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Jonathan Day

Avant garde cooking and El Bulli

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In Secrets of El Bulli, Ferran Adria sets out 27 observations that others have made on his cuisine. I have translated his introduction to this section and the observations themselves. Some of them are clearly very personal (e.g. number 14) but others apply more broadly to avant-garde cuisine.

* * *

What people have said about my cuisine

It is difficult to analyse the nature of my cuisine, because among other reasons it is hard to separate my ideas from my personal preferences. For this reason I have taken advantage of the great cooks and lovers of fine cuisine who have attended the courses we have given over the last four years at El Bulli, by compiling a series of their observations and hence providing a vision that complements my own. Naturally, observations that appear to some as a virtue will appear to others as a defect.

1. The element of surprise is very important.

2. We should bring something new to almost every dish, not just offer a mixture of ingredients.

3. Sometimes I use many ingredients (elementos) in a dish, sometimes far fewer.

4. To really understand this cuisine, it must be eaten in a tasting menu.

5. Almost every dish is served in small quantities

6. There are no second-class products; we get as much from a sardine as from caviar.

7. Nothing must be superfluous: everything must have a reason for being.

8. The complexity of simplicity.

9. This is a provocative cuisine, one that should lead people to think, rich in irony and humour.

10. It is also a transparent cuisine.

11. The cold savoury dishes (foams, jellies, ices, sorbets, soups) are without doubt what make our cooking distinctive; another differentiating element is the combination of many textures in a dish (menestra en texturas)

12. Nobody should really know where the "meal" ends and where the "desserts" begin.

13. We constantly search for new techniques…

14. … and new ingredients

15. We don't use fish fumet.

16. Temperature contrast is important…

17. …as is textural contrast.

18. We rarely follow the basic structure of "ingredient plus garnish". Garnish and sauce should be combined.

19. We have little interest in plates of meat.

20. But we have a passion for tapas, snacks, petits fours -- that is to say, for "little bites".

21. We look for consistency, for minimising technical faults as dishes are being cooked, seasoned, etc.

22. We use relatively few systems of cooking.

23. We respect the basic ingredients. Although we constantly transform ingredients, our point of reference is always the primary taste of the product.

24. Sauces that are soups, soups that are sauces. It is rarely possible to describe our dishes using the vocabulary of classical cuisine.

25. A passion for flavoured oils and vinaigrettes.

26. Almost every dish is matched to the rhythm and harmony of the meal. Each is carefully thought through.

27. Taste is the most important factor; cookery, before anything else, is about making things delicious.

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In Secrets of El Bulli, Ferran Adria sets out 27 observations that others have made on his cuisine. I have translated his introduction to this section and the observations themselves. Some of them are clearly very personal (e.g. number 14) but others apply more broadly to avant-garde cuisine.

* * *

What people have said about my cuisine

It is difficult to analyse the nature of my cuisine, because among other reasons it is hard to separate my ideas from my personal preferences. For this reason I have taken advantage of the great cooks and lovers of fine cuisine who have attended the courses we have given over the last four years at El Bulli, by compiling a series of their observations and hence providing a vision that complements my own. Naturally, observations that appear to some as a virtue will appear to others as a defect.

1. The element of surprise is very important.

2. We should bring something new to almost every dish, not just offer a mixture of ingredients.

3. Sometimes I use many ingredients (elementos) in a dish, sometimes far fewer.

4. To really understand this cuisine, it must be eaten in a tasting menu.

5. Almost every dish is served in small quantities

6. There are no second-class products; we get as much from a sardine as from caviar.

7. Nothing must be superfluous: everything must have a reason for being.

8. The complexity of simplicity.

9. This is a provocative cuisine, one that should lead people to think, rich in irony and humour.

10. It is also a transparent cuisine.

11. The cold savoury dishes (foams, jellies, ices, sorbets, soups) are without doubt what make our cooking distinctive; another differentiating element is the combination of many textures in a dish (menestra en texturas)

12. Nobody should really know where the "meal" ends and where the "desserts" begin.

13. We constantly search for new techniques…

14. … and new ingredients

15. We don't use fish fumet.

16. Temperature contrast is important…

17. …as is textural contrast.

