FANNING THE FLAMES: Authentic Spanish cooking was on display at the CIA's Worlds of Flavor event.
TASTE TEST: Chef Jose Andres samples his mega batch of authentic paella.
STAR TURN: Many people knock molecular gastronomy. Those who watched Ferran Adrie perform it in person, however, were wowed.
Last November, the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, CA, hosted its annual Worlds of Flavor Conference, exploring both the culinary traditions of Spain, and of course, the very sexy, media-friendly avant garde cuisine god-fathered by Ferran Adrie. Adrie was there, of course, and the show was emceed by Jose Andres (the chef world's answer to Robin Williams). Attending or participating were scores of Spanish chefs, American chefs (celebrities and non-) along with the media, many of whom (myself included) were guests of the CIA , and, of course, any number of companies promoting and selling Spanish goods.
"Why Spain?" I wondered throughout. Were it not for Adrie and his fame, Spain would not likely have been the choice, any more than, say, Greece. It's not just that I'm cynical or simply tired of the whole molecular gastronomy craze. I understand that it's easier to lure people in to taste olive oil frozen via liquid nitrogen into the shape of popped corn than to taste really good olive oil. But more than that, there seems to me a kind of disingenuousness about it. While the Catalonian Adrie is indisputably the creator of the current movement, there are more chefs in America practicing it than there are in Spain. Which makes it, as one of the guest speakers, Thomas Keller, said, really a global cuisine rather than a Spanish cuisine.
It's an irony that I suppose is fitting for what is an ironic cuisine. A big international food conference convened because of a single man who doesn't cook Spanish food!
And yet the conference—which, ironies aside, was fascinating, exceedingly well run from a professional and logistical standpoint—did point up exactly how nebulous our understanding of traditional Spanish cuisine is in this country. Paella, sure. Tapas, of course. Iberian ham. Rioja. We know this, but what are the dishes that describe the range from its haute cuisine to its casual fare? This was less successfully addressed.
"Tell me about it," Jeffrey Tenner, said to me. Tenner was chef/owner of Ciento in Portsmouth, NH, from 1999 to 2001, and is now director of R&D and Quality Assurance for Legal Sea Foods, Inc. "I almost lost all I had, including my marriage, including my sanity."
He'd had success with a French bistro and thought the same could be done with Spanish food. What he discovered after opening Ciento, he said, was that "some cultures are easy to sell. French, Italian. But selling Spanish food was tough."
You can sell fish stew as bouillabaisse or cioppino but not as zarzuela, cod as brandade but not bacalao, croquettes as arancini but not croquetas with romesco.
Tenner spoke with many of the attendees, including operators of big chains, such as Golden Corral. They didn't walk away thinking "I need to get albondigas on menus that millions of people see." "They walked away," Tenner said, "thinking ‘how am I going to incorporate liquid nitrogen in my menu?'"
Authentic Spanish cuisine is likely never to find a true flowering in this country for many reasons. Tim Ryan, CIA president, noted that immigration was one reason—immigrants tend to play a substantial role in America's culinary evolution, and there is little immigration coming from Spain. Spanish cuisine has never been codified as the French kitchen and French cuisine have. And innovation, rather than tradition, is what captures the attention and the praise of a culture and the imagination of the young practitioners, especially in the era of the celebrity chef.
As far as the Spanish-born molecular gastronomy goes, how many people can meaningfully practice this brave new cuisine? And by meaningful I mean, successful from both a craft standpoint, moving it forward, and from a business standpoint, for if it isn't financially viable it doesn't matter how good it is. Moreover, avant garde cuisine is timeconsuming and expensive to prepare and difficult to sell. Or as Grant Achatz, America's leading practitioner along with Andres, explained succinctly: "It's really hard."
Ryan wondered if Adrie couldn't be compared with another Catalonian, the modernist architect Antoni Gaude (1852-1926), whose ornate and original work was both lauded and ridiculed at the time. Today, his genius and work are not disputed, and yet his work has little influence relative to the magnitude of his creations. There is no school, there were few disciples or imitators, because while the work may have been genius, it was not replicable.
Is this the legacy of Adrie and the handful of chefs who actively pursue the avant garde? As media-sexy as it is, the media itself is partly wary. Coleman Andrews urged at the conference "Don't let calcium chloride [the chemical required for the "self encapsulation" technique] become the next balsamic vinegar."
Or will avant garde, as Mr. Andres believes, "be the tradition of tomorrow"? "Tradition today," he told the audience, "was avant garde 300 years ago."
No one can say for sure. But I do find it significant that when Adrie finishes a hard morning's work in the lab, he doesn't eat the results for lunch. Instead he heads to a little shack on the beach for some quickly grilled squid, or a translucent, glistening slice of Iberian ham.