enter popular culture. They enter the mainstream mostly stripped of their original meanings.

However, I'm open to the possibility that chefs like Adria and Achatz actually do some things with food that nod in the direction of Derrida. They certainly go beyond taking dishes apart, and I think they also go beyond ripping a dish from its traditional context.

In Philosophy, deconstruction is a kind of meta-approach, in that it addresses existing philosophical arguments, rather than the subjects of those arguments (being, knowing, ethics, etc. etc...). Deconstruction is an attempt to critique and also discover alternative, latent meanings within the philosohical texts.

Likewise in food, some approaches address an existing dish or tradition, and rather than just putting a new twist on it (or disassembling it), they discover or illuminate new relationships and possibilities within the existing ingredients and techniques.

Naturally, I can't think of a concrete example while I sit here at 2 a.m. ... something about the mention of Derrida's name divorces me from concrete reality or any ability to say something helpful. Maybe someone who's eaten at El Buli can find an example that supports what I'm saying (or just tell me to go to bed).

But yeah, "deconstruction" as practiced on Top Chef looks like the brainchild of the kid who showed up stoned every day at Philosophy 101.

Please, chef, I'd like my burrito assembled.

Notes from the underbelly

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I've been reading Heston Blumenthal's "autobiography" in The Fat Duck Cookbook. It's making me think that "Deconstruction" is, in a strict sense, probably mis-used in contemporary cuisine (though not always), but there's a sort of "spirit" that makes the term at least a bit appropriate. I wasn't around for the birth of Derrida's Deconstruction in philosophy, but I have to infer that it blew a lot of minds (I think that would be the historically accurate term for the late 60's and early 70's :biggrin: ) When he pointed out problems with Philosophical arguments, such as the fact that even Socrates had to rely on the concept of writing as the foundation for his argument as to why speech is "better" than writing, Derrida shook up that profession.

Similarly, a bunch of things happened as food science and cultural globalization rattled the foundations of "classical" cuisine. Blumenthal mentions how Harold McGee's observation that searing does not seal in meat juices called into question many "laws" of classical cooking. I think that there has been a spirit of ripping things apart, as far down to their foundations as current chefs can get, and building up new dishes from those insights into the underlying structures (food science, flavor parings, etc). In that sense, we're not completely off base talking about some sort of "deconstruction" and contemporary cuisine.

This may be a bit off topic, but it brings me to a concern I've been thinking about for a while. Novelty seems to be a critical component of what Adria, Blumenthal, Achatz, et al are doing. There's the expectation that dining at one of these "great" restaurants will be a "revelatory" experience. That can't go on forever.

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