A New Breed of Chefs
We are living in really exciting times! The culinary world is getting richer by the day. New menus and new cuisines are emerging constantly. There are fusions and modern interpretations of the classics. Chefs, who have access to ingredients from the remote parts of the world, are having fun being creative. Food is evolving.
I wonder where it will all end! Because, sometimes it feels like this is an endless race where chefs are trying to copy each other’s ideas and devising ways to one-up their competition. Did someone say pork belly is in? Well! then every menu is sure have it. Is foie gras the latest rage? You can bet that you will find foie gras in practically every restaurant. And so it continues...
For a food writer like myself, I have to admit that this sort of trend-copying can get tiresome. I mean, how many ways can I eat pork belly before I can finally shout out, “Enough!" And in turn, how many times and in how many unique ways can I describe each pork belly dish that I taste?
While that thought stirs up a feeling of angst in me, I am also really charged up about another trend that is emerging. It is a trend where this whole new breed of chefs and culinary luminaries are redefining our food culture in a unique and exciting way. Not only are they making a name for themselves with their undeniable talent in creating fabulous and innovative dishes, they are also on a personal journey to learn and grow. Unlike the old days where every chef’s recipes were closely guarded secrets, more and more chefs are collaborating with each other, sharing ideas and becoming generous mentors for the next generation of chefs.
Some are so passionate about their craft that they are partnering with scientists to get a better understanding of ingredients and their behaviors. Ferran Adria (El Bulli) was one of the pioneers in this area. He is well known for his innovative spherification technique, which takes an ingredient in liquid form and turns it into a sphere with a somewhat firmer outer layer. Calcium is used to firm the exterior. The beauty of this process is that the inner part of the sphere will still be in a liquid form. Can you imagine the presentation and plating possibilities of this? And then there is Wylie Dufresne, who is well known for his geekish obsession with molecular gastronomy!
More and more of these chefs are now embracing science as an integral part of what they do. Some of them are actually opening up laboratories where they experiment with ideas like fermentation. Fermentation is an age-old technique of bringing out the umami flavor. It used to be done with a handful of ingredients back in the day. Now, these chefs are experimenting with anything and everything. And some of the results are mind-blowing. Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi, David Chang and so many more are excitedly exploring the “science of food." David Chang recently opened up his Momofuku Kitchen Lab where he is fermenting practically everything, and making vinegars and miso-like pastes from local ingredients.
Most of these leaders in the culinary world are also establishing an intimate relationship with their local farms and farmers. They are focusing on hyper-local ingredients. They understand that if an ingredient, rare as it may be, is being shipped from the other end of the world — well then it has lost most of its freshness and flavor. So why not focus on something that was made, or harvested nearby just a few days or even hours ago? The term is terroir as master chef David Kinch understands it. It's about a “sense of place." His restaurant, Manresa, is a celebration of the flavors of Los Gatos, California where the restaurant and his farm is located. David Kinch’s farmer and friend Cynthia is also in collaboration with the likes of Alain Passard of L'Arpège in France — to exchange seeds between the two regions and study the resulting crops.
Ferran Adria is due to launch the El Bulli Foundation, hopefully very soon. Here, El Bulli’s (the restaurant in Spain, now closed) history, its innovations, its experiences are all going to be well documented for future generations of chefs.
Well! I, for one, am eagerly watching and anticipating as we plunge into a whole new era of food-culture with this new breed of chefs. What an exciting time indeed!