The Thrill of the Gel Is Gone


Photo by Sektormedia/Flickr CC

In January, Grant Achatz attended Madrid Fusion, the annual gastronomical congress of the world's top chefs. This is part three of Achatz's report from Madrid. Read part one and part two. The fourth and final installment will run Friday, March 20. Three days later the congress was drawing to a close, and over 50 chefs from all over the world had taken their turn onstage. I couldn't help but feel a bit empty. Where were the culinary fireworks? The introduction to the next ingredient that was going to enable us to turn oil into powder, serve a gelled liquid hot, or thicken an infusion by simply blending in a magical white substance? Where were the explanations of new techniques? Like the ones used to create raviolis with skins made from themselves, making pasta from stock, and aerating food to produce sponge-like textures? Surely someone was ready with the next method of changing texture and form, like the liquid nitrogen that became popular in the professional kitchen five years ago? Where were the equivalents to the freeze-drying machines? Centrifuges? Rotary evaporators? Vacuum sealers?

The lack of inspiration led me to compare this congress to the previous years. As I continued to write the laundry list of ideas that weren't present at this year's congress, the defining elements of the genre of modern cooking -- let's call it molecular gastronomy, just to fuel the fire -- became more and more clear. What also became clear is that it is tough to label, name, or define anything without establishing its starting and ending points.

This was a revelation for the modern chef. Suddenly we had a seemingly endless source of inspiration at our disposal.

It is premature to me to declare the end of this cooking style, or even the micro pocket of creative focus contained within it. It is also incredibly presumptuous for me declare anything about the identity of fine cooking -- even though it seems the practitioners are the most qualified to do so, because of their intimate knowledge of the subject. Historically, it has always been the scholars, the public, and the media who have had the responsibility to describe the precise meaning, characteristics, and bookends of a period, whether it is in the arts, politics, industry or otherwise.

So rather than speak for everyone in the gastronomic universe, I will explain what is going on in my head and in my restaurant in terms of the shifting of thought processes, frustrations we have with the creative avenues of the past eight years, and how all of this is encouraging us to look at other ways to create new paths to help us evolve and innovate.

When I look closely at the creative paths that have catapulted modern cooking into popularity and controversy in recent times, a few seem to have become the defining elements. The most popular seems to be looking to industrial mass food production for inspiration. Large companies specializing in packaged ready-to-eat foods, candies, cereals, and beverages spend millions of dollars on research and development each year to improve or develop new products. They look to science to help them do anything from suspending beads of gel in a sweet beverage to creating an edible veneer to help seasoning adhere to chicken breasts to figuring out a way to pack a powerful breath-freshening burst of mint in a strip of film smaller than a postage stamp only to have it disappear as soon as it hits your tongue.

As consumers we thrive on these innovative products. I would say we not only accept but in fact demand them with our hard-earned paychecks. With some catchy marketing and a creative slant, companies fulfill the desires of the public while generating tons of money.

People frequently ask me,"Where do you come up with stuff?" or "How did you think of that?" My answer is always the same. My passion is cooking and food. Everything I experience I relates back to those two things. So when I buy a pack of gum at the supermarket that has a liquid center of gel, I wonder how it was produced and if I can create a similar sensation at Alinea. I am certainly not the only one who thinks this way, and it is obvious to me that this is how the use of hydrocolloids, modified starches, gums, pectin, and other such ingredients found their way into the professional chef's kitchen.

This was a revelation for the modern chef. Suddenly we had a seemingly endless source of inspiration at our disposal. We had a pantry of ingredients that could do the impossible, transforming ingredients in ways never before possible.

It was difficult to see this at the time, but the breadth of this wave was quite narrow. When you really look at the techniques critically, the results are all versions of textural transformation involving liquids.

But what happens when the wow factor of a hot gelatin wears off? Or the mystery of how a liquid creates a wrapper from itself, its walls gelling to hold the still aqueous center inside? We roll into variations of themes. Flavors of self-encapsulations run the gamut from sweet to savory and back, from being the stand-alone focus of a dish to merely a hidden component. Textural manipulations are manipulated; new "raviolis" are deep-fried, carbonated, and dehydrated. But once the iterations and the extensions have been explored to their peak, creativity slows and eventually stops, until a new source of inspiration is found -- the source I kept waiting for in Madrid.