But sometimes the original dish can be used to make a statement. Instead of featuring an updated, re-worked classic on Alinea's opening menu, we included a dish executed verbatim from Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire: number 3970, "Fonds d'Artichauts Cussy," page 478.
As media coverage built anticipation in the months of the restaurant's pre-opening period, I agonized over the menu. Yes, service and design had to be tight. But the menu was the guide by which the first guests of the restaurant--the media, the front of house staff, and the cooks--would perceive Alinea. The hype surrounding the restaurant was swirling and much of the talk was about how "molecular gastronomy" restaurants barely cooked anything, abandoned all sense of tradition, and served food that lacked soul. (Keep in mind that this was in 2005, and the worlds of popular gastronomy and popular culture have come a long way in terms of the acceptance and understanding of progressive cooking and its intentions.)
The Escoffier dish was meant to make a statement. In Michael Ruhlman's Reach of a Chef, he asks me why I put the dish on the menu:
"Foie gras, truffles, and artichoke--it's perfect for us," Grant says. "...It's more than a hundred years old and it's new. And," he grins, "it's a personal F-U to all of those people who say, 'Ah those guys just work with foam over there.' We know how to work with foie gras, we know how to turn a lot of baby artichokes."
Four years have passed and I have certainly grown up a bit. Frankly, I am embarrassed to read that quote I gave Michael, and admit it was overly defensive--no doubt a result of trying to stand up for what I believed in while taking some hits. That being said, the point of this example is that the inclusion of a dish on a menu can have significance beyond its taste.
Recalling the opening menu and the Escoffier artichoke dish makes me think about the concept of fusion cuisine. Popularized in the 1970s, and given a negative connotation in the '90s, it is a genre of cooking that involves blending elements of various culinary ingredients and techniques.
When we think of fusion, something like "Japanese-Peruvian" usually comes to mind. But in the case of the artichoke dish, the fusion isn't about two cuisines; it's about two time periods. I'm excited to revisit this idea, and I've started to extrapolate the theme of "period dining:"
Can the juxtaposition of modern and classic preparations within the same menu elevate each by giving a clearer perspective of evolution? Or does it show how little cooking has really changed?
Can it fulfill different emotional aspects through the contrasts?
Will people even notice?
Is it a moment of gastronomic time travel?
What if we go to an antique store and purchase ornate silver flatware and gilded plates to present these dated creations? Is presenting these concepts on the service ware true to their period any different than designing special serve ware to accentuate the modern cuisine of the present?