18. We rarely follow the basic structure of "ingredient plus garnish". Garnish and sauce should be combined.

19. We have little interest in plates of meat.

20. But we have a passion for tapas, snacks, petits fours -- that is to say, for "little bites".

21. We look for consistency, for minimising technical faults as dishes are being cooked, seasoned, etc.

22. We use relatively few systems of cooking.

23. We respect the basic ingredients. Although we constantly transform ingredients, our point of reference is always the primary taste of the product.

24. Sauces that are soups, soups that are sauces. It is rarely possible to describe our dishes using the vocabulary of classical cuisine.

25. A passion for flavoured oils and vinaigrettes.

26. Almost every dish is matched to the rhythm and harmony of the meal. Each is carefully thought through.

27. Taste is the most important factor; cookery, before anything else, is about making things delicious.

Is it subliminal that TASTE is no. 27. I know, I know, some you guys want to smack me. It's ok.

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Early on in his renaissance, Adria mooted his interest Jaques Derrida post-structuralist thinking. To my mind, what Adria does is a result of a misreading of Derrida, but a productive misreading nonetheless. Adria, I believe, sees technique as the grammar of food, and his work is somehow forged in the sparks of a head on collision with the ineluctable classisicism that pervades our expectations of what fine dining should be.

Since then Adria has come up with a grammar all his own, that is to say a new language. It is not surprising then that he has recently cited Noam Chomsky's Generative Grammar as relevant to his work.

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HELL YES.  Are the rip offs flies buzzing in his ear. GOTTA BE.  Are they any less of a force to reckon with because they like to make consomme into pappardelle...HELL NO.  As long as there are chefs pushing themselves--even if they rip the masters off---then the dining public is more than likely going to benefit.  And the excitement these guys create will ensure that gastronomy will remain a vibrant aspect of modern culture.  (YES, I am bi-polar).

I agree completely.

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LML, strictly because he and I used to watch baseball games in the basement of my gallery, I read the poet David Lehman's insightful, even riveting, book "Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man". It told me why Deconstructionism is a crock of shit, as we say. So when Adria talks about it in relation to his food, I think he uses the wrong word. I like the word "displacement" in the music sense in which you take a theme and rearrange its basic components (melody, syncopation, harmony, meter) so that it comes out transformed but recognizable. ("Transformation" is a word I used in the Daily Gullet essay in my succinct description of his cooking). Most of all I like what my brother ( a scholar in the truest sense) said after he told me that food historians were "hot" in academia right now: "They are among those who have "deconstructed" the world and are putting it back together."

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Robert, I definitely agree that "deconstruction" is the wrong word -- or, rather, that it is either an unrelated usage of the same word or a misuse based on a misunderstanding.

In the Gastronomy in France in Flux thread, we had a bit of a discussion about this. I'll inject my relevant comment here, if you don't mind:

The use of the term deconstruction in discussions of Adria has always seemed curious to me, because having studied deconstruction -- as in the philosophical and literary work of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man -- I've never seen the connection. The word deconstruction as commonly used in the food media -- and indeed it's a handy word for breaking down anything into its theoretical components -- has little to do with deconstruction. At the most basic level, deconstruction in the literary world is not a way of writing; it is a form of criticism. Without getting deep into the semantics of it all, to me deconstruction in the culinary world cannot come from chefs -- it has to come from critics saying things like, "there is no inherent superiority of Les Crayeres over McDonald's."

The more colloquial use of deconstruction -- meaning to analyze the components of a dish and rebuild them into something that tastes good using the tools available in the kitchen -- is simply what chefs have always done. I don't acknowledge an intellectual distinction between making potato foam and turning wheat into bread. Pretty much all cooking is about transformation. Whether the end result is familiar is a completely different issue. Remember that what Adria is trying to do (and I will use Adria as shorthand for the modernist movement in cooking) is extract the essence of flavor from food and present it in a stimulating form. In other words, he's trying to make food taste good by escaping the prison of form and focusing instead on flavor, texture, and temperature as pure concepts. I think the reason Special K is especially accepting of this approach is that it's much like what pastry chefs do every day. Save for the occasional use of fresh fruit, pastry is all about transformation and the essence of flavor. There's no big piece of animal muscle or a whole bird or an asparagus spear to preserve.

