About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Monday, September 15, 2008
In Search of Perfection -- series 2
Heston Blumenthal's second series of In Search of Perfection has started (LifeStyle FOOD, Wednesdays, 8.30pm). John Lethlean's Saturday column was a paean to perfection, counterpointing an absent from the stoves Gordon Ramsey with the very much hands on Blumenthal.

It was somewhat surprising to see his positive assessment of the new show, given Lethlean's previous experience with a Blumenthal style roast chicken that seemed more raw than cooked, indeed, if Australia's leading restaurant reviewer was served such a chicken in a restaurant, what would he have made of it? Can't imagine that he would be as gentle as he appears to be with Blumenthal, as if somehow, he had missed a vital point.

What is it with molecular gastronomy that we have elevated its most ardent practitioners to stellar heights, awarding as many stars as can be seen in the heavens, whilst regular cookery seems to be now regarded as old-fashioned? I must seriously be missing something if the best restaurant in the world (El Bulli) is impossible to get into, then closes for six months of the year, so that Adria can retire to his laboratory, to pull new dishes out of a test tube.

Friends of mine dined in a Melbourne derivative of this style and while they said they were amazed by the food, they were in no hurry to repeat the experience, in fact, they were looking for something to eat afterwards. Isn't the first rule of going to a restaurant, being fed?

Apparently not any more, food that sustains is being replaced by food that entertains and the effect this has had on the jaded palates of restaurant reviewers world-wide is remarkable. They are telling the world that food coming from a laboratory is superior to that which comes from a real kitchen. That they are then willing to be told how to eat dishes placed in front of them is a testament to the power of persuasion these chefs possess.

As Ramsey might say, for fuck's sake, who needs to be told how to eat? Babies can do it, old people with Alzheimers can do it, eating is a reflex action that requires no conscious thought, it's as though novelty has blinded reviewers into following these new white coated pied pipers, whose strange magical melodies have them in myopic thrall.

How else to explain Lethlean's enthusiasm for this new series? It is nothing more than shameless self-promotion for Blumenthal's style of cooking. Think not? Did you ever notice that after each adventure in reconstructing classic dishes that Blumenthal pronounced each dish perfect? At least in the few episodes I saw he did. What sort of hubris is required to take a classic, dishes that were around before he was even born and to claim his version is definitive perfection? Even the times when things were quite clearly amiss. Does it not, too, miss the point of what a classic dish actually is -- a classic?

Like when he attempted perfect fish and chips. His batter was around a 1/2" thick, demonstrating a lack of awareness of the ratio between batter and fish and worse, the batter had delaminated from the fish in an effort that would make a proper fish and chip cook shake his head sadly. Putting probes into the batter to measure crunch doesn't really tell the whole story of why it's good, only eating can tell you that. Perfect though, he pronounced.

What took a battery of scientific instruments and days to accomplish can be done in mere seconds in your mouth, yet some appear to trust the use of science more than instinct; if something tastes good, what more do you really need to know? A crunchiness tester won't ever indicate if you will like a certain texture, as far as I know, there is no scientific instrument that can do what the human mouth does.

I don't even want to talk about what he did to Black Forest cake, there are things that are sacred and should never be messed with.

The other awkward thing for Blumenthal in the first series, was that he alone judged perfection. At least in Ramsey's case, he had the cajones to cook against various guests on one of his shows, then allow the food to be judged by diners, sometimes being beaten by homecooks in the process. Can't imagine Blumenthal ever doing that, people just aren't as dependable as science.
  posted at 7:59 am

At 1:21 pm, Blogger Thermomixer said...

Agree, disagree, agree, disagree..

Hi Neil, Have to certainly agree with much of what you have said so well here. A lot of "molecular gastronomy" restaurants seem to produce meals that are more akin to going to the theatre, so being filled is not as important as being entertained.

Some restaurants are producing fantastic dishes using some of the principles gained from the likes of Adria without going to great extremes of listening to iPods of waves crashing on the shore while you eat your fish. My wife was "converted" to believing that there are some good elements after dishes such as Ben Shewry's pork fillet cooked sous vide, Dan Hunter's wagyu cheeks cooked for 40hours and seeing a demo at Interlude.

On the subject of classics, George B had a good post about this with cassoulets recently (sorry too lazy to get the link).

I need explanations for how to eat many Asian dishes - & even then seem to get it wrong. Even with old dish like Cheong Liew's Four Tatses - you will always be told by wait staff that the chef recommends eating A, then B... or - chef recommends mixing all the layers together before eating.

I don't have cable so can't comment on the actual TV programs, but maybe he is coming to the Melb Food & Wine festival?? Now you've got me all cynical.

At 3:02 pm, Blogger neil said...

