Metaphysical Food

by Jan

Remember the big pile of bricks in front of the Tate Museum in London in the Seventies? All the tabloids and bourgeoisie scoffed their heads off. In spite of their disgust and bewilderment, this pile of bricks forced people to ask the question: what is art?

When you watch a new clip of a fashion show, you tend to ignore it, because it’s mostly unwearable. You can’t see yourself wearing such items to work, or to a show afterwards. And why pay big bucks to look like a circus clown?

Now a reasonable question to ask is: what is food, or cookery? We have gone back to economical nose-to-tail food, which would ideally be local and seasonal.

But 180 degrees away from the peasanty larder food, we now have laboratory food. It’s easy to envisage toddlers playing with food having not yet been cultured by any notions of a cuisine. And like blank slates, they come up with something like coconut water and coconut milk with dabs of caviar. This is the type of thing they dish up at El Bulli in Spain. It invites cynicism, and causes food writers to roll their eyes and sneer.

In some restaurants, the dishes look quite elemental in presentation. For example, a strawberry dessert which looks like a pile of innids, or a beetroot on a pile of ersatz soil.

These types of dishes look more Dali, the charlatan of floppy clocks, than abstract expression or colour field. According to the food reviewers, it’s edible, even though conceptual.

This molecular gastronomy may or may not be a passing fad. But it has a value in that it forces us to ask the question: what is food? The value of abstract expressionism and colour field paintings forced the viewer to ask a few questions about painting, or the painter. After that, the next period was Pop Art.

Why do they do this? Maybe these painters and chefs are drawing attention to themselves to keep their mugs in the media? Or, maybe they are experimenting to stretch the boundaries of various food combinations and techniques? Or, maybe a way of top shelf restaurants trying to justify another level expensive ponce?

Heston Blumenthal’s Feasts (recently on SBS TV) is very watchable if you are a chef and have an interest in food history. Blumenthal said that the future of cooking lies in the past. He uses myth, history and science to provide us with entertainment. But not only us; as the Tudors didn’t have television, feasts were a form of entertainment. According to drama in Shakespearean times, alchemy is about turning base metals into gold. Looks like Blumenthal is aiming for a culinary form of gold.

Adrian Ferra at El Bulli doesn’t use history as an influence. His style is a lot more conceptual and free form. This is similar to the Cubists at the onset of the Modernist period, who ignored the classical rules and genres dictated by the various academies, schools and salons. They took another look at line, form, colour and perspective, which in turn, forced the viewer to do the same.

Later on, de Kooning and Pollock expressed the emotions and thoughts inside their heads at the time, rather than a realistic representation of the world. And it was labelled Abstract Expressionism.

In their times, they were all written off as charlatans and dilettantes, and probably still are to this day. Sometimes we see a piece of something in a gallery, and wished they had left it in the shed.

Ferra calls his way of doing things “technique-concept cuisine”. The ingredients have no historical relationship with each other in terms of cuisine, eg. He will put coconut milk with caviar, as mentioned before. Or, caviar with green tea and sea anemone. The techniques require a knowledge not only of cookery but also chemistry. He transfigures common foods and textures into uncommon.

Blumenthal, it seems, will do something similar. For example, for the Roman feast he made calves’ brains custard with rose petals and garum. (Garum is fermented fish sauce like Thai Nam Pla, and it was the Roman equivalent of our tomato sauce – they had it with everything.) This combination sounds revolting, and in the research and development stage caused the hapless guinea pigs to wretch. So Blumenthal deep-fried the brains knowing that most people like deep-fried food; it’s a traditional post-pub beer-mop. Needless to say the assembled guinea pigs lapped it all up, whereas they would mostly avoid offal as if it were covered in wriggling maggots. It takes an open mind to contemplate eating offal.

The difference is that Blumenthal’s approach refers to history, which makes his food a lot more interesting. It’s a bit tizzied and tweezered, but it’s fun, and fascinating to watch.