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Reading, writing, cooking, eating

Richard Johnstone on two very different explorations of food

Richard Johnstone 9 August 2012 2724 words

Julia Mariscal’s 2006 design for a “Writing Spoon.”

Foodjects: Design and the New Cuisine in Spain
An Exhibition of Objects and Utensils by Spanish Designers Used in Spanish Cuisine | Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre, Canberra until 26 August 2012

An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace
By Tamar Adler | Scribner | $29.99

Foodjects: Design and the New Cuisine in Spain is a small, cleverly put together exhibition currently showing at the Craft and Design Centre in Canberra. Curated by Martin Ruiz de Azúa (himself an established designer whose imaginative prototypes include an inflatable house for carrying around in your pocket) and supported by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the exhibition assembles various examples from the range of cookware, tableware and related products created by Spanish designers to complement and support the new Spanish style of cooking – a style indelibly associated with the master of “molecular cuisine,” Ferran Adrià. When put to their intended use, the “smooth organic shapes” of “Bliss,” a dinner set designed in 2003 by Gemma Bernal for Adrià’s elBulli restaurant, seem not merely to complement but to blend into the cuisine itself; as we are told in the catalogue, the individual pieces – plates, bowls, receptacles of various kinds – mimic the “ductile qualities” of the delicacies they hold and “the plates become a prolongation of the food.” It marks another step in the contemporary process of turning food into art; what began in the 1970s and 1980s with nouvelle cuisine, when those vast plates-cum-bowls acted as a kind of frame for a rose-pink quail breast and a few peppercorns, has now reached a point where the plate is not merely a frame, but an integral part of the picture.

You could say that things have come full circle. In medieval times, the plates were likewise inseparable from the food. In fact, they literally were the food, in the form of trenchers made from bread that could, theoretically at least, be set upon by unsatisfied diners looking to fill up the corners after the main dish was despatched. The difference now is not so much that the plate imitates the food it holds as that the food – the new Spanish cuisine that first began to be noticed a decade and a half ago and relies heavily on technology to transform it into something that is and is not the food we know – imitates the plate, taking on a designed and manufactured aspect that makes us wonder whether we should be eating it or simply admiring it, as we would a painting or a sculpture or an Eames chair.

As if taking this idea to its logical conclusion, there are a couple of objects in the exhibition that are fabricated to look and smell like food but aren’t food at all. A scented ceramic sponge cake and a virtual bonbon – the latter infused with natural cacao and Bulgarian rose essence – are “designed to be smelt only.” These faux foods call to mind the pièces montées of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, visual extravaganzas assembled by the great Marie-Antoine Carême and others out of a flour-and-sugar paste and designed to sit in the middle of the table, to be looked at, admired, but not eaten. The main difference being that the pièce montée was food got up to mimic something else – a Grand Chinese Summer House, for instance, or a Turkish Pavilion, both of which featured in Carême’s repertoire – whereas the virtual bonbon is something else, got up to mimic food. You could, if you were so minded, snaffle a piece of a pièce to eat afterwards, but it would be unwise, as that cautionary note in the Foodjects catalogue reminds us, to try tucking into a ceramic sponge cake or a virtual bonbon.

As a counterpoint to the virtual bonbon, the exhibition catalogue provides a recipe for a real one, made from olive oil. The bonbon is savoury this time, rather than sweet, and is given as an example of the kind of (edible) food that these “foodjects” are designed to accompany. Making olive oil bonbons is not for the fainthearted, involving as it does dropping a small amount of olive oil down a tube while ensuring that a thin film of melted isomalt remains adhered to the end, ready to encase the oil as it luges its way down to the bottom, turning it magically into a bright golden bauble. Well, that’s the idea, anyway. “If the first one doesn’t work, don’t be discouraged… Just try to do it faster next time,” says the recipe, reminding us in effect that the new cuisine retains quite a lot in common with the old: all that fun in the kitchen is actually hard work. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the famously influential guide to the pre-nouvelle way of doing things first published in 1961, Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child sound a strikingly similar chord: if the egg yolks need to be beaten into the sauce drop by drop, then that is what you must do. “You may be slow and clumsy and first,” they say in their stern but encouraging preface, “but with practice you will pick up speed and style.”

