Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Everything Old is New Again

When we were in Spain, I noted on more than one occasion how traditional dishes were the springboard for creative contemporary dishes - a new-age variant of a Gilda pintxo at Akelaŕe, an apertivo of puding de kabrarroka at Arzak. This is hardly a new idea. There's a long line of chefs who play with variations on classics. Here is just one local example from here in Miami - oeufs à la gelée, inspired by Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie. The use of classic combinations in conjunction with contemporary techniques, or alternatively, classic presentations with untraditional ingredients, is often an effective way to mediate the tension between neophilia and neophobia* (or, to skip the fancy lingo, "I want something new" vs. "I want something familiar") inherent in any dining experience.

Indeed, there seems to be plenty of looking backwards these days, with Zagat sponsoring a series of "Vintage Dinners" - including this magnificent offering from Thomas Keller and Jonathan Benno of Per Se from a few months ago (salmon coulibiac; lobster thermidor; veal a la maintenon; grand kugelhof - we're going to party like it's 1899!).

But in a recent post on the new Atlantic Food Channel, Grant Achatz of Alinea (as usual) takes it to another level. In "New Fusion: Making Old Modern," instead of using old recipes as a jumping-off point for the use of new techniques, he talks instead about the incorporation of classic recipes, lock stock and barrel, into contemporary menus, for purposes of contrast and comparison:
Can the juxtaposition of modern and classic preparations within the same menu elevate each by giving a clearer perspective of evolution? Or does it show how little cooking has really changed? Can it fulfill different emotional aspects through the contrasts? Will people even notice? Is it a moment of gastronomic time travel?
Most of these questions probably can't be answered until it's experienced, but they are all good questions to be asking. I've generally always been of the belief that there's a lot less that separates the "modern" and the "classic" than many people seem to think, but perhaps that assumption is off the mark. Are we ready for a Quantum Leap dining experience? And how long until Michael Mina comes up with a "time travel trio"?

*Borrowing a concept from Michael Pollan's great book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma", and redeploying it in a slightly different context.

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