The Power of Molecular Gastronomy

Molecular gastronomy isn't going to kill fine dining in D.C. any more than couture is going to kill fashion. Any field of artistic endeavor needs adventurers.
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Eli Lehrer, the Vice President of the Heartland Institute, asserted in a recent Huffington Post article that molecular gastronomy -- like "atonal symphonic music, much academic poetry, and nearly all ballets written in the last 60 years" -- threatens to divorce fine dining from popular food culture and throw the entire genre of cooking into the "critically adored/culturally irrelevant ghetto."

Molecular gastronomy isn't going to kill fine dining in D.C. any more than couture is going to kill fashion. Any field of artistic endeavor needs adventurers -- those who are willing to push the boundaries of what is possible to explore and question every assumption about the art. Mr. Lehrer is correct in one respect: restaurants that attempt to do high-level molecular gastronomy are not the most comfortable and accessible. Neither are the idiosyncratic frocks that fashionistas stitch themselves into.

That isn't the point. The point is to advance ideas and expand possibilities. El Bulli, which had more cooks then diners, wasn't meant to be a blueprint for dining. It was meant to be a beacon.

Likewise, even modest efforts at molecular gastronomy in the District have opened opportunities for soulful mid-market concepts -- a genre long underserved in the nation's capital.

Molecular gastronomy, a name that many of its pioneers reject, challenges all chefs to look at food from an entirely new perspective. The creator of the genre agrees. Chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli declared in a recent lecture in Washington, D.C. that most innovation in the kitchen is really just "elaboration" on the existing paradigm. It takes intrepid minds at the margin to spearhead innovation and create market space for more ambitious concepts that challenge a town otherwise buried in burgers.

For decades, D.C. has been known for its glitzy fine dining restaurants. The same architects designed them all and they all had an authentically inauthentic look. Chefs did not challenge the city's conservative palette but instead obliged to diners content with well-composed steak and potatoes. The cuisine was resolutely regressive, out of synch for a town that thrives on marketing ideas and popularizing difficult concepts with an eye towards the masses. The era of 'molecular gastronomy' revolutionized the universe of what was possible by creating aspirational eaters who crave cutting edge cuisine.

Lehrer is correct; in our unabashedly mass culture, high art is generally perceived as inaccessible. This is largely a function of price and consumer expectations. You might wear a tuxedo to the ballet; you'd never wear it to watch break-dancing. The ability to appreciate movement and recognize dance as an art form isn't bound by fashion -- be it high-brow or low.

Lehrer fails to acknowledge that technique and the methods developed by avant-garde cuisine can be modified and adapted by the masses of chefs. Sous vide was once the province of rarified Spanish kitchens but has been adapted by many "fast casual" restaurants. Everyday consumers benefit because their local Chipotle now serves more tender pork, even if they don't realize that the technique was perfected within shouting distance of La Rambla in Barcelona.

Unless wealthy philanthropists decide to start subsidizing restaurants like they do modern art (if you know any who would, you know how to reach me), conflating the art of cooking with the business of restaurants is a dangerous proposition. Both are critical ingredients in successful culinary ventures, but are not the same and must be considered separately.

Consider the ThinkFood Group duo of Jose Andres and Rob Wilder -- a wild success because it meshes the dueling imperatives of the restaurant business. Jose Andres has pushed culinary arts to new levels in Washington. His effusive passion and zest for exploring the art for cooking is visible in all of his restaurants, not just at Minibar.

What's clear is that the artists at the forefront need hard-headed business minds on their side. Rob Wilder is a master of restaurant business mechanics -- he has crafted a financial model that has made the food accessible and grown one of the most successful restaurant groups in the country.

The combination has moved District dining forward and made plenty of cash in the process. Other great examples include Chicago's Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, New York's duo of Michael White and Ahmass Fakhany, and in town, RJ Cooper and Hilda Staples. Art for the sake of art may appear inaccessible to some. But these partnerships thrive because they make artful cooking hospitable.

My guess is that the product of these pairings -- very talented artists with savvy business people -- will define the future of Washington restaurants. Because, quite simply, who doesn't like a well-run restaurant that senses trends, advances them and serves really, really good food?

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