By Alan Richman
Illustrations by David Gonzalez
Walking to the restaurant, I was aware that the streets were unnaturally dark, the buildings mostly unmarked. The experience was unsettling, not what going out to eat is supposed to be. I was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where everyone wants to dine, but in the old warehouse district. I wandered along Wythe Ave., peering, trying to find the restaurant Aska, but even when I did, I wasn’t certain, because the name was nearly invisible.
When you venture out in search of America’s latest gastronomic trend, it’s often that way.
This style of dining is currently nameless. What makes the food different is that every chef is seeking to express himself in an incomparable and triumphant manner. I call it Egotarian Cuisine.
The food is ingenious. It’s occasionally brilliant. Too often, it’s awful.
The chefs behind it, many of them acclaimed, test culinary boundaries, push themselves to the edge of the cliff and sometimes drop off. You’ll come upon this food if you’re heading for a restaurant that serves small-plate dishes that express the inspirations of the chef, and if what appears before you are compilations of ingredients never previously compiled.
This is the first food development in America that exists not because customers are eager for it but because chefs insist on doing it. Sometimes it’s about foraging. Sometimes technology. Sometimes both. Just about anything can and will get pickled or fermented. The restaurants, usually small but sometimes not, are frequently found in the oddest places—Aska, until this week, was located within an art and design exhibition space called Kinfolk Studios.
9 Signs You’re Dining on Egotarian Cuisine
- You’re eating from earthenware bowls crafted by women living in upstate woodlands.
- You’re on your second bottle of wine and the second course has yet to arrive.
- The soundtrack is Scandinavian electro-pop.
- You’re not sure whether your pièce de résistance has a webbed foot or a grasping claw.
- The herb in your soup is found only in botany textbooks.
- The bread is designated as one of your courses. If it’s the best course, you’re having New Nordic Dude Food.
- Your waiter is struggling to work at Etsy instead of in films.
- Your dessert consists of fruit granité, dried trail food, and rolled oats—a horse’s breakfast.
- The chef explains that his cooking has “a story to tell,” and it’s a romantic novel of self-love.
I opened the door to Aska and came face-to-face with a metal box containing the building’s circuit breakers. What was that doing there? I had no idea. With this cuisine, ambiance is another indefinite. I zigged left, then right, and found myself in a dark, somber, but surprisingly comfortable room. There’s a mural on the back wall, a red-shouldered hawk, bird of prey, descending, death to all. I was here for the seven-course tasting menu, but otherwise I had no idea what I’d be eating. It’s almost always this way.
My food was brought to the table by the slim lady in the severe black dress. Or by the sommelier, dressed in a sports jacket and T-shirt. Or by chef Fredrik Berselius, who is blond, lanky, and seems to be channeling Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal. They were kind. I was handed a scallop chip—sharp, abrasive, intense, like the bagged fish chips you might have bought in a Chinese grocery store and wished you had not. I got a little round croquette, another amuse-bouche, although usually these days they are called snacks. This one contained pig’s blood and allspice. A Christmas cookie soaked in blood!
My meal immediately improved. Berselius admires variations on the same ingredient. He loves accents, powerful ones. One course was sunchoke juice with elderflower vinegar poured into a bowl containing sunchoke puree, sunchoke chips, dried chanterelles, and pickled chanterelles. My head snapped back from the acidity wafting up from the juice and vinegar combination. Yet it was also invigoratingly fresh.
He is masterful with sweet touches—some of his sauces reminded me of honey. He laid a chip of 100-day-old, dry-aged rib-eye steak cured for three weeks over ruby-crescent fingerling potatoes in a butter-whey sauce. I didn’t need the meat. It had little taste. But the potatoes were hauntingly good, and potatoes seldom if ever haunt.
There’s an opening in the wall between dining area and kitchen. I watched Berselius working with tweezers, carefully arranging delicate strips of baked young onions and razor clams. They came to the table in a sauce made from leeks, onions, and smoked razor-clam shells. The bread was a tiny, fennel-caraway loaf plus brown-butter flatbread. With New Nordic chefs like Berselius, the baking is always first-rate.
You might enjoy dining at Aska, but it’s unlikely you’ll get the chance soon. The restaurant closed last week and will move elsewhere. Permanence isn’t a given when you dine this way—an early influence was the pop-up restaurant.
In the past few months I traveled throughout the country, eating only at new restaurants, and I came upon this kind of cooking again and again. It’s not limited to New York or California, where indulgences tend to thrive. Something else you should know is that it’s entirely male. I found no exceptions. Not once have I seen a female chef prepare such food.
