What happens when three of the world's most advanced culinary minds get together in front of a crowd of 300 breathlessly attentive invited foodies to talk about "Ideas of Today, Foods of Tomorrow"? Between Ferran Adrià's professorial dissertation attempting to define exactly what kind of experience we are talking about (delivered through an interpreter), Juan Mari Arzak's pithy comments on some of the admittedly space-alien stuff going on around him and José Andrés' impassioned if somewhat sketchy defense of avant-garde cuisine, you could leave the gathering in Los Angeles scratching your head.
Most of the crowd, however, appeared to be simply awestruck. And why not? Adrià's restaurant outside Barcelona, El Bulli, is so exclusive and reservations so hard to come by fewer than 10 percent of those who inquire actually get to eat there. His food, which embraces techniques and ideas that come out of the chef's winter laboratory, has influenced today's cuisine as profoundly as any chef ever has in his his day. Arzak's restaurant in San Sebastián refined hearty Basque cuisine into something ethereal, and in the process drew the world's attention to Spain. Andrés, who credits Adrià as a mentor, has been tireless in introducing these modern ideas in America, most prominently at his Beverly Hills restaurant, The Bazaar. The discussion took place a few feet from it in the SLS Hotel's ballroom.
These guys are giants. They think at a level that aims squarely at pushing cuisine forward, although they took pains to point out that everything they do is rooted somewhere in tradition.
Arzak made the point most succinctly when he said, "I don't want to happen to cuisine what's happened with modern music. If you are in a disco in Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo or San Sebastián, it all sounds the same. I believe you have to be able to tell where you are."
Adrià concluded his initial presention by saying that he pursues a cuisine of "emotion, provocation, humor, experimentation and reflection, to create an experience, not simply to eat. In life we separate the cowards from the non-cowards. Those who want to live experiences are the non-cowards."
Andrés showed a brief video to demonstrate what his avant-garde cooking actually does. The memory of almond and cheese snacks that his mother often served when he was a child led him to create a little canapé using modern techniques. First he blends Marcona almonds, freshly toasted in oil, with cream to make smooth puree and makes ice cream from it in a Paco Jet (a machine that converts it to ice cream in a few minutes). Then he dips a small ladle in liquid nitrogen so that when it is pressed into the ice cream it emerges with a hard-frozen layer of the almond cream attached. This pops off to make a little cup in which he can squirt a cloud of foam made from Cabrales (a blue cheese from Spain), topped with a drizzle of passion fruit syrup and a bit of freshly grated almond.
It's the same pure ingredients as his mother's snack, it has the same taste, but it is reinvented with new textures, a way for a chef to put his own stamp on a familiar food combination.
There was a subtext to Andrés' remarks, and a purpose to doing this event in Los Angeles. In December, Andrés and L.A. Weekly restaurant critic Jonathan Gold carried on a somewhat snippy tweet war on Twitter over the value of avant-garde techniques such as these. Arzak and Adrià had come to Las Vegas to visit with their longtime friend and onetime student as he opened two restaurants there, and stayed on to see The Bazaar and enjoy a few extra days in Los Angeles. They were available, and willing.
Questions from the audience elicited some unrelated but useful bits of information.
Adrià is working on a book based on the staff dinners served, at a maximum cost of $3 per person, at El Bulli. "We don't have much time to feed everyone, and it struck me that this is a way to make a fast food at home, using what we make at the restaurant.
Arzak has this advice for home cooks: Sit down and make a list of all the dishes you know how to cook. "Then, when you are trying to think of what to make for dinner, you can pick from maybe 20 dishes. Otherwise we only think of five."
Now that's an idea we can all use. Might not be avant-garde, but guaranteed it will help us eat better.
Hoyt Hill Jr — Nashville, TN — January 6, 2011 2:22am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 6, 2011 2:38am ET
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