Thursday, September 23, 2010

El Bulli Bull (Vanity Fair -- October 2010)

Christian and Faithful Entering Into Vanity Fair -- The Pilgrim's Progress

Yesterday while waiting for a train back to Philadelphia at Penn Station in Manhattan, I broke down and violated my “no Vanity Fair” rule.

I shouldn’t have.  It’s a pompous and stupid magazine that mainly exists, I think, to show how far one man can fall and the banality of utter mediocrity.  

I mean, Graydon Carter – this guy used to edit Spy.  What happened?

One of Vanity Fair’s big problems is that its editors run all of the prose published in the magazine through the the extremely constricting and, at this point, clichéd VF style and usage press, causing all of the writers (and there are some distinctive, talented voices who publish in its pages from time-to-time; n.b., this does not include James Wolcott) to sound basically the same.   The magazine even manages to continually de-fang the usually entertaining and controversial Christopher Hitchens.

The Merchandisers at Vanity Fair -- The Pilgrim's Progress

When done properly, as in the case, say, of Cosmopolitan during Helen Gurley Brown’s long stewardship, this kind of hands-on editorial treatment/quality control and practice can benefit a magazine.  There is no reason for the Cosmopolitan “brand” to represent anything more or different than it does.  The magazine is nothing but its endlessly recycled sex-and-the-single-girl self and the embodiment  in a nice, non-ennui-ridden, way of the old saw, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Chef Fernan Adria

But Vanity Fair purports to be significant when it is, in fact, nothing more than hundreds of pages that are essentially extensions of Graydon Carters’s dishonest, preening, moral exhibitionism.
The article in the current issue that caught my eye and made me ill and angry was Jay McInerney’s piece on Ferrnan Adria’s much too publicized restaurant El Bulli in Roses, Spain.  McInerney is not an untalented writer, although it’s sad that he seems to have found his niche and apogee in writing occasional, superficial magazine pieces.  I assume he didn’t plan things to turn out this way.   

But the world spins off its axis in this piece written with an almost biblical solemnity where McInerney memorializes Adria’s cooking of this thing you and I call a “meal” which, if we’re lucky, we get to consume three times a day. 

Top:  Rice and Parmesan Cake
Bottom: Melon "Caviar"

I really can’t bear to quote much of the prose, but in terms of populating the Sentences We Wish We Hadn't Bothered To Finish Department section of  this piece, let’s just mention these:

The Deconstructed Martini
“It begins with a glistening olive-colored sphere , wobbling on a spoon as you raise it toward your lips, exploding in the mouth to unleash a bath of intense olive-flavored liquid.  Then, as the waiter has instructed, you lift the silver atomizer to your mouth and spray the gin-and-vermouth mixture on your tongue.  In your case, three sprays for good measure.  Or seven.  The waiter didn’t specify how many sprays.”

On The Decision To Close El Bulli
“As El Bulli evolved and became more and more successful, it became less and less accessible.  At each stage, pushing the boundaries of cuisine required a respite from the demands of running a restaurant.  Viewed from this perspective, closing the restaurant is the final stage in its creative evolution.”

And for a finale, Iron Chef Mario Batali’s frank evaluation of Chef Adria’s significance:
“Dudeski, he is simply the most influential chef for chefs of our time……True to his Catalonian roots – like Dali, Casals and Miro – he created a new way to work with the raw material that challenges a lot of what  had been considered the ‘rules’ or the ‘way’ to eat and cook.”

Salted Peanut and Corn Snow Wafer 

I don’t question Batali’s opinion about the reason chefs pay attention to Adria.  However, I think the comparisons to Dali, Casals and Miro and the references to creativity with the “raw materials” are silly, inapposite/incorrect and pretentious.  Although I imagine Adria must be a better and more talented person than heartless, untalented provocateur artist Damien Hirst (it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t be), if you’re going to speak about creativity with raw materials, I think a comparison with wretched Hirst would be a far more accurate one on the terms Batali assigns to the analysis. 

I have had and enjoyed “molecular cuisine” meals at Grant Achatz’s (an Adria disciple) Alinea in Chicago.  They’re like a getting on a fancy fairground ride or, to an extent, looking in the Fun House mirror.  They do cause you to consider things you probably haven’t considered previously and to have new sensory experiences.  

Game a la Mode

But they are also abstract and denatured in the extreme and, in the context of food, which comes to us because of our position at the top of the food chain in the irreducible competition between plant and animal species that constitutes life on earth, there is something inescapably immoral about Adria's whole enterprise.

Basil foam 

You really need to ask yourself how much food that could nourish hungry people is wasted in Adria’s kitchen every day while the process honing, refining, deconstructing and denaturing takes place.  I am not a moral exhibitionist like Graydon Carter, but frankly it is sickening.

Adria says, “Cuisine is entering a new phase.  There will be cooking at Harvard.” 

I suppose there will be.

Decline.  And fall.

Top:  Iberian Ham "False" Tapioca
Middle:  Frozen Chocolate Air
Bottom:  Letter Soup

Top:  Map of Costa Brava, Spain
Bottom: Christian and Faithful Mocked By The Scorners Of Vanity Fair -- The Pilgrim's Progress

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