Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Bad Science or Bad Cooking?

Several days ago a rather snarky review, "When Bad Science Meets Good Food," of a Buenos Aires restaurant, La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar, appeared on the Atlantic Food Channel website. La Vineria's chef, Alejandro Dijilio, is one of the ever-increasing number of chefs who have a stage at El Bulli on their resume and have gone out to colonize the world with their own versions of contemporary cooking (or, as it's more frequently, if inaccurately, called, "molecular gastronomy"). I've not been to the restaurant, so I can't say whether the food is good, bad or indifferent. But what I found objectionable was the tone of the review, which seemed to criticize not so much the food, or the execution, but rather the entire genre of "molecular gastronomy," as if it - and not bad cooking - were to blame for a dissatisfying meal.

Indeed, the review starts off:
Behold, the Molecular Gastronomist! Marvel as he whips, gels, foams, and deconstructs your food, much as he would his own hair. Admire his sullen expression as he leans over, tweezers in hand, to artfully apply grains of black pepper and dehydrated orange peel to your spoonful of Jellied Olive Oil and White Truffle Powder. And soldier on when you realize that all you are eating, really, is a slightly-gelatinous bit of olive oil, whose concentration mutes all the other flavors around it, and reminds you of forced dosages of cough medicine as a child.
After much more of the same snarkiness (in which the chef is dubbed "McG", the author claims that "every McG must have at least fourteen thousand courses on their menu," etc.), the author concludes with a question:
Why can't more chefs just serve food that is simply comforting, and comfortingly simple? Not all of you are meant to paint a canvas on the plate.
To which I responded with a question of my own:

Why is this about "molecular gastronomy" and not about bad cooking? There are plenty of lousy restaurants making "traditional" food, but the reaction when someone experiences one is not "Why aren't they using an immersion circulator and a pacojet?"

Bad execution is just that, and there is no culinary genre that is immune to it. The lesson, if there is one, is that a stage at El Bulli (or any other highly regarded restaurant) does not of itself make someone a great chef - a lesson I've seen demonstrated several times.

The author has now responded, and perhaps we're not so far off after all. He now says:

What concerns me is chefs diving into "molecular gastronomy" and ignoring what they do well. I have nothing against the movement. ... But there is a fad as well, a bandwagon of McGs, and it is unfortunate to see a good chef hop on it without seeming to realize where he's going.
No doubt, contemporary techniques and ingredients will not improve a chef that doesn't have solid fundamentals. In addition, a chef without a clear vision, and the talent to realize it, will rarely create a great meal regardless of the genre in which they choose to operate. But I think it's crucial to distinguish these individual failures from the genre itself. If I have a bad bowl of pasta, I don't castigate the entire body of Italian cuisine. And if I have a bad meal from someone working in the arena of "molecular gastronomy" - it's just bad cooking.

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