The style of the new Spanish cuisine derives from a paradoxical combination of the earnest and the cheeky. Two of the more intriguing objects in the exhibition, both of them designed by the Swiss-born, Spain-based Luki Huber in 2005, emphasise the cheeky by having fun with spoons. “Spoon with Pincer,” which looks pretty much like a peg with a teaspoon stuck on the top, “allows a diner to smell one thing and eat another,” by trapping something aromatic – a sprig of rosemary perhaps – in the pincer, leading the diner to smell it on the way to whatever is waiting in the bowl of the spoon, a game of sensory mix and match. In the case of the “Strainer Spoon,” the bowl is a miniature colander, ideal for those who, for example “like to eat the cereal first, then the milk,” or the vegetables then the broth. It is essentially an update of the slotted spoon, made for the eater rather than the cook. It facilitates an active deconstruction of the meal on the part of the person eating it, echoing the fashion for chefs to break down traditional dishes into their constituent parts and lay the workings bare. Huber, with his quirky spoons, hints at how the diner can be something more than a passive consumer of one spectacularly inventive and original dish after another. The chef may be the undisputed star, but the diner can be allowed a small supporting role.

The “foodjects” in this exhibition oscillate between naturalness and artifice, between the twin poles that characterise this cuisine for the technological age. They emphasise how the new cuisine, with its “deconstructed dishes, foams, spherications,” which may seem complex and fussy and just too damn clever, is in fact aiming for the essence of taste, for a direct connection with pure flavour. José Andrés, an early colleague of Ferran Adrià whose name is now closely associated with the international spread of “small plates” dining, is quoted in the catalogue enjoining us to listen to the ingredients we use. “Have you ever had a conversation with a carrot?” he asks. “Or a tomato? You should sometime. They have a lot to say.” This kind of new-age, I-talk-to-the-carrots-and-the-carrots-talk-to-me characterisation of cooking is intended to plug us straight into what we eat, but at the other end of the spectrum is the way in which the new high-tech cuisine intellectualises the business of eating, making the food in front of us and the plates the food sits on intriguing, amusing, fascinating, part of a game rather than something we must engage with in order to stay alive.

The contradiction is resolved, if it is resolved at all, by the idea that food is nourishment for both the body and the mind. Whatever makes us pause and think about food, about how it has been prepared, how beautiful or striking or odd it looks on the plate, about how the composition of the dish alludes to something else – a painting perhaps, or a scene from nature, as in some of the signature dishes of René Redzepi’s Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, where mock grass sprouts from mock soil that has been made out of breadcrumbs or hazelnut flour – contributes to our enjoyment of food and the benefits it confers on us. The new cuisine is not, as its critics would argue, about extravagance and self-indulgence, but is a genuine attempt to get us to think about one of the most important relationships we have, to the food we eat. It is here that the “asymmetric and somewhat unstable” cutlery, designed by Javier Mariscal in 2007, can help. The irregular borders of the soup spoon, for instance, complete with an attractive but otherwise unexplained bight cutting into the bowl, are intended to “make people think.”

ALL this inventiveness notwithstanding, there are signs in the wider world that the new cuisine is running out of puff, that the emphasis on the role of technology in preparing the food, and the role of the intellect in leading us to appreciate it, has gone too far. The dates attached to some of the designs in this exhibition – the earliest is from 1999 – are a reminder that the new Spanish cuisine is not so new anymore. A lot has happened since the nineties – to cooking, to Spain, and to our general confidence in experts practising arcane arts – and a new simplicity is, at least ostensibly, back in vogue. It can be seen, for example, in the rise of American cook and food writer Tamar Adler, who models herself consciously on the formidable M.F.K. Fisher and who is all for getting back to basics. An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace questions all this emphasis on technology and cleverness and on people trying to bamboozle us with complex formulae. Cooking, she says, “has in recent years become a complication to juggle against other complications,” whereas it is in fact “both simpler and more necessary than we imagine.”

