Has Cuisine Reached its Postmodern Moment?

by Dwight Furrow

Alinea-7editedPerhaps the most important development in cuisine over the last 20 years has been the emergence of what has come to be known as modernist cuisine. Originally referred to as "molecular gastronomy", it is a form of cooking that uses materials and techniques first employed in the food industry to create new dishes and taste sensations. Its proponents now prefer to call it "modernist cuisine" because they view themselves as an avant-garde dedicated to revolutionizing traditional cooking and radically transforming the emotional and sensory dimensions of eating. In traditional cuisine, diners expect what is familiar and the chef delivers. Modernist chefs aim to create novel foods that provoke a reaction, disrupting expectations and forcing diners to revise their conception of what is possible.

As Nathan Mhyrvold, the most prominent theoretician of the movement and author of the cookbook Modernist Cuisine writes:

This movement is the true intellectual heir to Modernism, and for this reason I think it should be called Modernist cuisine. It shares a number of key characteristics with Modernism. A small avant-garde seeks to overthrow the establishment rules. Change and novelty are valued both as a tool for reforming the intellectually bankrupt rules of the past and as a virtue unto themselves. The Modernist kitchen could easily adopt the command made decades earlier by Ezra Pound to "Make It New!" The creative process is informed by theory and deliberate conceptualizing—these chefs explicitly seek to confront diners and have a dialogue with them. Finally, these chefs are distinctly and self-consciously modern in their outlook, taking whatever technology is available to push forward the realm of the possible.

Thus, dishes such as cocktails that look like marshmallows, egg and bacon ice cream, and orange, flower-shaped lollipops that taste like octopus are among the stranger-than-fiction concoctions these techniques make possible. The rap against modernist cuisine is that it's idiosyncrasy for its own sake, dishes that are interesting without being satisfying, pleasing to the chef who can display virtuosity but not necessarily to the diner who is confronted with unfamiliar mash-ups of incongruous flavors. Thus, there are real questions about whether such cooking will secure a sufficiently large audience to make it viable.

In the U.S. restaurant world, the most prominent practitioner of modernist cuisine has been Grant Achatz of Chicago's Alinea. Located in a utterly non-descript building in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, Alinea has been at the top of best restaurant lists for the 12 years it has been in existence. It earned its 3rd Michelin star in 2010, is consistently rated in the top 20 restaurants in the world on S. Pelligrino's top 50 list (although it fell to 21 this year) and is widely recognized by other publications as the best restaurant in the U.S. Thus, checking in with Alinea is not a bad way of taking the pulse of modernist cooking. Is it living up to the ideals expressed in Mhyrvold's manifesto? This is the question I posed when anticipating a much coveted reservation recently.

At Alinea, instead of reservations, you now purchase tickets of which there are several types available. For the Gallery menu downstairs there are two 16-18 course seatings each night which include a communal introductory course, a visit to the kitchen while the dining room is transformed into more private spaces, and lots of emotion-invoking aroma and musical theatrics to accompany the food. [The cost is around $300 per person]. Also downstairs, there is a single group table enclosed in a glass box with a view of the kitchen that could be reserved only for groups at least when I was securing my reservation. [$385 per person]. And then there is the Salon upstairs which offers a paired-down menu of 10 courses similar to the Gallery menu but with fewer theatrics, for about $200 per person depending on what time in the evening you want the reservation.]]

The tickets are difficult but not impossible to acquire if your timing is right. Tickets for the upcoming month were released on the 15th of the current month at 10:00 A.M. If you're at your computer at the appointed time and have a generous range of acceptable dates and times, you will likely get a suitable reservation. Unfortunately, even with my good timing I could not get a reservation in the Gallery during the short window of time allotted for our visit to Chicago. (I suspect VIP's had the opportunity to book before tickets were available to the public since many slots were already filled at 10:00 A.M.)Thus, I had to settle for the Salon reservation and opted for their standard wine pairing.

In 2016, Alinea was at the top of its game when Achatz decided to close for several months to remodel the restaurant and retool the menu. After all, if your entire reason to exist is to be on the cutting edge of culinary art, stale familiarity is the kiss of death. Alinea is not really a restaurant. It's performance art and artists are in the business of creating the new. The decision to revitalize seems inevitable when contextualized as a move within an art world. As a practitioner of modernist cuisine, Chef Achatz has no tradition to which he's beholden, no constraints other than the outer limits of what his patrons will accept, and he has an obligation to test those limits. At Alinea diners have no choices; you put yourself in the hands of a chef who has always relished disrupting expectations and challenging assumptions. Like a well-curated art museum, at Alinea it's the allure of surprise and fascination that brings success. In that light, the logic of shutting down for several months in order to create new experiences seems unassailable.

