Jonathan Gold is onto you foodies. The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, former Gourmet writer and loyal staffer at L.A. Weekly is suspicious of the recent trend in his colleagues' fetishizing the bizarre hyperbole that has dominated elite restaurant circles over the past few years. Towing the line between back-to-basics foraging and over-the-top circus artists, the world's best chefs aren't actually cooking any more. They're performing.
In this weekend's Wall Street Journal, Gold describes a visit to Noma, a happening of a restaurant in Copenhagen that just renewed its status as best restaurant in the world. Noma is different than Alinea, the top restaurant in North America according to the same panel that judges Pellegrino's annual list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants. In a lingering, dripping with detail review, Gold describes his dining experiences at both and emerges apparently transformed. He wasn't expecting Noma, a dozen tables and a kitchen hidden in an old herring warehouse, to compete with Alinea, where he ate first. You can tell by his description of the kitchen, that he was impressed by Grant Achatz's restaurant in Chicago's Lincoln Park:
If you are a little early, you may be invited into the Alinea kitchen, which is an extraordinary place, a big space, practically a ballroom, gleaming-clean as an operating theater, filled with serious men and women bent like jewelers over their work stations. It is quiet in Achatz's kitchen; no yelling, no music, no clatter of plates. There are also no range hoods, no internal dividers, and no visible flame. And you don't smell anything either. The cuisine seems less cooked than willed into existence.
Reminiscing about experiences at Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Napa Valley and waxing nostalgic about El Bulli in Spain, Gold reminds us that Gourmet identified Alinea as the best restaurant in America in 2006. Gold explains, "Back then the cooking at Alinea brought to mind the earliest days of performance art, when the body (or the food) became essentially an extension of the elaborate hardware built to support it." He describes how the chef dances his way through 17 to 22 courses on a given night, some of which are less bites of food that moments of flavor.
Salon's Francis Lam, also a Gourmet alum, wrote in March about Alinea and more specifically the interactive eating experience Aschatz creates. "At some point during my first meal at Grant Achatz's restaurant Alinea, I started giggling," said Lam. "There had been no joke -- I just started giggling. Soon, I was bouncing up and down in my seat, laughing almost uncontrollably, and then suddenly teetered on the edge where I didn't know if I might start crying. I was, as they say, emotional, and I couldn't exactly say why."
In 2011, the trend endures at Noma but in a much different way. At Noma, the experience is less about the chef pulling levers and making the food dance, but rather about using food to tell a story about where it's from. Gold differentiates Alinea, the Modernist restaurant, from Noma, the culmination of a foraging adventure. Noma's chef, René Redzepi, actually published a cookbook for the restaurant that reads like a manifesto that Gold calls "the least useful volume in the history of culinary literature" as it's filled with photos of forests, seaweed and the occasional essay rather than recipes. However, upon arriving at Noma, it's clear that this new trend of performance cuisine depended much more on setting the stage for the customer to discover than on spotlighting the chef's creation. Gold writes:
It is then, more or less, that you discover that the first course has been sitting in front of you all this time—the gnarled twigs in the vase of wildflowers are sculpted from a kind of crunchy malt flatbread, dusted with powder made from dried beech shoots, ready to be plucked and munched like pretzel sticks.
The trend continues as Noma doesn't so much serve up dishes, than prop buckets of ingredients that depend on you to put on the show. The restaurant's signature dish, The Hen and the Egg, is a perfect example:
A plate of damp hay appears, smoldering under the empty, superheated pan that rests atop it. A squeeze bottle is produced: You are directed to squirt a few drops of hay-infused oil into the pan, and then crack a speckled wild-duck egg into the oil. A timer is set. The egg white bubbles and spits. When two minutes have elapsed, you are instructed to swirl a knob of goat butter into the pan and briefly sauté a few fragile leaves of spinach and of ramson, a kind of wild garlic that may have been gathered that morning in a nearby city park.
A chef brings over a tiny saucepan of forest-green ramson oil, which he spoons over the cooked white. You scatter herbs and wildflowers, and break off whorls from a potato-chip helix. The fragrance of Nordic spring drifts from the pan: the distant smoke, the dampness of thawed earth, the secret pungency of the forest floor. You have discovered what it might be like to fry an egg in the spring woods if you had perfect ingredients and the resources of one of the world's great kitchens. A hundred tiny things have been orchestrated to ensure that you will be eating the best fried egg of your life.
Does the chef deserve accolades? Sure, though Gold showers less praise on Redzepi than he does the American Achatz. Is Noma really the best restaurant in the world? Probably not for everyone. "Does this mean the lists are susceptible to fads, as novelty-seeking voters flock to Modernist-cuisine restaurants one year and forager-intensive restaurants the next?" Gold asks. "I'm afraid it does."