Modern Roots

While looking for a new position and spending countless hours talking to various people, I am beginning to feel a bit like a broken record. The same questions are pressed to me at each stop, the same words string from my mouth in answer.

Hearing something for the third time, I realized how ingrained into my philosophy this truth was. I was describing my experiences interning in two very modern kitchens, The Fat Duck and WD-50, and this conclusion.

Modern cuisine is as rooted in classic cuisine as any other kitchen. I feel like the attention grabbing modern methods and techniques are simply the tip of the iceberg. The top peeking out of a massive structure of very grounded classic cooking.

Heston made the point of perception, saying that something modern will look much more so when seen next to something traditional, and vice versa. The tradition of a dish shines when playfully paired with something highly modern.

I used one of my favorite dishes at WD-50 to make my example. The dish was a bowl filled with a crystal clear steaming broth with 3 white orbs bobbing about at the bottom. The orbs contained a warm liquid encapsulated in a thin and tender pectin membrane that burst in the mouth with a little pressure from the tongue to the mouths roof. A wafer thin toast cracker rested on the rim of the bowl holding another capsule and creating a visual aesthetic in the vain of ikea’s minimalistic clean lines.

But the flavors were that of french onion soup, as classic as it comes. The broth, a roasted onion consume was rooted in traditional flavor and made with a classic raft, albeit I seem to remember the protein of the traditional egg white was traded for something from the shelf, meat glue perhaps? The orbs contained intense bursts of roasted Gruyere, and the wafer thin toasts represented the toasted bread that usually sogs above the soup. The modern presentation needed to be set over a deep understanding of the classic dish, just as modern cooking comes from chefs who have a deep understanding of cuisine as a whole.

I often think starting my awareness of this modern movement at The Fat Duck was a stroke of luck. I say this because their use of molecular gastronomy is so subtle that much of it goes unnoticed. Hestons cuisine showed his attachment to the traditions of British food as much as his research into molecular gastronomy.

His dish of bacon and egg ice cream certainly garnered media attention, but it’s placement in a dessert replicating a plate of full English, the traditional British breakfast of bacon, eggs, beans, and tomatoes grounded it and gave the odd flavored ice cream context. The bacon and egg ice cream may have been the media darling of this dish, but it sat aside an outstanding baton of “pain perdu” or french toast. This traditional element to the dish was made from a piece of brioche soaked in a traditional custard and cooked in a series of classic techniques. It was this traditional component, along with a roasted tomato jam, candied bacon bits, and dots of maple syrup that rooted the unusually modern bacon and egg ice cream in place.

It seems to me that modern kitchens are often dismissed as only that. But honestly, they seem just as, if not more grounded in tradition than many kitchens claiming to be traditional. My conclusion and the words that have been stringing again and again from my mouth are that tradition holds modern cuisine in context, therefor its just as important to me to look back as it is to look forward.

6 Responses to “Modern Roots”

  1. Hey Dana – what you say about the roots of modern food rings true, though I think only at the highest levels. There are lots of mediocre knockoffs that don’t understand tying together the roots and the modern techniques, they are just trying to do something flashy. Also, can I just say that I’m really looking forward to seeing the news that you’ve landed at a new restaurant, because I can barely wait to come try your desserts? Everything you make looks amazing.

  2. dana says:

    Michael- You will be happy to know then that I had my first day at work yesterday, and am the new pastry chef at a Seattle restaurant called Veil. Within a few weeks of settling in the menu should begin to reflect my own work, and if you do make it in feel free to come visit me in the kitchen!

  3. Michael says:

    I completly agree with what you say about understanding the traditional method, and modernizing it. this is how i feel about asian fusion, and my personal disagrement with it….i don’t understand the fundementals of asian cooking, thus i have no basis to change or manipulate it. I would do asian fusion if i spent a year or so in a asian restuarant, learning techniques and recipies, then finally, with an understanding manipulating things.

  4. Hey Dana! Congratulations, that is great news. We’ve been meaning to try Veil and now we have an excellent reason! We’ll have to be sure and save room for dessert, and we’ll definitely come see you in the kitchen.

  5. Richard Chan says:

    Congrats! Looking forward to trying Veil. You preception on modern cuisine is very insightful. :)

  6. brandon says:

    It’s the same with all art forms. People need to realize that it’s traditional to be innovative.
    -brandon (of brandonandmolly, of orangette fame)

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