The Postmodern Moment

To my mind, the menu was successful, interesting and absolutely delicious, yet I do think there is some retrenchment occurring with regard to the ideals of modernist cooking articulated by Mhyrvold. I had never before dined at Alinea so I can't speak to earlier menus. But in recent interviews, Achatz claims that in the reinvented version there is plenty of molecular gastronomy going on but it is disguised with ingredients appearing in their natural form with less manipulation than in its previous incarnation. Some of the dishes were in fact quite simple in appearance although flavor complexity was always present. Achatz's current style is to play with form to achieve the unexpected but leave the content intact. There was less flash than I expected, less eye candy and more focused, robust flavor and clarity.

The complaint that modernist cooking is idiosyncratic innovation for its own sake arises because this form of cooking can be risky since part of the point is to flout diners' expectations. But I found nothing that was pushing the envelope of conventional taste at Alinea. There were no dishes that failed, and none seemed just odd with no aesthetic purpose behind them except novelty. In fact, the big surprise was how traditional the flavor combinations were. Each course consisted of flavors typically found together in the region of the world from which the dish originated, but always with a twist that made the dish seem innovative. There was fusion cooking in most courses in that dishes combined elements of Spanish or French cuisine with Japanese or Chinese accents. But such combinations are nothing new; modern fusion cuisine has been around since the 1980's and is hardly revolutionary. At Alinea, there seemed to be a very conscious attempt to root dishes in long-standing traditions while quoting generously from alternative cuisines.

The other feature of the meal that stood out is how weightless and delicate each dish felt. The bold, often earthy flavors were conditioned by ethereal textures, tender, melting, and ever evolving in the mouth. In almost every dish, flavor contrast was achieved through the judicious use of fruit that contributed to the impression of buoyancy. In summary, the meal was fun, the cooking and presentation creative, and above all it was delicious. But "intellectually challenging", a "confrontation" "pushing forward the realm of the possible" not so much. Modernism in the arts began to recede when the disruptive, challenging works of the early 20th Century began to adorn corporate board rooms, its radical pretensions normalized by an art market only to happy to commodify the revolution. It was replaced by an art world willing to recycle traditions, explore context, and generate an endless diversity of styles. Perhaps a similar fate has befallen modernist cuisine, although this is only one data point. Alinea feels much more like postmodern pastiche than a modernist avant-garde.

Of course, as would be expected in the restaurant business, the commodity form of postmodernism disrupts modernist pretensions as well. In interviews with the press, Achatz has said that he's interested in the capacity of food to evoke emotion. He wants diners to feel surprised, intrigued, nostalgic, exhilarated, puzzled, etc. That is all well and good. But food is ephemeral, not a stable object like a painting but an object that is consumed, disappearing relatively soon after it appears. Grasping its point crucially depends on memory and reflection. If we just eat without thinking, without mindful attention, the experience is gone before we can fully understand it. The problem with our meal at Alinea was that it felt rushed. We barely finished a course before the dishes were whisked away and a new course appeared on the table. We had little time to discuss the dishes, ponder the feelings they evoked, or think about their meaning. The experience was like standing before a painting in an art gallery and being told you had only a few minutes to enjoy it before moving on. This is in contrast to tasting menus I've experienced in Europe where the pace is more leisurely. I get that restaurants need to turn tables to make money. But if chefs such as Achatz are serious about food being art, restaurants must provide the opportunity for reflection on what you're eating. Savoring happens not only when the dish is in front of you but afterwards when memory and thought performs the crucial task of clarifying feelings, sorting though confusion and contradiction, and synthesizing random thoughts.

Instead of self-conscious radicalism and innovation it seems to me what Achatz is highlighting is an emotional connection with food. As noted above, Achatz has said that he's interested in the capacity of food to evoke emotion. He wants diners to feel surprised, intrigued, nostalgic, exhilarated, puzzled, etc. If you make yourself available for the emotional resonance of the dishes, they do acquire added meaning. If Achatz succeeds at making us more aware of the subtle almost imperceptible feeling states that are continually regulating conscious experience and are expressed by the food we eat, he will have greatly expanded our enjoyment of food and life. So in the end I think Alinea deserves its reputation. The dishes are thoughtfully conceived and just delicious. Buoyancy, a delight in surprise, emotional resonance, a healthy respect for tradition, and a sensibility for how Asian and European flavors and textures can be combined define Achatz's current cooking style. Whether we call it "modern" or "postmodern" doesn't matter much.

The modernist moment in cuisine was late in coming and if my observation of a retrenchment is right it was short lived although who knows what these mad cooks have in mind to disrupt things in the future. It is in the nature of cuisine that it will oscillate between avant-garde phases and retrenchment since familiarity and comfort are culinary values that are likely to persist alongside our desire for difference and adventure.

