Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Moto: Cuisine Agape

I have been musing deeply on our meal last night. The ideas encased in food will not leave my thoughts. If, for no other reason, is one of the most memorable meals of my life. I can't bring myself to claim that was one of the most delicious meals of my life in purely gustatory terms (although there were many very delicious moments and several astonishing ones). And on this a crucial and important paradox rests.

If we look back at this meal from the distance of a decade hence, we may well conclude that Chef Cantu is the most important American chef of his generation OR that Chef Cantu is the most influential American chef of his generation OR that Chef Cantu represents a fascinating footnote to American cuisine.

As I "read" his cuisine, Chef Cantu is attempting two revolutions at once: call them "Cuisine Agape" and "Technocuisine." At some points they work well together, at other points less so. By Cuisine Agape I refer to Chef Cantu's attempts to amaze and to provide diners with a deeper range of emotional response that is traditional at table. He wants - and succeeds - in infusing laughter, gaiety, puzzlement, and, perhaps, even, annoyance in the course of the dinner. Most great chefs have stopped at producing profound satisfaction ("Isn't this dish exquisite!"). Exquisiteness is not sufficient for this chef. In several dishes the tastes will be less memorable than the ideas (yes, the pureed chips and salsa do taste like chips and salsa). Dishes like his deconstructed sweet potato pie produces a gaiety, the roadkill raccoon created deep laughter as we got the joke (it took a moment to see the plate as a highway with a blob of raccoon), the popcorn flavored packing material produced a deep sense of discomfort leading to satisfaction, the French toast with hot blueberry syrup produced a startle as the syrup bladder suddenly spilled its tart richness unexpectedly, and the sorbet sphere produced a mix of eager anticipation and impatience as we waited for these brightly colored ice orbs to implode. Rather than being a maestro of the tongue, Chef Cantu strives to be a maestro of the emotions.

In this his similarity and differences with his mentor Charlie Trotter are apparent. In some sense, Chef Cantu is the anti-Trotter. I think of CT as "the philosopher in the kitchen" (with a bow to Brillat-Saverin). His subtly forces one to consider the intricate relations of tastes and textures. These are slow and cognitive considerations. As a culinary philosopher, there is no one better. (And few better as a working chef). If there is a complaint of CT's cuisine is that it sometimes lacks the robustness of European-trained chefs like Chef Joho - a commitment to "big flavors."

No one would suggest that Chef Cantu is a philosopher in the kitchen - he is too impatient for that (this is not an assessment of his personality, but of his cuisine). He doesn't wish to have us contemplate, but to shake us up, grabbing our lapels. He wants a cuisine of amazement, a cuisine of affect. Unlike most chefs who root their cuisine in a desire to comfort, Chef Cantu, like artists such as Jeff Koons, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, or Christo, realizes that an art form can make demands on its audience. Cuisine need not be "prettified." Diners beware.

Let me not exaggerate, Chef Cantu is not at the point of serving rusty nails, or forcing us to forage with him or dumpster dive. He shows no signs of desiring an emetic cuisine, a cuisine of cruelty. (We are not ready for this, and, hopefully, never will.) Yet, the opening salvo - our amuse bouche - our popcorn flavored packing material was an attempt to challenge the diner. Should be trust this chef by placing what appeared to be Styrofoam in our gullet? It was a brilliant stratagem - and as the nervousness and the "peanuts" dissolved - an effective one undercutting our confidence in the world of cuisine, permitting Chef Cantu to twist our expectations all the better. A second dish - in my judgment the high point of the evening (bolstered by the best wine of the night - the 2001 Schubert Syrah) - was the "Skirt Steak with a Red Wine & Beet Puree Applied Your Way." We were provided a small pipette of beet-walnut sauce and were permitted (demanded) to create our own aesthetic. Coupled with pellets of Kentucky Fried Chicken Ice Cream and sliced rutabaga, a dish that just couldn't work, did work magnificently. The references to KFC and to Burger King raise the question of who controls the meal - the diner or the chef. Who could image that fried chicken ice cream would have been the perfect partner for skirt steak - Chef Cantu, that's who.

In thinking back, a Cuisine Agape may work better with somewhat fewer dishes. We had 20 courses during seven hours, and fifteen might have encapsulated the emotions without repetition. However, given the length of the meal I was not stuffed at any point in the dinner, itself a triumph for a meal of this breadth, and a recognition of the Chef's awareness of the physiology of the digestive tract.

This brings us to Chef Cantu's commitment to a technological cuisine. Technocuisine is not so dissimilar from a Cuisine Agape. The engineering tricks are designed to amaze. However, I couldn't escape the concern that sometimes Chef Cantu selected the dishes to show off his chemical prowess. When you give a young boy a hammer, everything in the house becomes a nail. I felt that some of the dishes had this quality. The Maki in the 4th Dimension - a surprising maki, covered in edible rice paper embossed with images of the food within, was more a curiosity than a dish that I would demand for future meals. The use of carbonation or nitrogenation can work as it did for the wonderfully tingly, sexy "Lobster and Orange," or it can be less effective as in the "Onion/Crouton/Nitrogenation" (with its mist and mystery), which lacked compelling taste structure after the smoke had cleared. Technology needs to serve a sense of culinary wonder and emotional response. Or put another way, many bright ten-year olds receive chemistry sets, but one must be cautious when they ask to serve breakfast in bed.

So to return to my question at the start: will Chef Cantu be seen an important, influential, or eccentric chef in a decade's time. He (like we) is a work in progress. He is challenging the idea of what a meal means. But some revolutionaries go too far. That is, they provide an outside limit within which others work. This was true of some of the early chefs who attempted fusion cuisine (I think of Larry Forgione here). They have great influence, deservedly so, even if they are not the most important chefs of their generation.

Others (Charlie Trotter, Alice Waters) can push the limits, but know when to pull back, allowing them to be revolutionaries and masters. Still others, think of Marinetti and the Italian futurists, become footnotes on the path not to be taken.

Moto is a young restaurant and Homaru Cantu is a young chef. If in the years ahead he is able to filter his brilliant ideas from his other ideas, he will become a member of the pantheon of truly prodigious chefs. If his ability is not to shift ideas, but can gather around him a group of acolytes who can incorporate his ideas while drawing back from his missteps his position as a powerful influence will be secured. But if this cuisine pushes further into creating dishes just to demonstrate that they can be created, then we will have been treated to an experience that will remain deeply embedded in our memories, but not in our dining choices in 2015.

Thank you, Chef. Thank you, staff.