Letter from the Editor: The Rise of Experimental Chefs in New York and Chicago Vol: 4

Antoinette Bruno
Antoinette Bruno, CEO and Editor-in-Chief

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.

In 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!

Paul 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.

And 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.

While 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 bacalao 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.

Experimentation 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.

An 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.

Antoinette Bruno