Weird Science or High Art?
A Food Debate on Spain’s New Cuisine
By Antoinette Bruno and Amy Tarr

To the average, uninitiated American, creations like “apple caviar” and “liquid ravioli” may sound like theyme ought to be on the menu in NASA’s cafeteria, but if you know a thing or two about haute cuisine or, more appropriately, alta cocina, you’ll recognize these foods as two of the myriad culinary inventions of Ferrán Adriŕ, the world-renowned chef from the Catalan region in Spain. His restaurant El Bulli is only open six months out of the year. And during the remaining months, Ferrán and his team, like the scientists at NASA, work not in a kitchen, but in a corporately sponsored laboratory, devising new recipes for the season ahead.

Ferrán Adrià - who has been deconstructing and reconstructing at El Bulli for 20 years now - is not alone in his endeavors. He is part of a cohort of chefs including Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena, Pedro Subijana, Martin Berasategui, Sergi Arola, Andoni Luis Aduriz, and others who have created a kind of brotherhood of culinary creativity in Spain. Collectively these chefs have put forth the techniques and concepts of the 21st Century and have reputedly dispossessed the French dynasty established over two centuries ago by the likes of Carême and Escoffier.

There is no shortage of press on Ferrán and company. A cover article in The Wine Spectator last June proclaimed that Spain is ''the new source of Europe's most exciting wine and food.'' After a trip to Spain last summer, Arthur Lubow wrote an extensive article on his visit to El Bulli for The New York Times Magazine. And last December, Travel + Leisure published Anya Von Bremzen’s article “Spanish Revolution” about her visit to some of Spain’s most inventive restaurants. Spain’s chefs are media darlings who have been hailed the world over as the new vanguard of the culinary arts. But is their cuisine really substantive or is it merely art for art’s sake? Do these chefs and their creations genuinely deserve accolades or are they being over-hyped? Spain’s chefs have clearly earned the respect of the media, but what about that of other chefs around the world?

On a recent editorial trip to Tuscany this summer, we discovered Italian chefs, like Paolo Lopriore of Il Canto in Siena, who are influenced by their Spanish neighbors. “I'm inspired by chefs like Ferrán and Berasategui, “ he says. “Spain’s chefs have some great techniques.” But Lopriore’s own philosophy on alta cocina guides him in the kitchen. “The Spanish are using a lot of machines to alter their produce. A good chef must work with his hands. If chefs work just with machines, then they are not cooking and allowing the produce to remain the most important part of the dish.”

Likewise Chef Gaetano Trovato of Locanda Arnolfo welcomes the change in perspective that the Spanish chefs have introduced. He cites a continual evolution, rather than revolution, in food – originally led by the French, then the Americans, and now the Spanish. As much as they embrace experimentation, both Trovato and Lopriore agree that taste trumps everything else when it comes to cooking.

Every year for the last five years, Spain has hosted Congreso Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia, an event where the country’s top chefs, along with an elite selection of chefs from around the world, participate in a series of lectures and recipe demonstrations on the newest culinary techniques and concepts. Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 in New York is an up-and-coming chef who participated in the event last November. “What they are doing is very refreshing,” Dufresne said when asked if Spain's chefs are deserving of all the hype.

WD-50, located on the Lower East Side, has only been open a year and a half, but already Dufresne’s cuisine has been compared to Ferrán and Berasetegui. “You can’t compare me to Ferrán – he’s celebrating his 20th anniversary at El Bulli. Compare me to another chef whose restaurant has been around for a year and a half,” says Dufresne, whose training is actually French. In addition to working at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurants - Jo Jo, Jean Georges, and Prime - Dufresne apprenticed in France with renowned chefs Guy Savoy and Marc Meneau.

While the French may have mastered the hierarchical system of apprenticing whereby novice chefs volunteer to work under renowned master chefs, these days chefs of all levels of expertise are knocking at the doors at El Bulli and Spain's other top restaurants for a chance to work in their kitchens. For a couple of weeks chefs work for free in exchange for the opportunity to learn firsthand the vaunted techniques of these revered artisans. At times, the top Spanish chefs may have as many as 50 unpaid apprentices working in their kitchens. Even top executive chefs from the US and other countries volunteer to spend some time in these cocinas.

Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit fame has cooked on different occasions with Ferrán Adrià and Sergi Arola. Samuelsson, whose distinctive cuisine blends Scandinavian, Ethiopian, French and Japanese traditions, participated in Madrid Fusion, a culinary event similar to Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia. “I have learned a lot by being around Spanish chefs. They are sincere and driven by passion and creativity.” Although Samuelsson has a great deal of respect for Spain’s chefs, he is reluctant to single them out as the new masters of the culinary universe. “I think the Spanish chefs are among the leading chefs in the world, but there are also several great chefs from Japan, Australia, US, England, France and even Scandinavia. Today’s great chefs come from everywhere in the world.”