If you wish your appetite to be stimulated, here is a blow-by-blow account of our meal with commentary where appropriate:

Two amuse buches led off the proceedings. The first was a spear of romaine lettuce filled with avocado and garlic flowers, the second a banana pancake perched on a lime and filled with Osetra caviar. The contrast between the aggressive spear and the soft, comforting avocado had some emotional resonance. The caviar and pancake was paired with a textured, bready Bollinger Brut Rosé Champagne—the only emotion it evoked was pure delight at the classic, perfect pairing.

The first main course was one of the highlights of the evening. A rich, unctuous, umami-infused seafood and caramelized tomato broth was poured into a bowl containing a gelatin sheet of langoustine that formed a noodle when hydrated and then slowly melted into the broth. Called bouillabaisse on the menu, this bold, intensely flavored broth was accompanied by seaweed encrusted nori wrapped around a filling of creamy, spicy rouille, a chile and saffron sauce traditionally served with bouillabaisse in the the South of France. A melding of Asian and French flavors, the presentation was dark in color, the flavors deep and impenetrable like the sea, set off by the cheerful, encouraging rouille. This was paired with a Rouilly Premier Crus (Chardonnay),a region in the south of Burgundy.

Alinea-8editedNext up was one of the reversals for which Achatz is famous. The dish is called Bocadillo which is the name of a Spanish sandwich often filled with jamon and cheese. In this case, the gossamer-like crisps forming the sandwich contained the flavors of jamon and cheese; the filling was essentially a viscous, liquid bread (pictured above). The large fruit basket in front of us was drizzled with liquid nitrogen, the "smoke" pouring forth laced with aromas of orange, mingling with a deconstructed gazpacho salad of heirloom tomatoes, frozen sherry and orange, marcona almonds and gooseberries (salad not pictured). As noted above, these are all traditional flavors commonly found together but radically transformed. It was paired with a Rhyme Vermentino from Carneros. Alinea-6edited

Our trip to Spain was then erased by a pan-Asia dish with Thai and Japanese inflections. A coconut broth surrounds a simple piece of black bass and mussels obscured by a garden of flowers, passion fruit, grapes, kaffir lime leaf, and dehydrated yuzu accompanied by compressed melon. An explosion of flavors and textures, the briny, plump fleshiness of the seafood was continually foiled by sweet fruit. The relentlessly, sunny joy of this dish was tempered by the mysterious black pot of flames set on the table as a centerpiece without explanation. Only a Riesling would pair with this dish—a lovely Weingut Brundlmayer "Heiligenstein" from Kamptal Austria.

Alinea-lynn-4editedThis visually gorgeous dish was entitled Glass, referring to the stunningly-hued sheets of blueberry blanketing earthy, maitake mushooms and foie gras, in a sauce inflected with the Chinese tea, lapsang souchong. Once again, Achatz achieves a seamless marriage of French and Asian flavors with fruit providing acid and sweetness to give the dish a lifted, delicate countenance, an impression encouraged by the cool-climate, acid-bomb Syrah by Peay from Sonoma Coast.

And now we finally discover the reason for that mysterious burning pot in the middle of the table. It contains a bed of salt concealing a buried potato. Just a potato, but cooked sous vide for 12 hrs. and kept warm by the burning embers. After digging out the potato, the waiter crushes and mixes it with butter, crème fraiche and black truffle puree. This is rich enough to buy a yacht. One might complain about being served a mere spud but this was a soul-stirring spud, the humble potato proudly dressed to the nines by the velvet truffle.

Alinea-lynn-2editedThe last savory dish may be the best single dish I have ever eaten. And it was quite simple. Wood-smoked veal cheeks in a coating of fried wild rice—very Midwestern—and served with a puree of vanilla flavored beef jerky, pineapple and hearts of palm. The contrast between the exterior of crunchy rice and the melting, almost fluid, yet deeply concentrated veal was one of those magical moments of sheer beauty, a fitting end to the savory portion of the meal. These last two dishes were paired with the standard but always reliable Argiano Brunello.

Alinea-1-editFor me desserts are an after thought. The sweet potato, chocolate, miso dish called Rock was sweet, crunchy, and gooey, great fun even if desserts aren't your thing. And finally the dish called Nostalgia was essentially bubblegum ice cream and cake. Even as a kid I wasn't a huge bubblegum fan so this didn't resonate. But that's just me.

Finally, the only dish that survived from the earlier incarnation of Alinea was the grape-flavored balloon filled with helium that ends the meal. When eaten it does the helium thing to your voice. When I read about this years ago it sounded gimmicky—it was.

For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution.