Mad as a platter

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 June, 2012, 12:00am


Successful chefs have much in common with successful artists, not least that their talents are sometimes over-venerated.

Both benefit from the emperor's-new-clothes syndrome. When they produce work that is absurd, people are often reluctant to say so for fear of being thought ignorant or foolish. As a result, we overpraise the pretentious, the meretricious and the self-aggrandising. Nowhere has this been truer than in the now 20-odd-year-old field of 'molecular gastronomy'. It is time to reassert a sense of proportion.

As one innocent was recently heard to inquire: 'Do they call it molecular gastronomy because the portions are so small?'

It is probably no coincidence that Damien Hirst's dead animals in formaldehyde and Heston Blumenthal's bacon and egg ice cream are products of the same era.

An unhappy convergence has taken place in the kitchen between the techniques of the laboratory workbench and the pretension of Charles Saatchi's art collection.

Many of the people who visit the Saatchi Gallery in Britain, and take it seriously, probably like to eat at The Fat Duck, Blumenthal's restaurant in Bray, Britain. Both showcase creations that are provocative, then repetitive and, ultimately, boring.

Worse is the omnipresence of the architects of this travesty in the media. Is there no escape from Blumenthal? Here he is, recreating a medieval banquet, or a menu that might have been served on the Titanic. Here are his 1,550 clips on YouTube.

Here he is again in a newspaper, expounding his 'philosophy', promoting yet another book or explaining why he temporarily closed The Fat Duck in 2009 when hundreds of his diners became ill.

Blumenthal, Ferran Adria and Thomas Keller - three leading lights of what has become known as 'molecular gastronomy' - do not like that label, a point they made clear in a breathtakingly self-important joint 'Statement on the New Cookery' issued in 2006.

'The term molecular gastronomy does not describe our cooking or, indeed, any style of cooking,' they pronounced. Well, if the toque fits.

The trio identified the elements that most of us think define their cooking to assure us that really they don't. 'We do not pursue novelty for its own sake,' they proclaim.

Perish the thought. What about Blumenthal's sardine on toast sorbet and snail porridge?

'We may use modern thickeners, sugar substitutes, enzymes, liquid nitrogen, sous-vide, dehydration and other non-traditional means,' they state, 'but these do not define our cooking.'

They are also quite clear about the elevation of their calling. These men are not cooks; they are artists.

'The act of eating engages all the senses as well as the mind. Preparing and serving food could, therefore, be the most complex and comprehensive of the performing arts,' they add, so far as I can tell without a trace of irony.

That must mean Blumenthal's The Sound of the Sea - a seafood medley which you consume while listening to ambient sounds recorded on a beach - is superior to Shakespeare or Mozart.

We hear less from Adria, although it's probably only because he doesn't speak much English.

When he closed El Bulli in Spain, its website said it was because it had 'completed its journey as a restaurant'. It might have been because although it had about 250 applications for every seat at an average price of more than Euro200 (HK$1,960), it still ran at a loss.

There is a conservatism to Hong Kong's dining scene which has kept the worst excesses of molecular gastronomy at bay. Bo Innovation's Alvin Leung has taken Adria to heart, and Uwe Opocensky served some time at El Bulli. But while his menu at the Mandarin Grill has its surprises, he avoids the extreme and outlandish, and the portions are reasonable.

Pierre Gagnaire, Blumenthal, Adria and others have undoubtedly explored new territory. However, too many have taken every hare-brained recipe and pronouncement far more seriously than warranted.

But despite the self-serving pomposity of their joint statement, Adria, Blumenthal, and Keller were not wrong in everything they said.

'The world's culinary traditions are collective, cumulative inventions, a heritage created by hundreds of generations of cooks. Tradition is the base which all cooks who aspire to excellence must know and master. Our approach builds on the best that tradition has to offer ... We respect our rich history and attempt to play a small part in the history of tomorrow.'

The likely significance in that history for most of the exponents of molecular gastronomy, I suspect, is as a footnote.

Some techniques pioneered by chemist Herve This with Gagnaire, and by Adria at El Bulli will no doubt remain in the repertoires of many.

But I suspect Blumenthal's idea of donning headphones to listen to digitally sampled seagulls will be quietly forgotten, as will be most of the artists in the Saatchi Gallery. Only time will tell.

These chefs, of course, are artists, too. Adria, arguably, is molecular gastronomy's Picasso. Most of the rest are just Pollocks.