Foaming at the mouth: Wylie Dufresne, Guy Rubino, and the future of molecular gastronomy
If you answered 'Yes' to those questions, you're not alone.
Chris Nuttall-Smith, outgoing food editor of Toronto Life, knows his food and has eaten more than his fair share of great and ghastly meals, and he's fed up. During a conversation earlier this summer, he professed to being "tired of molecular gastronomy." When I asked him recently if I could use his quote for this post, he not only agreed, he elaborated:
If you really got me on a roll, I'd say:
'I find it so tedious, and wankerish and precious. I used to roll my eyes when food writers said this kind of thing. C'mon, I'd think. Give the newbies a chance. But then two years passed and every hack chef on the continent discovered foams. Enough, fuck. And how is it "cutting edge" when chefs use transglutaminase to glue pieces of meat together? Weren't they doing that at Tyson Foods in 1986? Really. Can I just get something that tastes good and was made with a bit of integrity instead?'
Yes. I'd love it if you'd use that.
Me too. Agree or disagree, the man writes good copy.
I'm glad he didn't mince words, because his comment provides some context for two other experiences I enjoyed this summer. The first, dinner at wd-50, Wylie Dufresne's landmark molecular gastronomy restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side, offers a taste of what many naysayers loathe most about this new approach to food: unconventional flavour pairings, oodles of obscure chemicals, and a penchant for deconstructing traditional dishes.
Rachel and I visited with another couple, our friends Ryan and Sue, and, for the most part, the meal was a hit. The best dish of the night was Dufresne's take on french onion soup: two spheres of gruyere-flavoured liquid floating in a pool of beef broth -- it's comfort food with flair and imagination. What impresses most about this dish aren't the spheres, however, it's that delectable broth, a staple of classic Western cuisine crafted with obvious skill. Dufresne may no longer work in Jean-Georges' kitchen, but he brings those same standards to his own.
The delicious riffs on comfort food don't stop there. Pizza pebbles with pepperoni and shiitake dazzle while eliciting laughs of joy and amazement. Pop one of these balls into your mouth, and it immediately crumbles into a sandy powder with a texture and taste eerily similar to that of Combos, the pretzel snack that "cheeses your hunger away." This is no accident. Some may find it absurd, even offensive, to pay good money for the taste of Combos on a tasting menu, but I think it's a stroke of genius -- laughter's a reaction I wish chefs would encourage more often, especially in fine dining restaurants that intimidate some diners as much as they delight others.
Not every dish on the twelve-course tasting menu tickled us as much as these two -- one in particular, a combination of surf clam, watermelon, and fermented black bean leaves me a little cold, mainly because I dislike the vaguely raunchy flavour of fermented beans paired with fresh clam -- but most of the rest combine form and flavour exceptionally well, two others especially: I'm not sure if lamb belly, black chick pea, and cherried cucumber is a great take on lamb or bacon, but the unexpected taste of cured meat mixed with the mild gaminess of lamb makes for an unforgettable dish. Dufresne plays with Jewish deli food (or a BLT, apparently) in a dish of thinly sliced pickled beef tongue with fried mayonnaise and tomato molasses. wd-50 refines tongue to such an extent that the dish conjures images of pastrami, not offal (click here for the recipe). And, yes, fried mayo is as delicious as it sounds, though I must confess to expecting a slightly thinner texture from the mayo.
Pastry chef Alex Stupak's desserts were every bit as good as the savoury courses they followed, with fried butterscotch pudding, mango, taro ice cream, and smoked macadamia the best of the lot. This dish deftly balances hot and cold, and sweet, salty, and smoky. Like mayo, pudding just gets better after a brief sojourn in hot fat.
To read someone else's take on our wd-50's tasting menu, and to see pictures of the dishes discussed above, click here.
Chris and Wylie approach food from two very different places: Wylie pushes boundaries and buttons; Chris yearns for quality ingredients cooked simply. On the surface, it appears the stage has been set for a messy divorce between molecular gastronomy and traditional (dare I call it Slow?) food. But are they really incompatible?