By the reckoning of Adler and others like her, the intellectualising and the relentless inventiveness of recent years just gets in the way of enjoying good food cooked well. Do we really need all the new products like Lecite and Algin and Gellan and Kappa and Iota – sample tins of these and similar aids to the production of “hot gelatines, airs, melon caviar or spherical raviolis” are included in Foodjects – in order to eat well? “Most of us,” Adler points out, “already have water, a pot to put it in, and a way to light a fire.” Our batterie de cuisine need not run to a “plastic tube of 1.5 centimetres in diameter,” as advised in the recipe for making olive oil bonbons, when we can choose to skip these space age amuse-bouches altogether and instead serve, as Tamar Adler recommends for those occasions when friends drop in, “little halved radishes, chilled in the refrigerator, a dish of salt, and another filled with softened sweet butter.”

The problem is that freshly picked radishes in crisper drawers, lying ready to spring into action when the doorbell rings, belong as much to a world of culinary fantasy as do olive oil bonbons and pincer spoons. That is not to say that radishes aren’t at a given moment, somewhere in the world, being chopped in half and served with sweet butter and a pinch of salt to unexpected callers (a process made easier by the fact that unexpected callers, having texted ahead, are more generally expected these days). And equally there are people, not all of them commercial chefs and restaurateurs, who serve olive oil bonbons too, and who prepare them with speed and skill. But neither is a common or everyday practice, and it is unlikely that they ever will be. The real difference between what are, for most of us, two idealised and unattainable culinary worlds – the low-tech one of split radishes, and the high-tech one of golden globules – lies in the differences they represent between two profoundly different ways of looking at food and its place in our lives.

Sometimes, it is true, these worlds will happily combine. Adler is quite prepared, for instance, for her low-tech practice of instinctive cookery to include an electric blender, though she draws the line at microwaves. “Use yours as a bookshelf,” she counsels, “or to store gadgets you don’t use.” And it’s fine to keep tins of artichokes and tomatoes in the cupboard for those days when you can’t get out to the shops, just as M.F.K. Fisher was not above resorting to a packet of dried onion soup when supplies of fresh alternatives ran low. But these are occasional examples that don’t disprove the general rule, which is that the Adler and the Adrià approaches to cooking are based on radically opposed philosophical precepts and are unlikely ever to become, in the manner of tomato and basil, two complementary halves of the same flavoursome whole.

What these two approaches to cuisine really do have in common, though, is the idea of food – the making, the presenting, the eating – as performance, complete with the occasional allowance for audience participation. (“Let everyone spread the radishes with a smear of butter and sprinkle them with salt,” says Adler, or let them use a specially designed slotted spoon to start with the cereal and end with the milk. Either way, the diner can become, however tangentially, part of the creative process.) Cooking and eating also entail thinking and imagining and reflecting. And writing. “I like to read descriptions of food in books,” says Adler, but “I will only read a cookbook if it is one in which the poetry of food comes alive on the page.” By and large, she meets her own benchmark, demonstrating that characteristic of all successful food writers, an elusive and ineffable way with recipes that makes you want to try them, along with a nice line in useful tips, including a chapter on rescuing culinary missteps called “How to Snatch Victory from the Jaws of Defeat.” If anything, though, Adler can sometimes overdo the poetry bit; her characterisation, for example, of a “perfect solitary sybaritic breakfast of pasta eaten directly out of a cold bowl, in bewilderment and utter presence,” betrays rather a heavy hand with the lyrical seasoning.

Tamar Adler makes the case for writing and reading about food as being an integral part of the pleasure and satisfaction of cooking it and eating it. The Foodjects designers, as might be expected, take things a step further, from writing about food to writing with it and on it. Julia Mariscal’s 2006 design for a “Writing Spoon” specifically acknowledges that “eating is a creative act,” the point being that rather than depend on a trained and talented barista to draw a picture on your cappuccino, you can do it yourself, with your own writing spoon. It’s a joke, of course, but a clever and sophisticated one, touching on the contemporary need to participate in the creative process rather than simply to witness it, to take what we are given and mash it up (a curiously culinary term) so that it’s just the way we like it. The writing spoon, with its nib-like tip, can also be used to draw pictures with foodstuffs; there’s an oddly hypnotic clip on YouTube of a disembodied hand repeatedly dipping the Julia Mariscal writing spoon into a cup of black coffee and using it to build up a picture on a plain white table cover. Designing, looking; writing, reading; cooking, eating. They all go together. •

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“Amsterdam shadow” by zibibboo/ Flickr.

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