Thoughts about The End of the Plate

Last week I attended a discussion at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum entitled "Presentation: The End of the Plate?" Moderated by Darra Goldstein, the co-curator of the Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500–2005 (on view until the end of October), it featured three chefs Ms. Goldstein deemed emblematic of the avant-garde in the kitchen: Katsuya Fukushima (minibar by Jose Andres, Washington DC), Grant Achatz (Alinea, Chicago), and Homaru Cantu (Moto, Chicago). The chefs were joined by industrial designer Martin Kastner, the man behind chef Achatz's "utensils" at Alinea.

Gerald from Foodite also attended and has a good summary (with pictures) of the talk. I'm not going to rehash what he's already covered and instead will focus on what piqued my interest during the 1.5 hour discussion and subsequent Q&A1.

Kastner talked about design and the versatility that we require of our eating utensils. Forks and knives do many things well rather than one thing perfectly. This makes sense at home, but at Alinea they had different goals, and strove to create instruments that would do one thing perfectly (e.g. the Squid). This allows Alinea to control the diner's experience, bring an emotional level to it, and change the way a guest spends 3-4 hours at the restaurant. I find any discussion of versatility vs. perfection endlessly fascinating.

There was quite a bit of talk about labels. Achatz mentioned "hyper-modern," "avant-garde," and "molecular gastronomy" as the labels people try to apply to his cooking. (Keller recently said MG was a term made up by the media and no one in the industry used it to refer to their cooking.) Goldstein felt "post-modern" was an apt description for the type of cuisine practiced by these cooks, especially as they're given to wit and self-referentiality. While I agree with her, saying you're going to a post-modern restaurant sounds, well, annoying. It's bad enough everyone throws around the word "deconstruct" in culinary critiques, we don't have to whole-hog bring post-modernism into the kitchen, do we?

Asked whether they like to be labeled, the chefs refreshed with their responses. Achatz's said he just cooks, that this is the way he's chosen to do it, it's not intentional. Cantu said he doesn't pay attention, that it's just a collection of ideas and he's trying to find a new way to cook. On the whole it seems the analysis of their cooking is much more intellectual than their pursuit of it. My take? They're driven by their individual imaginations, and by their passion for cooking. If we're going to give a literary label to them, I'd say it sounds Romantic. Maybe I'll call them the nouveau romantiques?

From Achatz, with regards to people who say he's too gimmicky, he asks if they've eaten at his restaurant. Most who criticize have never experienced, he says. Applies to more than just food, I'd say. There was also talk of how one's upbringing influences his/her cooking and Kastner said it's impossible to drop one's "cultural baggage." I liked this term and think it's a good thing to keep in mind when examining anyone's approach or reaction, including one's own. We all carry cultural baggage that influences our experiences, and it's not limited to food.

Two final comments: Achatz said, "It's not dinner anymore, it's something else." I got what he meant at the time, now re-reading in my notes it sounds a little precious or pretentious. Can the new hyper-modern-avant-garde-nouveau-romantique-extreme-cuisine push boundaries and still fulfill us on a basic level? Also there was a lot of use of the word "food stuff." What happened to the simpler "food"? Is "food stuff" somehow different? It sounds more abstract, less tangible, colder, more scientific. I don't want to eat food stuff, which makes me think of mechanically separated meat. I want to eat food!

It was an interesting discussion and though I was familiar with a lot of what was discussed (having eaten at both Moto and Alinea) I found it engaging. And now I want to go to DC and eat at minibar.

1 Dear everyone: When you go to a talk like this and you're given the opportunity to ask questions, please follow these suggestions: 1) Don't ask something that's already been discussed during the lecture. You appear to have not paid attention. 2) Don't ask two questions, and for God's sake don't ask three questions! This isn't your private Q&A with the speakers. Pick one question, ask it, and let someone else ask a question. 3) And finally, make sure your question is actually a question! The Q&A is not your opportunity to expound upon your opinion of whatever you think we need to hear. Chances are we don't. Remember: it's not you we came to hear speak.