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Dinner, Deconstructed

Is Charlotte ready for postmodern dining?

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I am here to praise Ferran Adria, not bury him. Oh, join the fricking club, you say. The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, any cooking rag worth its sea salt -- all have mentioned the Frank Lloyd Wright of the cooking arts. And most of these titles are already setting his fleshy, pink face in a plaster cast, the better to speed along canonization.

Adria's detractors would argue that he -- along with like-minded trender-benders such as Grant Achatz of Chicago's Trio and Alinea -- create work that is fundamentally dazzling, yet completely inaccessible to the tastes of the common folk. And it's true, really. One has a better chance of finding a Lloyd Wright construction that doesn't leak than getting a table at Adria's famed Spanish foodie mecca "El Bulli."

What is accessible -- and should be spread, Malcolm X-style, by any means necessary -- is the Adria/Achatz philosophy: Passion. Powerful simplicity. Creativity as defined in three words: "Do Not Copy."

To which I would add: Ever.

Especially, not now.

Ours is a society built on the artful swiping of this or that, followed by a composting period and the first green sprouts of new growth. See: the blues, jazz, rock & roll, and most any other art form we Americans can call our own.

These days, however, we flat-out copy, whether it be the music industry, the publishing industry, the movie industry, or the food industry. In tense times, both economically and otherwise, comfort food too often means copy food.

Adria and Achatz know that if we do not shed our skins on the sharp rock of risk, the (forgive me here) terrorists have won. Like the unshakeable vision of a Don DeLillo or a Bob Dylan, these chefs celebrate the individual in a group-centric world. They are immune to ideology derived from antiquated ideas like "fitting in" or "tradition" or even "safety."

Achatz described their philosophy thusly in Food and Wine: "We know we can get awesome shrimp. That's not good enough for us anymore. How can we manipulate it? We're still dealing with the same ingredients, but we sit down and say, 'What's a shrimp?'"

Some people celebrate God. Adria and Achatz celebrate flavor. Most California-style "fresh" cuisines celebrate ingredients. As shown by their famed "not-foods" -- Adria's "air" and "foam," Achatz's vaporized "shrimp cocktail" -- both chefs could almost care less about the vehicle itself, as long as it drives the taste buds to the destination they've prepared for you. ("And if you'll look on your left, tarragon!")

They are postmodern, even as the delivery is nearly existential. Adria makes dishes out of four freaking almonds, for crying out loud: one salty, one sweet, one sour, and one bitter. The presentation is pure black and white. The whole thing is served with that most omnipresent and omnipotent of beverages, cold water. "People will remember this all their lives," Adria boasts.

Their pull goes even further than the kitchen arts. Adria and Achatz are single-handedly changing the way we look at the chef. Whereas today's greatest chefs can now sometimes parlay their handy way with a crepe or lobster bisque into a starring role on the Food Network, Adria's out to make them into something more: capital-A Artistes. He meticulously dates and documents his recipes, as a poet might his scribblings. He keeps a notebook. He speaks fondly of "periods" in his work, much like a painter who inevitably sleeps his way through a series of muses. In this day and age, we need our art to speak to us -- if not shout -- to rise above the din of mediocrity. Adria is a megaphone clad in a smock and clogs.

As yet, Charlotte hasn't seen anything like Adria or Achatz, although folks like Jim Alexander of Zebra are becoming well-known for their inventive preparation and presentation (Alexander does do a couple dishes that contain "froth," featuring tarragon and other concentrated flavors). Would the market be able to handle such an eatery? Only time will tell, but Charlotte's love of being described as "world class" -- not to mention all that big-business/banking money and a huge influx of immigration from other cities -- would seem to bode well for such an endeavor.

Again, what might seem wild and woolly from the outside looking in isn't so complex once you break it down. Left to their own devices, the postmodern chef simply deconstructs food down to its most basic elements: texture, temperature and taste.

The proton, neutron, and electron of the food cell, the building blocks in the above paragraph are only inert if you don't know how to properly combine them. In the hands of a chef like Adria or Achatz, they're the recipe for a mushroom cloud.

Hmmm . . . "Clouds." Someone call El Bulli.

Timothy C. Davis is a correspondent for Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, the Christian Science Monitor, and the food Web site egullet.com, where a different version of this article first appeared.

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