My experience writing The Dish for the October 2007 Toronto Life makes me think not. Guy Rubino has carved a reputation as an elite chef by creating gorgeous, complex dishes that mingle Asian and Western techniques and ingredients at his Toronto restaurant, rain. He's best known for his TV show, Made to Order, which focuses on the sumptuous dining experiences he and his brother, Michael, tailor to the desires of special clients.
What I find most fascinating about Rubino's style is that he frequently dips into the molecular toolbox to tweak his food. I arrived curious to see how and why Rubino integrates this emerging culinary outlook into his dishes. What I found left me convinced that Guy Rubino is a role model for the future of this cooking revolution.
I profiled a trio of preparations featuring bluefin tuna, wagyu beef, and tangerine. Nuttall-Smith assigned me the piece specifically because Rubino uses transglutaminase in one element of the dish. Transglutaminase -- also known as "meat glue" or "trans glam" amongst chefs -- is a naturally occurring enzyme that literally glues proteins together. Take a chunk of beef, for example, spread a tiny bit of trans glam powder on it, and set another piece of meat, let's say chicken, on top. Wrap the pieces in cling film, and let them rest briefly in the fridge. When you pull them out, cow and clucker will be fused together in a permanent embrace. If a tiny voice in your head is saying "Cool" right now, you're like me.
Rubino's trio is deceptively simple. It includes a wagyu and bluefin tartare with tangerine gelée and tangerine foam; a strip of tangerine fruit leather encased in a coil of bluefin sashimi and dressed with tamari veal reduction, dehydrated ginger and wasabi; and a thick disc of seared, wagyu fat-encased bluefin loin finished with a tangerine teriyaki miso froth and a thin line of cilantro oil. What struck me most is that transglutaminase is just the tip of the iceberg with this dish. By my count, there are no fewer than six molecular gastronomy techniques in the three preparations: agar jellies the tangerine gelee; methylcellulose thickens the tangerine mousse; sodium alginate binds the fruit leather; soy lecithin emulsifies the teriyaki froth; xanthan gum stabilizes the cilantro oil; and, lest we forget the reason for my visit in the first place, transglutaminase binds the wagyu fat to the loin to add a little moisture and flavour.
The kicker, of course, is that Guy Rubino is not a molecular gastronomer. He's simply a chef who recognizes that the methods refined by the likes of Homaro Cantu, Grant Achatz, and Wylie Dufresne can be put to use in any kitchen to improve the taste and texture of many dishes. We've come to expect a restaurant to be "molecular gastronomy" in much the same way we used to insist restaurants be French, Japanese, or Italian, until a new generation of chefs blew that conceit to smithereens. Molecular gastronomy is undergoing a similar transformation, shedding its niche status and emerging as a broadly used set of tools that help cooks enhance and reinterpret the foods they prepare regardless of their background.
As I see it, Nuttall-Smith, Dufresne, and Rubino -- or, put in more political terms, the conservative, the revolutionary, and the moderate -- are proxies for a broader debate in the culinary world over the role of molecular gastronomy in modern cuisine. Each position has value, too. I am constantly fascinated and amazed by culinary innovation, but I'm not blind to its excesses. To the contrary, I've been forced to eat a few of them. Some passionate, knowledgeable foodies, like Chris Nuttall-Smith, offer necessary resistance. By challenging the relentless quest for innovation for innovation's sake, skeptics force chefs to ask the most important question of the dishes they produce, not merely "Is it good?" but "Is it better?" The answer, sometimes, is "No." Wylie Dufresne, on the other hand, pushes boundaries and buttons, forges new techniques, and discovers the ingredients of tomorrow. He, and chefs like him, provide the necessary imagination that propels any creative venture such as cooking forward.
Innovators must remember to ask one simple question: "Can I make it better?" And they often do. Guy Rubino is the product of this dialectic, synthesizing the techniques he learns from chefs like Dufresne with incredible raw materials and his own culinary vision to produce a richer, juicier tuna loin or a more intense tangerine foam. His food is by no means simple, but by probing the area between the extremes he promotes compromise and a promising future.