I remember the precise moment when I fell hopelessly in love with modernist cuisine. In 2006, during a 24-course tasting at Alinea in Chicago, I ate the finest dish of my life: sous vide Wagyu beef, honeydew, cucumber, soy pudding and lime sugar. That plate was sublime perfection, but what I remember most about the dish, the meal, was the emotion it summoned: the mixture of joy, amazement, humour, puzzlement and, when it ended, sadness I felt that night remains to this day.
I've yet to find a traditionalist who can elicit as broad a range of emotions as modernists such as Alinea's Grant Achatz, which makes me wonder whether people who frown upon modernist cuisine have a benign misunderstanding of its principles or simply don't appreciate the hypocrisy of their position. How else do you explain the two objections generally levelled against modernist cuisine?
The first is that it's a lab-coat-clad, chemical-pushing wolf in Michelin-starred lamb's clothing. This overlooks the obvious: that all food is chemical, and all cooking involves chemical and physical reactions. That Weber grill would be as miraculous a kitchen gadget to our ancestors as a thermal immersion circulator is to us.
The second objection is philosophical. "Modernist cuisine," contrarians argue, "is about foams, airs and spheres, not food." Aside from its obvious elitist undertones (food snobbery cloaked as steak-and-potatoes populism), the real problem with this argument is the implication that food is merely functional.
Most of us are lucky enough to eat for more than mere sustenance. We dine for at least some measure of pleasure, and modernists use creativity to heighten the emotional impact of their dishes.
How is that a bad thing? We engage in many other behaviours simply because we enjoy them. Is a foam really worse than recreational sex, or is our puritanism merely slinking from the bedroom to the kitchen?
Admittedly, few people approach their supper in search of emotional catharsis. But modernist technique can dominate on the traditionalist's turf too. I turned to Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking the other night to prepare an entirely ordinary supper: chicken breast with creamed spinach.
I cooked my chicken breast in a low-temperature water bath to maximize juiciness and tenderness before crisping the skin with a crème brûlée torch. I prepared my spinach with xanthan gum, a natural, fermentation-derived ingredient found in health-food stores, and Ultra-Sperse 3, a tapioca starch, because they thicken at such low concentrations they don't mask the flavours.
The chicken was so tender it yielded with little more than a flick of the knife. It was, quite simply, far better than any I've prepared conventionally.
I'm sure that tens of thousands of years ago, some Cro-Magnon Ferran Adrià had the temerity to jam his woolly mammoth steak on a stick, sprinkle it with a strange chemical - sodium chloride - and place it over the fire. For this, he was no doubt ostracized by his mates, for whom "real" food was all about the simple pleasure of whatever local, seasonal bounty thrived near their cave. That prehistoric gastronome's daring stood the test of time. I think the modernist experiment will, too.
You can follow Rob Mifsud's culinary experiments at hungryinhogtown.typepad.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail