Culinary Deconstruction: defending a breakdown of the extraordinary

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Yet again I have been accused of being a deconstructivist and this label was definitely applied as if it were a bad thing. Apparently I’ve been applying analysis were no analysis should go. What is funny is that these were science and art minded folk. Lately I’m not the only one going through this; the writers of Modernist Cuisine are getting their share of accusations for deconstructing what should not be touched. We’ve been treading on sacred ground.

Seeing all these deconstruction back lashes is making me think people are turning to culinary as a religion. Religion in this context is a realm of the super-natural and the extra-ordinary that we have a motivational drive to maintain. Ellen Dissanayake’s great deconstruction of art, Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why? posits a biological drive to “make special” which beyond the calories, is essentially what culinary art is all about.

In seeking the special, supernatural, and extraordinary we have two options. We can either make more of it (climb to higher levels), or resist explaining it (which would deflate the specialness). Making special requires deconstruction (so something can be reassembled with empathy), but the relative ease of resisting an explanation makes it the more economical choice.

So I guess the road to hell is paved with good intentions. When I tried to create a theory of acquired tastes and a method of categorizing aromas to unlock the patterns of pleasure, I inadvertently devalued the current levels of extraordinary. The same goes for Modernist Cuisine’s explanation of how to perfectly par cook and sous-vide nearly everything on the first try. The supernatural brisket and exquisite, extraordinary risotto might have just been rendered plain ordinary.

Any culinary artists that aims to play with deconstruction is up against powerful Freudian drives to maintain a special realm. It makes me wonder if the tendency has a name or if I’m just paranoid and crazy.

In either case, I think the way out is to tie culinary arts to problem solving. A dish, a drink, or even an institution like a restaurant solves a problem. This is the case with all art mediums. We can identify pressing problems like sustainability, the need to diversify agriculture, various social needs, and we can engineer culinary solutions to these problems. Sustainability, for example, requires more diverse food sources, which therefore either require abstraction techniques to meet our current harmonic bounds or the expansion of our harmonic bounds. Harmony can be deconstructed and studied for the sake of problem solving.

So would you surrender your realm of the extraordinary for the sake of solving problems like sustainability?

What problems does Ferran Adria solve? Rene Redzepi? Charlie Trotter? The chef at your neighborhood spot?

[I slowly went on to consider the smallest problems a work of art could solve: anxiety, complacency, cementing memories and retrieving memories. These problems are not large but pervasive and explain the significance of the simply decorative in art which culinary often gets relegated to.]

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