Who said freeze dried fruit powders, foams and sodium alginate balls in fine dining is dead—?! Oops I may have said it a few years ago but clearly I was just thrown off by too much local bay area farm to table natural, untouched and unprocessed farmers market locally grown meals. This years World of Flavors conference reminded me of how much fun food can be and how chefs, especially chefs from Spain, should really have PhD’s in food science with all the research they have done to perfect their freeze dried tomato powder discs with olive caviar sodium alginate balls—AKA “Tomato Polvoron and Arbequina Caviaroli”
I had the amazing opportunity to eat at El Bulli back in 2011, right before it closed. At the time I had mixed feelings about the powders foams and gels on my plate- on the one hand I felt resentful that chefs were getting all the praise just because they were using food science ingredients that had been invented and discovered by the great food scientists of 100 years ago but on the other hand I was in awe of all the artistic food creations that could be made that the food scientist never explored because we were too busy trying to make sure that our salad dressing with xanthan looked as normal as possible in the supermarket. The chefs are artists when it comes to using industrial ingredients to create meals and food scientists are just very dry and practical about the whole thing.
The last few years the farm to table, free range, knowing the origin of the food theme has permeated the bay area like our thick fog! Most dinners are delicious but as Sara Deseran noted in her talk during the “San Francisco A City In Discovery” general session, that elite San Franciscans don’t like their food “messed with”- They like it as natural and recognizable as possible and ideally with no wasted stems, leaves or snouts left behind (that’s gets tossed into the special salad of the day!) I have to say, eating out over the past few years has not been anywhere near as exciting as it was back in the early 2000’s when I would eat tomato salads with ice cream vinaigrette dressing at Coi and edible paper at Moto (Chicago). If I want to eat a plate of beautiful sliced heirloom tomatoes, I may as well pick them up myself at the local farmers market! The Natural food movement is tasty but…well.. it’s kinda boring. How long can we talk about the life that our chicken had, before it ended up on the plate.
But my experience at World of Flavors reminded me just how fun the early 00’s were, and I was amazed at the creativity of chefs Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casanas and the demonstrations we saw based on the dishes from the restaurant “Disfrutar” (to enjoy) in Barcelona. These chefs used to work in the El Bulli kitchen and have the right skill, creativity and imagination to create dishes that are a beautiful blend of natural and non-existent in nature- at the same time. For example, how about that dish where they melted down gelatin and then reformed it into penne pasta—and then covered it in sauce and served the clear glassy penne with a creamy sauce. (for a more visual experience watch the video on the CIA livestream here)
How come I didn’t think of that—! Because molecular gastronomy, as it is incorrectly called, should really be called the artistic, creative fun and completely not productive uses of functional industrial food ingredients. Exactly the opposite of what food scientists do with those very same ingredients.
I was also very excited to see that exotic freeze dried ingredients on display—being sold in packages to chefs—but not the unexciting freeze dried peas and corn that we find in our instant cup of soup. Companies are now selling half slices of passion fruit and cherry tomatoes. Freeze drying is experiencing a brand new wave of existence in the U.S. with the recent introduction of the Harvest Right Freeze Dryer- chefs and soccer moms can make their own freeze dried foods at home.
If you didn’t make the conference this year, you should check out all the video footage that is available, for free from the CIA website. Starting with this 3-minute highlight of the show—you can almost experience the entire show from beginning to end thanks to Rich’s Food and Unilever Food Solutions—the very generous sponsors!