January 23, 2008

Agar-a-phobia?

Agar RS-100 Powder

In my latest City Paper article, Foam Over Function, I explore why Philadelphia doesn’t “get” molecular gastronomy (some chefs I spoke with prefer the term “modern” or “forward” cooking). In writing the article, I managed to score an interview with Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago. According to Achatz, he was “the first one in the U.S. to start cooking in this style” when he was at Trio in Evanston, Illinois.

It’s tempting to ask whether a restaurant like Alinea or Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50 in New York would ever work in Philadelphia. But, in many ways, that question misses the point.

The truth is that Philadelphia chefs are already using the techniques and structural ingredients associated with forward cooking in “regular-looking” dishes right under our noses. They’re just not advertising it. One person I spoke with at a certain Philadelphia restaurant (which will remain nameless) admitted that they use one particular modern cooking technique, but the person said they "don’t want to be known for that.”

According to Shola Olunloyo of Studio Kitchen, “You can either do or talk about doing. And sometimes you just need to do. I like to be transparent and let the food speak for itself, as opposed to selling the technique before I sell the flavor.”

In some ways, there is no such thing as “molecular gastronomy.” Rather, there is only good cooking and bad cooking. These modern techniques and structural ingredients are simply additional tools in the culinary toolbox. Some may disagree, of course. But the one thing on which everyone seems to agree is that, regardless of technique, the food has to taste good. Perhaps that's all that really matters in the end.

For those Philadelphians who remain skeptical of this new cookery, Achatz has some advice: “They shouldn’t be afraid of it,” Achatz said. “Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

There is a slideshow online that accompanies my City Paper article. For even more pics of my kitchen experience at Snackbar with Chef Jonathan McDonald check out my Snackbar Set on Flickr. And for more pics of my experience at Lacroix’s Chef’s Table with Chef Matthew Levin (not all of which was molecular), check out my Lacroix Set.

4 comments:

sorina said...

You have a very nice blog, good post...keep up the good job

Kate said...

Perhaps it's not that Philadelphians don't "get" molecular gastronomy, but rather they eat as they always have -- substance over form, taste over shtick, food over concept. Which is essentially what you postulate really matters in the end, as it should. It's also another thing I love about Philadelphia; diners will choose food because it is good, not simply because it is new.

David said...

It's not that Philadelphians don't "get it," it's that many of us (particularly those of us who've been part of the "food and wine scene" for 30-odd years), can spot the authentic from the fad in a (pardon me) "New York minute."

Just as we prefer wine that isn't vacuum-concentrated, chipped 'n micro-oxed, alcohol-reduced, reverse-osmosis "corrected," we like our food to be real, and based in agricultural, natural traditions, and possibilities.

FrankTurfler said...

This could almost be an article about fine art pitting oils against acrylics or an argument over film vs. video. Technology is never accepted right away by purists. My philosophy: if it looks good enjoy it. If it tastes good eat it. Leave the spectrum analyzer at home.