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11/16/2009

Chicago's Star Food Writer Dennis Wheaton on Spain's Cocina de Vanguardia, Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller

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Dear Gerry,

"I’ve just had the pleasure of reading your article "Spain’s Chemical Reaction" in the latest Food Arts. Clearly, a lot of good work went into it. Your thesis of the "significant waning of Spain’s vaunted cocina de vanguardia and a corresponding rise in interest in traditional cooking, now modernized, better than ever, and usually less expensive for chefs to produce and diners to enjoy" seems spot-on compared to my experience in Chicago.

 


 
Grant Achatz at Madrid Fusión 2009.
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2009.


That’s not to say that chefs like Grant Achatz have gotten off the experimental bandwagon. Susan and I had dinner at Alinea recently and were still awed by all the manipulations on the plate, bacon hanging on a wire like a circus act, foams, emulsions, gels, freeze-dried foods, granular tricks, etc, as well as his use of aromas to enhance the experience, such as burning dried fall oak leaves on a branch holding pheasant, apple puree, and roasted shallot somehow skewered on the branch, or putting young tomato vines in a central bowl of boiling water to add aroma to a plate of heirloom tomatoes done a zillion different ways with olive oil snow, fig gel, pumpernickel grains, and more manipulations. What struck me was how damn good Achatz’s food still tastes after all the folderol, but how difficult it was to grasp all that was on the plate. Even the waiters’ careful descriptions failed to cover all that was there or was going on. After about 16 courses–culminating in a bizarre course in which a chef came out and literally spread a complex dessert of blueberry syrup, maplewood consomme in shimmering balls to break (extracted from maple branches, not maple syrup), maple sugar shortbread crumbs, tobacco-infused cream, and much more, all spread directly on a silicon mat laid on the table so the whole thing looked like a big tabletop fingerpainting–we were not only awed and how it looked and how good it tasted, but exhausted.

This is clearly not don’t-give-it-a-thought comfort dining for hard times [See CIA-Worlds of Flavor Conference 2009: Frontiers of Flavor, World Street Food, World Comfort Food]. But what I’m also seeing is touches of vanguard cuisine showing up in more accessible restaurants, sometimes deftly, sometimes awkwardly–like all the bad borrowings from Japanese cuisine so prevalent a few years ago in Western restaurants. As far as I’m concerned, foam should be retired from the stage for a long while, if not permanently(See Chicago Tribune's Ten Worst Dining Trends of the Decade.-GD)

What has clearly come to the "vanguard" in Chicago as well as New York and other places, is the headlong rush to localism and naturally raised foods–house made charcuterie and many other uses of everything from the pig butchered on premises but the squeal as well as great local market seasonal vegetables simply and minimally treated in the kitchen–that harks back to Alice Waters more than Ferran Adria. In that vein, I was really impressed by your discussion of the Spanish controversy over the use of industrial additives in making avant guarde cuisine. It does fly in the face of the return to naturalism and purity in foods." -- Dennis R. Wheaton, Food Writer (Chicago Magazine, The New York Times and other publications.)

 
Ferran Adrià at Madrid Fusión 2009. 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2009.


Once upon a time, an unknown young chef toiled away in the most renowned kitchen in the country. Is it a classic story of the student surpassing the master?




Thomas Keller at Madrid Fusión 2009. 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2009.


Of course, this passage caught my eye:

"Another fine dish, jamón ibérico with soft cubes of griddled acorn flan, made me smile: Hard acorns are what Spanish pigs eat to give jamón ibérico its unparalleled nutty flavor. This is just the kind of playful deconstruction that Achatz has patented at Alinea. Of course, at The French Laundry, it's an in-joke that few diners will get; at Alinea, they would explain it to you." 


Jamón Ibérico, the real thing, with a glass of rosado in Spain.
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2009.

Dennis Wheaton is the Dining Critic for Chicago Magazine and has contributed many articles to other publications, including The New York Times.

About Gerry Dawes

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià.

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009.

video
Mr. Dawes is currently working on a reality television
series on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.


Experience Spain With Gerry Dawes: Culinary Trips to Spain & Travel Consulting on Spain

Gerry Dawes can be reached at gerrydawes@aol.com; Alternate e-mail (use only if your e-mail to AOL is rejected): mailto:gerrydawes@gmail.com


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