A palette for your palate?
“What’s so special about Spain’s alta cocina?” you may ask. Some of the Spanish creations are downright goofy. Arthur Lubow describes one of the dishes he was served at El Bulli – “an array of seven warm gelatin blocks that resembled watercolor paints, each a vivid hue that proved to be a pure essence of a vegetable.” Why would anyone want to eat a palette of vegetable-flavored gelatin cubes in place of the actual vegetables, picked at their peak and gently cooked to release their natural flavors? The reason is that there is a combination of science and artistry behind that palette. The dish prompts you to experience and contemplate the purity of each flavor.

“Experience” is the operative word in this type of cuisine. Flavors are carefully introduced through mechanisms like smelling napkins that have been spritzed with aromas to enhance the dining experience. Lubow tells of being handed a fresh vanilla bean to smell while eating vanilla-scented whipped potatoes. While these props and devices may seem hokey, they can actually heighten awareness and a willingness to engage all of the senses.

Generally speaking, a dish “works” when it appeals to a combination of the senses, with taste being the foremost. In the case of Spain’s chefs, not all of their dishes work. Sometimes the flavor combinations and textures are off-putting. But if we think about their cuisine in scientific terms, breakthroughs require significant research and development. New discoveries don’t happen overnight. And while many experiments fail, the fraction of the experiments that do succeed represent a giant leap forward because they have the potential to have a major impact on our culture. In the case of Spain’s chefs, the dishes that do “work” incorporate unusual textures, aromas, flavor combinations, and contexts, stimulating the senses, pleasing the palate, and provoking thought. But it takes a lot of experimenting to perfect each dish.

Many American food writers and chefs consider Spain’s chefs the revolutionaries of the culinary world because they embrace experimentation that reflects intellectual depth and insight. They are taking risks in their work, and they are challenging and inspiring other chefs to embrace the artistic principles implied in the term “culinary arts.”

To Boldy Go…
Perhaps for chefs in the US, it’s time to approach food as if they were scientists at NASA and to boldly go where no chef has gone before. However, the lesson to be learned from their Spanish brethren is not simply to impress diners with astonishing preparations or presentations, as Mitchell Davis of The James Beard Foundation warned in direct response to the media frenzy. It’s about stretching the bounds of creativity, with taste as the guiding principle.

But who’s going to pay for this experimentation? Just like NASA and other scientists receive funding to conduct their research, so, too, do chefs require some financial backing. The fact is, for most chefs in the US, a commitment to experimentation in the kitchen is not financially feasible without some sort of funding. Even Ferrán Adrià has business partnerships and consulting relationships with various companies, which help sustain his laboratory. He’s partnered with Borges, the Spanish olive oil company, and Lavazza, the Italian coffee company, to create new products for them.

"Ferrán spent $200,000 last year on research and design," Dufresne commented. "It would be great if more corporations got behind chefs [in the US] because these companies have a lot of technology." In addition to corporate sponsorship, Dufresne suggests that, while American food writers are excited about the Spanish chefs, they don't encourage American chefs to experiment. "It would be nice if we could get more support."

Dufresne is not alone in his desire for support. Many chefs argue that just like the pharmaceutical industry funds scientists, major food corporations in the US should back innovative chefs to allow them to experiment in their kitchens. In addition, these companies could get behind chef collaborations in the US to bring together talented and creative chefs. Through these kinds of relationships and collegial events, chefs would have the opportunity to work in a creative and experimental cooking environment and ultimately raise the bar on America’s cuisine.

What do you think about Spain’s chefs? Are they the leading innovators of the 21st Century? What impact on American cuisine do these chefs have?

Let the debate begin.

The Issue:
Spain’s chefs have been hailed the world over as the new vanguard of the culinary arts. But what’s so special about their alta cocina?

The Summary:
Spain’s chefs are media darlings - do they genuinely deserve accolades or are they being over-hyped? Some of their creations are downright goofy, but these chefs embrace an ethos of experimentation that reflects intellectual depth and insight. Their food is an experience that engages all of the senses. They take risks in their work, and they challenge and inspire other chefs to embrace the artistic principles implied in the term “culinary arts.”

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Related Links:
Wylie Dufresne's Studio Technique
Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia
Madrid Fusion
Forum - Spain's Chefs
Forum - Top Chefs in Spain

Published: September 2004