By Chef James Briscione, Director of Culinary Development

Recently, a little known group composed of the world’s most famous chefs gathered to surprise and celebrate one of their own: Chef Wylie Dufresne. The group, Gelinaz, descended on New York’s Lower East Side to toast the 10th anniversary of Dufresne’s restaurant wd~50, an American temple to avant garde cuisine.

The Gelinaz tribute dinner for Wylie Dufresne's birthday.

The Gelinaz group gathers to honor Wylie Dufresne

While modernist cuisine might not be the first thing that pops into a person’s mind when they think Wylie Dufresne, his food certainly falls into that category. This isn’t surprising. Ask a chef tagged with the “modernist” moniker, and he or she will likely say that they never thought of their own cuisine as such. The label is typically fixed upon a chef by others in the culinary community—often as part of an ongoing debate about the positives and negatives of modernist techniques.

So what exactly is modernist cuisine? In short, it’s a buzzword—the latest term used to describe an innovative and avant garde style of cooking. First popularized by Ferran Adria (the “foam guy”) at his restaurant El Bulli, modernist cuisine has since become known the world over. Previous to Adria, the techniques used in modernist cuisine were housed under the umbrella of molecular gastronomy: a scientific discipline that studies the chemistry of food. Great minds such as Nicholas Kurti, Herve This and Harold McGee made tremendous strides in this field, ultimately inspiring chefs like Adria, Heston Blumenthal and Grant Achatz to incorporate scientific methods into their cooking. Thus, modernist cuisine was born.

The most famous stereotype of modernist cooking? Foam.

The most famous stereotype of modernist cooking? Foam.

The problem with “modern cuisine” is the same that plagues all artistic fields—it is poorly replicated by people that don’t have a firm grasp of the necessary techniques. (For a comparable example, do a Google image search for “bad abstract art”). Beyond the foam, sous-vide and reverse spherification, modernist cooking is really about examining ingredients and asking, “What makes a carrot good?” and “How I make the good part of a carrot better?” Technology has enabled us to find the precise time/temperature ratio that produces a carrot more tender, sweet and delicious. Now, does that carrot taste better when it is in the form a delicate sphere? Probably not. But is it pretty cool looking? Heck yeah!

Applying modernist technique to a dish, without the overly-abstracted presentation.

Applying modernist technique to a dish, without the overly-abstracted presentation.

This is where that slippery slope begins. It took me many years as a chef to learn restraint. To understand that “because I can” is not a good reason to put something on a plate. In the 1970s, we were faced with a comparable culinary movement: nouvelle cuisine. As this lighter perspective on French cooking swept the globe, it led us to some strange and debatably appetizing places. (Imagine raspberry coulis, pushed into a squeeze bottle, to ultimately dot a plate of lightly cooked veal or some other horrific combination.) These things happened because people read an article about Michel Guerard or Fernand Point, but didn’t take the time to understand the heart of what these chefs were creating. Yet no matter its bizarre derivatives, nouvelle cuisine did inspire chefs to question and reimagine the way they approached their own cooking.

New styles of presentation and plating are among the most important influences of the modernist movement.

New styles of presentation and plating are among the most important influences of the modernist movement.

Today, while it could be argued that the stereotypes of modernist cuisine—spheres, foams and other abstractions of ingredients—are considered passé, we see restaurant menus detailing fermented this and housemade that. This trend of DIY, chef-crafted ingredients is a direct result of the scientific modernist movement. Over the past 10 years, kitchens became laboratories. In those labs, ingredients were broken down into their basic components so they could be better understood. Curious chefs discovered new ways to manipulate products, presenting them in new forms on your plate. And while the end product of these “labs” may have shifted from housemade cantaloupe caviar to artisanal pork katsuobushi, let us not forget that the path is essential.

Click here to learn more about Chef James and his work on the very modern Cognitive Cooking project with IBM.

ICE Director of Career Services Maureen Drum Fagin and Career Services Advisor Deanna Silva with elBulli Chef Ferran Adria. Photo by Greg Nesbit Photography

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Last week, the gastronomy of Spain and its role in shaping worldwide culinary innovation, was celebrated in true style by none other than its highest practitioner, Chef Ferran Adrià. The event, which also served as a book launch for The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at elBulli, by Lisa Abend, was presented by ICEX (The Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade) at NYU’s King Juan Carlos I Center in Manhattan.

The event kicked off with a speech by Miguel Sebastián, Spain’s Minister of Industry, Tourism and Commerce, on how Spain has shaped the world’s food culture. Lisa Abend then discussed her book, the daily life of elBulli interns (imagine pulling hundreds of individual pine nuts out of pinecones for the menu’s “risotto” course!), and what it means to hold a coveted stagiaire position at the world’s most renowned restaurant. (By the way, she noted that Adrià often says, a stage at his restaurant is even harder to secure than a reservation — over 3,000 candidates apply each year for around 32 unpaid six-month stage slots.) Two former elBulli stagiaires, including ICE’s own Paras Shah (Culinary ’07), spoke about their time in the elBulli kitchen, and how it’s impacted both their career and the way they think about food, craft, and creativity in general. More…

How do we define the creativity of chefs? This week over 1,000 savory and pastry chefs, restaurant managers, sommeliers and other industry professionals gathered at The Park Avenue Armory for the 3-day International Chefs Congress (ICC), organized by StarChefs.com. I had the opportunity to attend two of the many presentations that discussed this year’s theme, an exploration of the debate Craft vs. Art.

