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.
Achatz said that Wylie Dufresne–perhaps the most technical-minded of the young American chefs following Adrià–would probably make a paste of sole mixed with transglutamase, to be extruded into spaghetti-like noodles, and serve it in a classic sauce garnished with grapes: “His manipulation would be the dish.” Homaro Cantu, of the Chicago restaurant Moto–perhaps the most direct disciple of Carême in the current group–would first give the diner a picture of sole Veronique on a piece of paper that was meant to be eaten (as are a lot of his menus; he uses an ink-jet printer to spray edible inks of his own devising onto paper made of soybeans and cornstarch). Then he would set before the diner a patented superinsulating polymer box preheated to 350 ºF. A waiter would remove the lid to reveal a top layer of carbonated grape, made by putting whole fruits into a carbonation canister; the waiter would take away that layer and reveal steamed sole that had been cooking at the table. For the last course, the waiter would pour the fish-steaming broth into a bowl. Playing with the image and deconstructing the dish would be the Cantu hallmarks.
Achatz himself would concentrate on scent and texture, poaching the fish in a tepid water bath in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag–the “sous vide” process many chefs now swear by to give meat, fish, and some vegetables a creamy consistency. He would put grape juice into the bag with the fish, to infuse the essence of its flavor into the flesh. Then he would capture the aromas of classic fish sauce–vermouth, tarragon, fish stock–either in an aromatic pillow or in a vapor sprayed around the diner when the fish was served. He might use an industrial thickener to make a kind of fruit gum of cooked-down white-grape juice, to alter the texture and intensify the flavor of the grapes. Three approaches meant to make the diner think about flavor and the whole experience of dining in a new way.