Men have always dominated restaurant kitchens, but I don’t recall ever encountering such gender-specific cooking. The chefs work with like-minded discipline, hardly ever haunted by doubts, seemingly in possession of absolute confidence, to say nothing of the adoration of customers. Nobody is telling them what they might be doing wrong.
The food is intellectual, yet at the same time often thoughtless. It goes directly from mind to plate, straddling the line between the creative and the self-indulgent. The dishes that fail have little to do with the foundations of cuisine as we know it, as taught by master chefs or in culinary academies. When it works, the chefs have been classically schooled and their worst impulses reined in. Aska succeeded because it was rooted in Swedish tradition.
This manner of cooking has not been heralded as a new movement or clearly identified as an alternative to the food we’ve been eating. It’s just there, every man for himself. So many times I’ve encountered food like none I’ve had before.
At Trois Mec in Los Angeles, I ate grilled cabbage, bone marrow flan, smoked almond milk crème anglaise, and a cured egg. Together, on one plate.
At Odd Duck in Austin, I ate boudin-infused grits, an ice-cold pickled shrimp, grilled olives, and a fried pork rind. Together, on one plate.
Trois Mec’s combination was unrecognizable, Odd Duck’s unfathomable. They were both the work of highly regarded chefs. Reservations were in demand. At both, customers appeared enthralled, totally absorbed by the food in front of them. However, one dish was among the tastiest I ate all year. The other was absolutely the worst.
With most food, you have a pretty good idea after seeing a menu whether you will like what is placed before you. With this style of dining, you do not. For that matter, many times there is no menu. The food simply shows up.
Frequently, the chefs preparing it source exquisite ingredients. That might be because making a claim of farm-to-table attracts customers. It might be because they believe their creations are extraordinary and deserve to shine. Or it might be about testosterone—the same fire that drives men to buy the fastest cars has made product-sourcing a competitive sport.
Despite that, much of the food remains lackluster. At Luksus, in Brooklyn, one of my dishes consisted of roasted lettuce, chanterelle mushrooms, egg yolk, and corn broth, all together.
Sometimes it’s poorly ecuted. At Fish & Game in Hudson, New York, I was served gritty bay scallops, crudely sliced raw fluke, a mound of chewy rice tossed with mostarda, and a cured nasturtium stem, all together.
Sometimes the chef is talented but simply tries too hard. At Alma, in Los Angeles, I had white-and-dark-meat pressed chicken that tasted so much better when the white meat was separated from the dark meat, each piece eaten separately.
Sometimes I had no idea what I was eating. That’s how I felt at Ribelle in Brookline, Massachusetts. Ribelle is à la carte, so I can’t place the blame on an endless tasting menu. I ordered one dish after another, idiotically hoping the food would get better. I left there feeling bro-beaten.
I asked Mark Ladner, ecutive chef of the Italian restaurant Del Posto in New York, about this onslaught of unlikely cuisine. He runs a kitchen that feeds hundreds of guests a night in a traditional, high-end manner, which means he has little in common with this new style of dining, either quantitatively or qualitatively. What he doesn’t like about the trend, he told me, “is that it goes against the idea of hospitality—this is chefs selfishly expressing themselves at the expense of guests.” He thought that when truly talented chefs were practicing this style of cooking, and when their guests happened to be hardcore foodies, which he estimated to be 1 percent of Americans, the result was some of the best food in the world.
Then he added, “When marginal talent is doing it, this becomes a problem. I have nothing against youthful exuberance. There’s room for it. And I don’t think what they are doing is malicious. It’s just that every 27-year-old thinks he’s the first 27-year-old to do his kind of food. And now it’s become a trend.”
Chefs are able to prepare everything that comes to mind because they have access to unlimited ingredients. They have boundless information, an infinite resource of recipes from the Internet and from cookbooks. They’re overstuffed with inspiration, bombarded with more ideas than they can coherently process. I’m reminded of those science-fiction horror stories where mind-altering beams penetrate the subconscious of the victims, driving them round the bend.
You might be wondering how this came to be, where this deconstruction of traditional cooking concepts originated. It came from everywhere, from the godfathers of modern cuisine. They were pioneers, visionaries with ideas that revolutionized the restaurant kitchen. Their good work has been misinterpreted. Unforeseen wickedness is upon the land.
In the beginning there was Ferran Adrià, in Spain. He popularized what we first called “molecular gastronomy” and later “modernist” cuisine. He created unfamiliar edibles and in doing so empowered chefs to transform cooking into something it had never been. Along came circulating water baths, liquid nitrogen tanks, vacuum sealers, and table-top homogenizers. Fire, once the most vital tool of the chef, was downgraded. According to most anthropologists, cooking with fire started more than a million years ago. It ended about 1994.
