Between modern and traditional: do I have to make a decision?

31 Jul

After my weeks at the institute, I have not only learned a whole lot about modernist cuisine, but I have also learned about the intense debate surrounding this relatively new way of thinking about food. In the debate, two clear arguments can be found. The critics say that modernist cooking leads to a disregard of the traditional products and techniques which lay the groundwork for most cooking, while supporters argue that the modernist way – with its foams, gels, and liquid nitrogen – is necessary for the evolution of the culinary arts. At a first look, this might seem like one of those small debates that can be found within any discipline. A closer look, however, reveals that this is more than your average debate between progressives and conservatives. In fact, it is larger; it is a dichotomy between two different philosophies about food. As such, picking a side may have become a necessary choice facing many cooks today, including me. After interning at Alicia, one question does not leave me alone. Which way do I prefer?

For centuries, flavor was the by far most important component of food. While sight, smell and other senses were considered, Ferran Adria was the first one who really started to investigate and play with new dimensions of food and cooking. Out of his work and philosophy grew the idea of using textures as a tool to go beyond the conventional, to remove any boundaries for the creative process. Today, texturizer agents and various techniques spearheaded by El Bulli allow chefs to make foams, gels, and emulsions like never before.  Observing the modernist evolution, more traditional cooks have argued that this leads to a disregard of the products, the ingredients, from which the food is made. For instance, why make a mimetic banana if you already have a great banana?

While this question is certainly important, it can easily be misleading, as it can distort the underlying idea behind the dish – that is, the process and philosophy whence it came. In fact, it can easily create a picture of the modernist cook as one who uses no product at all – a desperate alchemist who tries to take on the role of god. If this assumption is taken as true, the modernist cook certainly disregards the product. But this is a logical leap. In one of his 12 commandments, Ferran Adria eloquently describes why, “although the characteristics of the products may be modified (temperature, texture, shape, etc.), the aim is always to preserve the purity of their original taste.” This is a shared truth among cooks, modern and traditional. The mimetic banana, for instance, is derived from a product, and it’s simply a concept, not the respect for the product, that has been played with. The respect remains the same, but the outcome different. As a result, this case appears to me as a choice not between respect and disrespect, but as a choice regarding the creative process and its final outcome.

Yet, more traditional people might question why this development is necessary, why one wants to push boundaries when we have so much to gain from the traditional? Why not investigate and elaborate on the culinary heritage, why not try to perfect the techniques and recipes that we have worked on for so long? The answer is as simple as the question. Modernist techniques and ideas have allowed chefs to not only perfect traditional dishes, but also to reinvent, play with, and perfect the concepts and original ideas behind these dishes. Playing with concepts has become the language of modern cooking, and it has in all truth allowed chefs to really break boundaries, to move beyond the conventional. It has given chefs a powerful tool they can utilize to play with sensations, expectations, and emotions; it has taken cooking and food to a whole new level, an unchartered territory where unfettered creativity, not conformity to the past, is the beacon of development. In many ways, it has given chefs the opportunity to present complexity in simplicity, to carefully blend the profound and subtle.

Ferran Adria introduced a whole new way of thinking about food, he opened the eyes of many people, including me, which allowed these people to see and explore things they would never have otherwise. As a result, cooking itself has moved forward, the landscape has changed. Nonetheless, the rapid development has not ungratefully cast aside the rich culinary heritage and traditions that made this evolution possible in the first place. The Modernist Cuisine books standing as a great example, a more scientific and technological – that is, modernist – approach to cooking can help us really understand not only that certain things happen, but also why and how they happen, on several levels. Even though some people might think otherwise, there is no doubt that this development is as beautiful as it is productive. As such, the debate might not be as polarized as it first appears. The modernist and traditional are inevitably intertwined, although neither side wants to admit it. Knowing this is the key to finding the middle ground. I am glad to be in between.

Culinary progressives and conservatives may not agree on many things, but one agreed upon truth is that food is a language. For most people, food is a way to deliver emotions and feelings; it is a way to bring people together, regardless of their background. It is a way of communicating. Given this, the work of modernist cooks, with Ferran Adria at the forefront, has done for the culinary arts what Shakespeare did for the English language. Similar to Shakespeare, Ferran Adria has added new vocabulary to the language of food. He has added new words and phrases which people can use to express themselves in new and different ways. In sum, Ferran has added a rich vocabulary to the language of food, but has not invented an entirely new language.

Without doubt, the modernist revolution has changed the language of food, both in writing and speaking, forever. Yet, this evolution has not made what was previously known, unknown. Languages are constantly evolving, absorbing new influences while resisting changes that are too sudden. In many ways, languages are bodies of careful change, yet memorabilia of history – within a language, the past and present are closer than time itself suggests. After 6 weeks in Spain, I am glad to have learned some of the vocabulary added relatively recently to the constantly evolving language. I am glad I know words and grammar that many people do not know. But where does this leave me? Do I have to make a decision? After interning at Alicia, I am glad to know that the only decision I have to make is to not pick a side the either-or debate between the modern and traditional. If I do, I risk becoming narrow-minded. As a matter of fact, I risk stopping my own development, because I am evolving, just like the language of food itself.

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2 Responses to “Between modern and traditional: do I have to make a decision?”

  1. vayumi July 31, 2012 at 9:56 PM #

    Reblogged this on FireBellies and commented:

    Check it out…

  2. jaume August 1, 2012 at 8:20 AM #

    There is no decision to take Vayu, both, modern and traditional are necessary and must live together. A chef can’t be a chef with traditional background. And then, can be a good chef or a bad chef, no matter his style of cuisine.
    Why to keep painting if we have digital photography? Human beans allways need to express ourselves in a creative way.
    Or was not creativity doing the first omelette or the first consomé?

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