It wasn't that long ago, a year and a half to be accurate, that I was heading to Puerto Rico for our season finale. I remember feeling like the competition was getting pretty easy, not in a cocky way, but in an experienced way. By the 23rd and 24th challenge, the routine becomes, well, just that. It's a distance runner a few miles in. By this episode, the chefs are well warmed up and in full stride. This is when the chefs should produce some of the best food of the season. And it’s this episode, where the judging also becomes obviously more detailed.
It's not over salting or an unset crème brulee, now. It's the viscosity of the hollandaise - the authenticity of tomate Provencal.
The quickfire dishes were all presented well. They even looked tasty, which is tougher then it sounds. They were seemingly creative. I mean, a panna cotta bleeding mango yolk? Using ricotta as a sub for a bacon, egg, and cheese? The green egg? The egg white as a sheet of nori? Where has this whimsy and inventiveness been all season?
And then I get it. This group cooks through a challenge, for the most part, literally. When presented with Wylie Dufresne, one of our genres pioneers, they respond by cooking to him. Mimicking. WWWD? What would Wylie do? It is the last supper after all?
When I was a kid I wanted to be a professional baseball player. I threw a rubber ball against my stoop for hours each day. I talked about myself, out loud, as if I was the broadcaster. I mimicked my heroes. Dwight Gooden, Rick Sutcliffe, Bob Tewksbury. I would throw in the stance and motion of these pitchers. When I was twelve, if you asked me to throw like those players, I would nail it. Gooden’s high leg kick. Sutcliffe concealing the ball and waving his mitt. Tewksbury throwing of off the ground submarine style.
I was never to become Top Pitcher however. Oh, I still could fan most of you with a wiffle ball. But I never became Richard Blais, stylistically.
Fabio does his best impression of Wylie and finds himself on the bottom. Carla does a good impression of herself and wins.
I’d also like to mention, that most chefs involved in molecular gastronomy, do not care for the term "molecular gastronomy." I’d actually be willing to guess all of them. We may use it, I’m guilty, to express feelings about a genre of food. But it's like telling a hip hop artist he’s a rapper. Rap is to hip hop, what molecular gastronomy is to...
Well, that's the problem. We don't really have a universal term for it.
Molecular gastronomy, it must be said again, aims to make food better. Extending and adding on to tradition by asking questions and experimenting. If you can make an ingredient better by manipulating it, that is good. If you can only manipulate for the sake of manipulation or art, then that is bad.
My favorite quote that embodies MG is from Ferran Adria. "My basil jelly, tastes better than basil."
I would argue that Carla’s green egg did represent molecular gastronomy. Avant garde, new school, alternative cuisine, or whatever else you want to call it. By thinking of her dish from an abstract point of view, she had inspiration that was truly her own. She manipulated the color, texture, and feeling of a simple traditional dish. She elevated it, without losing it’s soul. It’s a remix. Of course she should of somehow incorporated, "On a boat, with a goat," but I digress.
Now the challenge, they have to cook for the Jedi Council of Elders. Featuring Jacques Pepin, playing the part of the guy with the really long neck and gentle disposition. Again, literally, most of the chefs go about creating the last meal as requested. And here, I can’t blame them entirely. I would have wanted to turn the shrimp scampi into actual shrimp noodles. A nod to Wylie and something I know is more delicious then it’s traditional inspiration. It is the type of dish that if you pull off, it wins the challenge. And a difficulty level that gets you high marks even if you don’t stick the landing. But it’s a tough call to make under pressure.
Because of the pressure, creativity and authorship can get suppressed. They collectively and unknowingly bring the judges’ decision all down to simple execution. They don’t afford themselves any interpretive defense. The saving grace of "quotation marks" if you will. They want to talk French with Jacques Pepin, Swedish with Samuelsson, and whatever language Wylie’s planet speaks.
Next week, they will undoubtedly be speaking a language of "yeah babies," "pork fat rules," and "bams!" as they head to New Orleans. The regional cuisine should be a great backdrop to express themselves in the finals. As long as they don’t take things too literally! And for the record...my last meal? You’d have to ask me the day of, but a good cheeseburger or spaghetti Bolognese would always be in the running. What about yours?