Then came David Chang, in New York City. He created food unlike any other in the kitchens of Momofuku Ssäm Bar and Momofuku Ko. His food was simultaneously highbrow and lowbrow, created by committee—Chang and his inner circle of chefs. It was a mix of Asian ingredients, fastidious preparation, condiments shaken from jars, and sauces poured from bottles. His was the first anti-authentic food to be considered elite, and he was among the first American chefs to serve upscale food to customers seated on stools.
René Redzepi of Copenhagen achieved prominence after Chang, but his influence might be longer lasting. He took a walk in the woods and exited with the concept for Noma, a quirky local restaurant that would soon be celebrated as the greatest on earth. He merged the natural bounty of the woods and fields with traditional Nordic recipes and audacious plating. He pickled, salted, and cured more than just herring. He elevated the self-esteem of cooks, empowering them to leave the kitchen and deliver food to guests. They came face-to-face with customers, who were awed.
Along the way, and not to be underestimated, was the rise of small plates. They have become as indispensible to restaurants as those fork, knife, and spoon sets were to camping trips when I was a kid. They are the basis of modern dining—shared plates, tapas plates, mezze plates, tasting-menu plates. Does anyone still eat food on what are quaintly called “dinner plates?” Rare are restaurant meals still served in such an antiquated manner.
Also contributing to the emancipation of chefs was bistronomy (bistro + gastronomy), a movement taking place in Paris. Young French chefs decided they would no longer spend their lives struggling to earn Michelin stars that wouldn’t be awarded until they were too old to enjoy them. They began cooking whatever they wanted, however they wanted, and repeatedly to acclaim, especially when they remembered French technique, which pretty much guarantees that a cook will not commit terrible wrongs.
That’s what French-born Ludo Lefebvre is doing at Trois Mec, and that is why that odd-sounding (and weird-looking) dish of grilled cabbage, bone marrow flan, smoked almond milk crème anglaise, cured egg, and, I might add, cured fennel pollen, was my favorite dish at one of my favorite meals last year.
He is one of the few chefs cooking in this manner who unconditionally succeeds. He was behind a counter with other men when I ate there, although two women have since joined the kitchen staff. Dinner is a tasting menu served on small plates, while his amuse-bouche arrive on an assortment of miniature ceramicware, tiny blocks, cups, and such. When I asked him about his dish of raw beef, smoked tomato, “grilled smoked yogurt,” caramelized eggplant, fermented black walnuts, and watercress, he likened it to beef tartare. The yogurt emerged as a thick cream sauce, and the smoked tomato added acidity, both elements a must to a French chef. He said the food he was sending out was in fact “redefined French.”
He pointed out that at age 42, he has the maturity not to make too many errors. “I started as an ecutive chef eighteen years ago. Finally, at 42, I understand what is my style. Finally. It is not easy to find your way as a chef. I made a lot of mistakes, but I learned. In my time you had to work under a master chef to learn how to cook. It is not the same today for chefs under 30. They learn from TV, from books, from the Internet.”
Most food trends end quickly. The molecular gastronomy of Adrià was expected to alter food forever. It was indeed sensational, but already it has moved to the background. Chang’s ideas are still being pursued, and he is revered as a living icon, but the Momofuku magic has been difficult for other chefs to replicate. We still don’t know how lasting Redzepi’s foraging movement will be, or whether New Nordic cuisine will recede like a melting iceberg.
I asked Ladner about the longevity of our newest trend, and he said, “Ultimately, as always, it comes down to economics. Now you have these young people in small restaurants expressing a labor of love and passion, working sixteen hours a day, six or seven days a week. After three or four years of this, if they are not making money, how long can they be committed to their ideals? Some have the commitment and the skill set to pull it off, but economics will determine whether they survive.”
This trend appears to be just beginning. It is fueled by worldwide food conferences and symposiums where the most famous chefs in the world gather to celebrate themselves and their personal worlds of food. Always, you’ll find Redzepi and Chang, sometimes Alex Atala of D.O.M. in Brazil (the dude you see posing bare-chested, holding a friggin’ big fish) and Enrique Olvera of Pujol in Mexico City. These days the food world is powered by publicity and public events that generate staggering attention and influence.
What bothers me most is that almost every aspect of this new style of cooking, from its conceptualization to its preparation to its presentation, is about coddling the chef, not the customer. The job of the customer is to eat what’s placed before him, and then applaud.