The Rise of Experimental Chefs in New York and Chicago
StarChefs.com has seen a lot change in the 11 years
that we’ve been serving the chef community. One of the most
exciting developments has been the popularization of new approaches
to food like avant garde cuisine and molecular gastronomy, which
have altered fine dining for chefs and gourmands worldwide.
Our International Chefs Congress showcased the
contrasting styles that characterize today’s culinary world
by bringing together some of the chefs who are recognized as international
symbols of this movement – Albert Adrià, Wylie Dufresne,
and Davide Scabin, to name a few – as well as those who focus
on sustainability, minimal embellishment of ingredients, offal,
traditional cuisine and classic techniques. Our 2005 Chicago Rising
Stars and our 2006 New York Rising Stars ran a similar gamut, including
chefs both classic and experimental who re-conceptualize and reconstruct
our notions of food.
Chicago and New York, some of these young chefs have established
themselves as leaders of this country’s experimental food
movement, carrying the torch with artful, playful cuisine. They
deserve recognition for the risky ways in which they meld tradition
and innovation in the kitchen, in the dining room, and on the plate.
But as those in the culinary industry well know, this fusion is
not always seamless; the line between innovation and trying too
hard for innovation's sake is a difficult one to walk. When balance
is achieved, the results can be breathtaking!
Liebrandt is a true molecular gastronomist, breaking down misconceptions,
exploring new techniques and tools, and meticulously recording his
efforts. A meal under the direction of Liebrandt was one of the
most exciting culinary experiences in New York, and a perfect example
of experimental food succeeding in a world-class restaurant setting…or
so we thought. The recent demise of Gilt made waves throughout
New York, leaving everyone to wonder how a restaurant with superb
food, service and design could fail.
so we ask, why did Gilt fail? Was it the location, the
lack of profit, or the massive overhead? And how much should be
pinned on New York diners, who pride themselves on sophisticated
taste; could it be that New York is just not ready for an el
Bulli-esque restaurant of our own? It's worth noting that Wylie
Dufresne’s wd~50, a low-key, yet highly experimental
restaurant has managed to stay in business since 2003. But New York
is not an easy place to thrive. “This is the hardest city
in the world to be creative! It's like running a marathon, or competing
in the Olympics, every single day. Striking a balance--making food
that is creative, playful and, most importantly, delicious, this
is the ultimate goal and the ultimate challenge,” says Liebrandt.
some experiment with scientific and modern techniques, others play
with the familiar: at Stanton Social, Chef Chris Santos’
menu features whimsical twists on classics, like French onion soup
reconstructed as dumplings, and Maine crab cakes re-imagined in
corn dog form. Santos’ cuisine is modern but without cultural
boundaries, and draws from Japanese, Mexican, Eastern European and
French traditions to create a contemporary American menu.
For a contemporary Spanish menu, Chef Alex Ureña
seamlessly integrates a wide range of unusual ingredients with those
of traditional Spanish cuisine. For example, a mousse of baccalao
is paired with grapefruit and yellow currants, while white asparagus,
blood orange, horseradish cream and caviar compliment smoked Arctic
char. The dining experience at Ureña is memorable
for the spectacular presentation and flavor of his multifaceted
compositions. Despite his risk-taking with so many disparate flavors,
somehow Ureña's dishes always seem to work.
has not been limited to New York. In the past few years, Chicago
has become one of the most exciting culinary cities in the US, and
several chefs there have earned reputations for pushing the envelope.
At Moto, the inventor, would-be scientist and chef, Homaro
Cantu, believes so much in experimentation that if he needs
a tool or piece of equipment to create a dish, he devises it himself.
Cantu has made headlines over the last couple of years for everything
from edible paper sushi to aromatic utensils. A dinner at Moto
is a multi-sensory experience, designed to shock and engage. The
result? Some mind-blowing dishes, and some that leave diners confused.
Where Cantu is an inventor, Graham
Elliot Bowles is an artist who literally paints his plates into
works of art. At Avenues at The Peninsula, his
passion and creativity make each plate a beautiful play on textures
and the classical notions of sweet and savory, pairing lobster with
chamomile panna cotta, and heirloom tomato consommé with
basil-infused marshmallows. Bowles hearkens back to childhood with
Rice Krispy treats and Pop Rocks, but pairs them with sophisticated
and sexy ingredients like foie gras.
The opening of Grant Achatz’s Alinea
in Chicago was one of the most anticipated in American restaurant
history. When StarChefs visited Alinea, it was a combination
of Achatz’s savory and Alex Stupak’s pastry dishes that
made the experience amazing. Stupak has recently come to New York,
replacing Sam Mason at wd~50; a fitting position for a
pastry chef who believes that creativity comes from inventing new
techniques, and whose desserts are informed by the exploration of
science and chemistry. As for Sam Mason, we look forward to his
joining the ranks of pastry chefs opening their own restaurants
in the upcoming months. The same goes for Pichet Ong, formerly of
Spice Market, who is currently at work opening P*Ong,
a venue for the imaginative desserts, small plates and cocktails
inspired by his pastry background. We expect both restaurants to
challenge our concept of sweet and savory, appearance and shape,
dinner and dessert.
example of a successful dessert bar – and an inspiration for
pastry chefs no longer content to be just at the end of the menu–
is Will Goldfarb’s, Room 4 Dessert in Soho. Goldfarb
runs both the front and the back of the house, chatting with customers
while plating his elaborate, high-tech, and intelligent desserts
from behind the bar. Goldfarb is playful, and as much scientist
as chef, using his personal line of “Will Powders” which
include sodium alginate, xantham gum, and methylcellulose to achieve
a textural precision and variation of flavors rarely found in desserts.
Whether chefs play with tradition, tastes, textures,
or words, and whether they succeed or fall flat, experimental cuisine
is an invaluable pursuit for the following reason: it takes the
industry to the next level. It challenges diners to rethink and
reconsider what they held as fact. But the price of a successful
revolution is the risk of failure. And all intelligent and creative
chefs must be praised for taking such risks.
This letter touches on only one of the many important
movements within the contemporary culinary world. For diners and
chefs interested in seeing this diversity on stage, there was no
place better to do it than the International Chefs Congress. We
hope you enjoyed celebrating the creativity and variety of chefs
that continue to shape our understanding of food.