Many things yield unexpectedly in the mouth. That’s part of Achatz’s experimentation with different thickeners, and with making things solid or liquid depending on what you’re not used to. A wide red ribbon marches across a long rectangular dessert plate, for instance, looking like melted plastic. The strangely plastic ribbon is the usually runny raspberry puree, blanketing a series of small dots, all of which have a surprise: tapioca pearls in goat’s milk; fresh raspberries stuffed with a chewy little bead of taffy made of fresh red peppers; pistachio brittle and crushed pistachios; and lavender made into a tea that holds its shape like a syrup. Lavender is also dehydrated into tiny chips and crumbled over the length of the ribbon. The whole thing is decorative (its horizontal patterning is reminiscent of a Louis Sullivan or Prairie School design), unexpected, and very good.
How far has this school come from anything recognizably rooted in classic haute cuisine? Will these restless young chefs obliterate everything Slow Food holds dear?
The experiments of the Chicago school can be traced directly to Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833), a founder of haute cuisine, who used principles of architectural engineering to create pièces montées –fantastic structures, often in the shape of buildings–from modeling ingredients like gum tragacanth. Three generations before Auguste Escoffier codified post-Revolutionary French cuisine, Carême startled diners with beautifully colored and modeled desserts that mysteriously held their form and concealed surprises–surprise being a longtime feature of cuisine for the jaded rich and royal. From its origins in court kitchens of the Renaissance, haute cuisine always used artifice to impress diners with the originality and extravagance of the lord who employed the cook. After the French Revolution, when former cooks to the aristocracy began opening restaurants, they competed to make just as vivid an impression with their own skills, which often had as much to do with novel presentations, equipment, and techniques as with finding the very best ingredients from farmers, fishermen, cheese makers, and other producers. Skill, discipline, and basic understanding of cooking science became necessary for any chef, and to this day apprentice chefs train in the rigorous techniques of classic French cuisine.
Carême also applied to the craft of cooking the Enlightenment idea that a craftsman could become an artist by transforming what nature had made into something original and new. More than 170 years after Carême’s death, this ethos finds its most fervent adherents in Adrià and his followers. The most thoughtful of them, like Adrià himself–whom I first took seriously when I encountered him at a number of Slow Food events in Italy–find the best artisan producers and try to intensify and transform the foods they grow and make.
To get a sharper sense of how Achatz and his innovation-bent colleagues depart from the updated classicism of multistarred chefs like Keller and Alain Ducasse, who has restaurants in three countries, I asked Achatz to imagine how several chefs today would approach an haute cuisine warhorse: sole Veronique, folded fillets poached in a vermouth-flavored fish stock and served with a cream-thickened sauce of fish and white wine, garnished with white grapes and puff-pastry crescents. Achatz knew the Keller version by heart, because he was there when Keller reconceived the dish. To sole fillets wrapped around a stuffing made from brioche crumbs, Keller added a cream sauce with white wine, raisins plumped in white wine, and a garnish of two peeled seedless white grapes.