10 February 2011

EATING HISTORY

Heston Blumenthal with Dinner head chef Ashley Palmer Watts. From http://www.dinnerbyheston.com/.

Grant Achatz with chefs Craig Schoettler and Dave Beran--creators of Next restaurant, Chicago. From Facebook.

In Venice, Italy, there's a superb and very old haute-cuisine restaurant, Le Bistrot de Venise, whose specialty is a menu of dishes based on historical Venetian cuisine. The items on this special menu, served in modified form to suit contemporary tastes, are accompanied by the dates of recipes from which they are drawn. Some go back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. I thought this restaurant had a fairly unusual concept. Lately, however, historicity is in.

Two recent developments have gotten me wondering about the significance of historicity as an avant-garde food trend. One is the recent opening of Heston Blumenthal's restaurant Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London, a restaurant inspired by historic British gastronomy. Go to the website (www.dinnerbyheston.com) and you will first encounter a brief history lesson in a typeface and layout that vaguely conjures old newspapers: "In the past, the main meal--dinner--was eaten at midday, before it got dark. But affordable candles and, later, gaslight saw dinner shift." Check out the menu on the site and, in the appetizer section alone, you will find the items accompanied by dates that range from "c. 1390" to "c. 1820." Blumenthal and Dinner's head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts don't intend these dishes to be faithful copies of historical dishes. They are "inspired" by them. If not actually historical, the concept of Dinner is saturated with the idea of historicity.

Another case is the almost-opened and fiercely hyped Next restaurant. Chicago's Grant Achatz and his chef team of Craig Schoettler and Dave Beran describe Next as a restaurant designed to represent world cuisines from various great moments in culinary history--and the future. They will present four menus per year, each one dedicated entirely to a specific period and place. Unlike Blumenthal, Achatz intends to present dishes in historically authentic form--true to Paris, 1912, say, or Sicily, 1949. But, of course, like Blumenthal, Achatz can't help but be inventive. One of the options advertised for Next is Hong Kong, 2036. Even these masters of culinary history can't have much evidence to go on for the recreation of this one!

Indeed, Next bubbles over with experimental quirks. Achatz will not sell traditional "reservations" but rather all-inclusive "tickets" for particular, differentially-priced time slots at the restaurant. Though little different from a reservation in actual fact, the ticket's association with film or theater changes the psychological game. In that spirit, Achatz has promoted the restaurant through a film trailer that, like film trailers, encapsulates a narrative (in this case, of time travel) and fills the viewer with a sense of mystery and anticipation.

Why have two of the world's most avant-garde chefs made history the theme of their newest ventures? Why are these ambassadors of the hyper-new looking back?

First, let's acknowledge the fact that Blumenthal's and Achatz's concepts and menus are faithful to the past only to the extent that it "inspires" their creativity. They are launching something new in the process--a new restaurant format or an original interpretation of an historical dish. Is history just the latest frontier to excite an ever-jaded audience for the new?

This may be true, but I think it's not the whole story. I would argue that these chefs' choice to put history in the foreground is really an overdue revelation of their culinary practices so far. Every one of the chefs associated with the so-called "molecular" or "techno-emotional" cuisine, as are Blumenthal and Achatz, when charged with culinary futurism, has insisted on their work's profound connection to memory. They take tried and true dishes and "deconstruct" them. Or they take traditional ingredient combinations and alter their relationships in texture, temperature, proportion, etc. The historical reference is integral. The very intelligibility of these chefs' far-out cuisine depends on their experiments' grounding in tradition. It seems only right, then, that their historical aspect become overt.

Copyright 2011 Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.



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2 comments:

  1. The historical reference is completely superficial nonesense in both cases. If they'd actually followed a historic recipe,they'd probably learn some amazing things instead of this self indulgent garbage. In this case THOSE WHO DO NOT KNOW HISTORY ARE DOOMED NOT TO REAPEAT IT.

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  2. P.S. one of the best meals I've ever had was at Alinea. Just don't take the name of histoty in vain.

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