I attended a presentation by “Shock-o-latier” Dominique Persoone (The Chocolate Line) and gastronomical scientist Bernard Lahousse (Sense for Taste, FoodPairing) about how emotions and memories affect taste, as well as El Bulli’s Albert Adrià’s presentation taking us deeper into the contents of his books Natura and A Day at El Bulli. What did I take away from these two presentations? Both, at the core, focused on three things: Simplicity. Technique. Fun.

In terms of simplicity, what these chefs shared was completely in line with my lessons in the Pastry & Baking Arts program at ICE. Chef Nicole advised us to use only three flavors maximum in a dessert. “Keep it simple,” she said. Adrià also shared, “If I can only put three, I’m not going to put six.” Chef Scott reminded us how important it is to choose a color that makes sense for your dessert. Adrià agreed, “If it’s pistachio, and it’s not green, there’s something wrong.” When it is the same color as the product, the aroma and the taste to follow will be in line and good. More…

Dinner at Alinea (For captions, click on each photo)

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Last week, ICE President Rick Smilow returned from Chicago for the second time this year. Always having a keen eye out for culinary trends, he reported back to DICED on some of the most notable restaurants, chefs and meals he encountered. In Part I, he discussed some memorable meals and places. Part II of his report is devoted to one memorable meal at the famed Alinea.

I have had some great meals in my life, but rarely have they been on a Sunday night. Perhaps because that is the night I am most likely to cook at home. If we do go out, it’s probably to someplace familiar, not adventuresome or ambitious. On top of that, it is often the norm in the restaurant business that “the A team” has Sunday night off and is away from the kitchen. But at on Sunday, August 8, I had one of the best meals of my life at Alinea.

Located at 1723 N. Halstead in Chicago, Alinea is the creation of Chef-Patron Grant Achatz. Open since 2005, the restaurant has earned many of the culinary world’s highest honors. It won the 2010 James Beard Award for Outstanding Service and is on San Pellegrino’s list as the top dining establishment in America, having overtaken Per Se in the 2010 listings. This past spring, Chicago magazine even named Alinea, “the most significant restaurant in Chicago’s history.”

Black Truffle “Explosion” with Romaine & Parmesan

By way of cuisine and labels, Alinea is considered a “progressive American” restaurant. A leading location to experience molecular gastronomy, it is perhaps our closest incarnation to Spain’s legendary gastronomic mecca, El Bullì. Until recently, Alinea offered only two menu options, a 12- or 24- course tasting menu. The new scheme has one option, an 18-course tasting menu, priced at $185 before wine.

The accompanying slideshow (for captions, click on the photos) showcases many of the dishes our foursome was served during this memorable night. What the pictures cannot capture is how wonderful everything tasted. In this kitchen, molecular gastronomy and innovative techniques serve to enhance flavors. The pictures also do not fully capture the uniqueness of the presentation of so many dishes, and the interactive aspects of the meal. I actually expected more shock value; odd combinations or ingredients that would be transformed through the magic of science. However, our dining experience was better than that. More…

When ICE President Rick Smilow and Anne E. McBride wrote Culinary Careers: How to Get Your Dream Job in Food they discovered a plethora of food jobs they had never heard of before. Since the book’s release, they have been discovering even more interesting career paths in the food world. DICED shares some of them with you in a reoccurring feature, “Unique Culinary Careers.”

Working in the culinary industry affords many unique and interesting opportunities. Paras Shah graduated from ICE’s Culinary Arts program in 2007. A born and raised New Yorker, Shah plans to open a small restaurant in Queens one day, but for now his culinary journey has taken him to Europe and one of the top restaurants in the world. After completing his externship at Per Se, he went on to work at Momofuku Noodle Bar. While working there, he was one of two American culinary school graduates to be awarded an ICEX Spanish Trade Commission Scholarship, allowing him to spend a year cooking in Spain. While there, he worked at Echaurren in La Rioja, then Santo Mauro in Madrid and is now at Ferran Adrià’s world-famous El Bullì in Roses. We asked him about working in Spain, cooking in another language and how travel is shaping his culinary growth.

How would you describe your job?
I am a stage at El Bullì, one of the best restaurants in the world. I am part of an international team of about 50 cooks. We do everything from doing about 90% of the mise en place to plating dishes during service. It involves long hours and we strive to be perfect in everything that we do in the kitchen. At El Bullì, we are constantly striving to reinvent the concept of fine dining by utilizing the newest techniques and pushing the envelope. More…