Conservatism in art, music, literature, and as we see here cuisine, plays an important role. It's not just the natural order of things -- society depends on conservatism as a tool of self-perpetuation -- but it's also the best way to make a lot of people good at something. Most chefs would be better off following the formulae of the haute cuisine masters. There are schools to teach it, and the distribution of ingredients and the design of kitchens are aligned to support it. Most chefs lack the skill set to depart in any meaningful way from the orthodoxy while still making delicious food. But some do, and they should be celebrated.

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Remember that what Adria is trying to do (and I will use Adria as shorthand for the modernist movement in cooking) is extract the essence of flavor from food and present it in a stimulating form. In other words, he's trying to make food taste good by escaping the prison of form and focusing instead on flavor, texture, and temperature as pure concepts.

The April-May number of GaultMillau magazine has an article on "impertinent recipes": "Three ingredients, nine recipes to reinvent the classical and give meaning to modernism." (The magazine also has articles on Bernard Loiseau, on food criticism, and on an event that brought Michel Troisgros and Pascal Barbot together to cook endives. But this note focuses on the "impertinent recipes" piece).

In each case, the author (Gilles Choukroun, chef of Le café des Delices) presents a traditional recipe, then two "modernist" variations.

1. Asparagus

Traditional: à l'anglaise (boiled) with parmesan and soft-cooked eggs (oeufs mollets)

Modern: served raw, with a dipping sauce made of olive oil, pastis, chopped peanuts and lemon juice

Hypermodern: served as a purée, with diced raw asparagus, cream, argan oil, red pepper

2. Rack of lamb

Traditional: Roasted, served with chips of Jerusalem artichokes and a coffee-flavoured jus

Modern: "Pot au feu" of lamb with tea and spices ("Asian-Oriental" style)

Hypermodern: a "Hamburger" of roast rack of lamb served with pesto, spinach leaves and ketchup

3. Chocolate (cacao)

Traditional: Hot chocolate served with "soldiers" cut from pain d'épices

Modern: Tagliatelle flavoured with cocoa served "carbonara" style, with a raw egg and chocolate sorbet

Hypermodern: Chocolate tuiles with honey, lemon juice, red pepper, and vache-qui-rit (laughing cow) cheese (in its foil wrapper)

* * *

Apart from the fact that none of these dishes sound or look very appetising, I was struck that their "modernity" was a derivative of traditional dishes, rather as one might set new words to an old song, or present a Mozart opera with the characters wearing spacesuits. Thomas Keller does something similar, taking favourite dishes ("surf and turf", "coffee and doughnuts", "vitello tonnato") and ringing changes on them. This treatment can be valuable in that it may enable the diner to see the dish with fresh eyes, as it were, to taste it anew.

But I am struck that very few of Adria's dishes seem to work this way. Yes, he makes "caviar" out of tapioca, and "tagliatelle" out of gelatin. And he does a few dishes that are in some sense derivative. In Secrets of El Bulli he describes the process of innovation, starting from the concept of "Mar y Montana" (sea and mountains, surf and turf) and ending up with a dish of marrow served with caviar. But for the most part, he seems to follow Maximin's dictum: "creativity is not copying", either other chefs' dishes or traditional recipes. His innovation is more basic, less a matter of taking old favourites and twisting them around then going straight to the essential form or flavour of something and making essential changes to that.

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Hypermodern: a "Hamburger" of roast rack of lamb served with pesto, spinach leaves and ketchup

roast rack of lamb with ketchup!? oh god...:shock: i would be concerned even if the "ketchup" were in quotes, but the fact that it is not just scares the hell out of me.

it does, however, bring up the point that even though surprise (relating to texture, temp, combinations, etc.), irony, reference, and humor can all play an equal part in "modern cuisine," it is TASTE that should be the final measure of a dish. and i am sure that Adrià, Achatz, or Keller would agree. so putting ketchup on lamb may be shocking, but not very smart---and lets all hope it's not actually the future.