Disagreeing's no crime, I did that with JL's article. It's the notion that perfection can only really be obtained using HB's techniques that bothers me, he is only doing what all good cooks do worldwide...adapting. No one can really claim perfection with classics. Good point about elements of molecular gastronomy filtering out into mainstream cookery, though personally, I don't consider sous vide a child of the movement, rather an adoption; it was first used in the 1970's in a restaurant setting, long before Adria and others came on the scene.

At 10:31 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love it when you get going Neil:) Restaurant trends come in waves... nouvelle cuisine faced some similar criticisms, faddishnesses, etc. The media does a hell of a lot to turn molgastro into groovy weird shit, whereas some of the main figures in the arena are actually having fun experimenting and learning, and most likely wouldn't claim ownership of the technological applications.

Restaurants are entertainment spaces, so entertainment happens and different people enjoy/loathe it. Nonetheless, I'd say many of the chefs *are* very much interested in the 'yum' over the frippery.

That said, the first series of Perfection seemed pretty devoid of scientific rigour when it came to the whole 'perfection'. There was a long thread on eGullet about the highs and lows of that series.

At 11:54 pm, Blogger MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

So Neil if I play with the classic cassoulet and brioche are you going to throw me over the edge or into the stew pot ;0)
The way I see it unless it's on the history channel (and even some of that) it's all just entertainment and therefore suspect. Some people will distrust themselves and believe anything on a telly. Who was that, Mark Twain: you can fool some of the people, some of the time . . .

At 12:55 am, Blogger Jeanne said...

I think I'm also in the "yes and no" camp ;-) Firstly, full disclosure: I didn't see the HB series (for a foodie I watch remarkably little food TV!!) so can't comment on the series and I'm not entering into the "perfection debate...

As for the substance vs. style debate, I have to say that for me, it depends. Yes, I want tasty food - I'm not one to eat food purely for the novelty, I am after the taste. But I do love being entertained in a restaurant. I can cook my own tasty food - when I go out, more often than not I want something more. And say what you like about HB, he and his ilk have injected some fun into food - fun that you simply don't get from e.g. a beautifully cooked piece of fish. It's delicious, but it won't make you marvel "how the hell did they do that?". Call me shallow, but sometimes that's what I want out of my dinign experience. I do think the media have hyped molecular gatronomy up as if it's the be all and end all which, of course, it isn't. People also think the Fat Duck is all about egg & bacon ice cream and douglas fir chocolates and crazy novelty, but when I went there was ample evidence of "proper" food beautifully cooked, and as satisfying as can be.

At 9:28 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi duncan, I was going to send JL an email about his article, but it just grew and grew..

I'm not sure about restaurants being entertainment spaces, though it does seem there is some evolution in that direction, the primary reason for going to a restaurant has always been to eat. Molecular gastronomy is just a branch on the tree of cookery and it would seem, judging by the very few restaurants here doing it, that people liked to be amazed and wowed, just not all that often.

Hi tanna, there are enough arguments just in France to start a civil war over what is genuine cassoulet! What annoyed me about him and is something you never do, is that he's appropriating the classics and almost treating them like they were his playthings to do with as he pleases, there was something beyond the adaptions you and I make to recipes. You're right, people have to trust themselves, just because he is a big name chef, doesn't mean he's right. Perfect? I think not.

Hi jeanne, I'm not down on the food that HB and his ilk cook, rather I'm questioning in part why is it that they have for the most part been elevated to cult status? I was making the point that they do have wow factor in spades, but would you want to eat in restaurants like this all the time? The answer here in Melbourne would seem no, one restaurant doing it has already closed down, even though it had critical acclaim. I wonder if food critics praise this type of cuisine more highly because there is no previous template to judge them by. Interesting that you mentioned about wondering how some of this food is created. It's not dissimilar in a way to a magic act and if HB were a magician, he would be kicked out of the union for revealing his tricks; isn't the greater fun in not knowing how it's done?

At 11:45 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neil, just to continue the debate, the logical extention of the 'food entertainment'will naturally be similar to the Swagman but the dancers will be part of the gastronomic experience. 'Taste one dancer at a time please', will be the call, and "yes, you can eat the skirt". Oh, if the food is too good looking to eat, then you should be able to get a doggie bag, perhaps one that comes with a frame so you can hang it on the wall later. I think there is definately a televised cooking show brewing where the object of the 'iron chefs' is to create a new original dish in time to the Bolero, which the audience (not diners) smear over the chefs after in a great excess of sexual arduor. Yep, the future of reality cooking entertainment shows. I reckon I would make a munchie you could eat whilst you watch the show that actually filled me up. Cheers, Gregory

At 10:57 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi greg, I'm pretty sure you have the general idea, not so sure about the particular direction you propose though! No doubt some would go for it.


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