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Ryne,

I'm more thrown by a lamb rack hamburger than anything else. Why in God's name would you want to desecrate a nice piece of meat like that? I detest chefs who fool with their food to the detriment of the food itself in the name of hypermodernism or whatever you food theologians call it. That whole menu Jonathan reiterated sounded like it was created by some goobersmootch that just graduated from the Ferran Adria school of hide the salami. It's a sad state of affairs for sure when you've got to weed through a menu to get at the heart and soul of a chef's metier. Everyone is on a collision course with creativity. What happens when everything has been created? I hate to think of what the trends will be when that occurs. Whatever happened to the Mario Batali (simple is better) style?

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Spencer, the point I was trying to make is that there may be a difference between "deep" creativity (which I think Adria practices) and "surface" creativity -- imitating the trappings of creativity but not really advancing the state of fine cuisine. Any hacker could take a classic dish and ring changes on it -- add toothpaste to boeuf bourguignon, serve a horseradish sorbet with your next roast chicken, take "coq au vin" apart by serving a broiled chicken breast, a glass of wine and a glass of chicken blood. What Adria did was different.

In dining, cooking and reading I am generally more interested in traditional recipes, beautifully executed, and I tend to favour the simple over the baroque. I went to El Bulli with some concern that the meal would be conceptually interesting but neither tasty nor true to the essence of what the ingredients were.

Neither supposition proved out. This food was delicious, first of all; then it was conceptually fascinating; finally, it was surprisingly simple. When you have the option to break the meal into 30 or so small dishes I guess it's easier to make each one more focused and direct. There wasn't a lot of "X with Y with Z".

I have not dined at Trio (though it is high on my list) and I am curious to understand how it plays out on the "deep" vs "surface" creativity.

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I say if it tastes like shit the first time, why try to intellectualize yourself into enjoying it.

that is tue in and very funny in one regard...

but havent you ever bought a record or cd, and there are a few songs that catch your attention first...and you love them, and then there is that one song that at first was just ok...but then grows on you...and in the end, that becomes your favorite song on the album.

it isnt about over-intellectualizing, though some people are guilty of that...it is about wrestling with your minds expectations, and about its natural inclination to grasp for something familiar...

that is why we cling to the catchy song first (the steak au poivre); but in time grow to love the hidden gem.

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It's called "acquired taste". Good post, Pastrami.

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A browse through Calvin W. Schwabe's _Unmentionable Cuisine_ or Jerry Hopkins' more unbuttoned _Strange Foods_ will demonstrate yet again that no taste is too painful, expensive, or outré to be acquired if an individual or a society is determined to do so. As with warfare, one common motivation is sheer boredom, and the purpose of advertising is to inculcate boredom where none existed before.

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When considering what is avante guard and vanguard it is important to remember that the world is very postmodern.

Just as in movies and literature the only new innovations in my opinion can come from pastiche.

remember that at one point (and maybe for some still now) 50's era cuisine was considered comfort food in the 90s and he restaurants that served this were and still are considered avan guard. Then again though out cultur eis so fast moving it isnt long before the avant guard becomes the guard.

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Robert Brown wrote: "I suspect that Adria's cuisine is more Catalan-based than it appears to the layman and that there are subtleties that escaped people like me."

If you really want to taste great Catalan-based modern cuisine, Santi Santamaria at El Raco de Can Fabes is your guy.

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It does seem obvious that no matter how many people try (and fail) to follow in the footsteps of Adria, it is far less widespread than the rapacious misuse of Escoffier's techniques in the kitchens of conceited, arrogant, coked-up chefs...

it also seems clear that one reason why a lot of people are adverse to the use of new and innovative techniques, a la El Bulli, is the fact that the revolution didn't come from France....or even Napa for that matter (ewww did I just say that?). Personally I think Adria has a great focus: fusing science, art, flavor....some of the best empirical practices we know....to create something that isn't a mirror image of the past, but one that is as if we are looking into a fun house mirror- it distorts our preconceived notions and is pleasant and amusing.

His aim, I believe, keeps things fresh...because it is such an unstable way to cook. It relies on the imaginations of human beings, which are obvious racked with attention deficit disorder. As he said a month or so ago : "Foams are out for us..." To continuously fabricate trends (correctly) is probably the most difficult task a chef can have.

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