I recently read Eli Lehrer's piece, "Molecular Gastronomy and the Potential Fall of Fine Dining in D.C.," where he argues that 'molecular gastronomy' will be the ruin of fine dining in the District. He singles out my restaurant, Rogue 24, along with many other popular and well-respected restaurants in Washington, D.C. As such, I would like the chance to respond.
Not only is Mr. Lehrer's piece overly simplistic; it seems, at times, completely misinformed. I cannot argue with Mr. Lehrer's taste -- although I don't believe I have had the chance to serve him -- but, on the other points, I feel obliged.
For one, 'molecular gastronomy' is a term long since abandoned by most chefs. Even Ferran Adria, who Lehrer notes is the father of this cuisine, has argued as much, calling the term, "...the biggest lie in cooking." All cooking is essentially manipulating molecules and any first year culinary student who has watched bread rise knows this to be true.
There is not a laboratory in my restaurant. I have a kitchen with modern tools to achieve the production and the adaptation of the food that we collaborate on as culinary crafts people. The result, at best, is the same result from any kitchen: flavor, value and execution.
With that said, innovation is an important part of what we do and, in fact, drives the interest of our guests. We play with our food (against my mother's wishes I assure you) and seek to share the wonder and amazement of what we find.
A great example is the one that Lehrer himself seemed baffled by: our dish, Forest Nage. Nage is a poaching liquid; it also means 'to swim.' We swim matsutake mushrooms in a broth made from the mushrooms. Forest essence is just that, extracting the essence of the forest by using a machine called a rotary evaporater and infusing common forest aromas of spices and herbs into the liquid. Either way, it is a mushroom soup and the novelty of the presentation and infusion of aromatics is made possible by new technology.
We call this, simply, modern cuisine.
I do concur with Lehrer that this city is becoming noted for modern cuisine and we are in a break-out time when the nation is starting to pay attention. I moved to Washington, D.C. in 1998 when the previous generation of the city's great chefs were at their peak.
During that time, Jean Louis Palladin, in many people's opinion the greatest chef that has worked in Washington, D.C., was pushing the boundaries of French nouvelle cuisine; Roberto Donna was leading the movement of modern italian cuisine; and my mentor Jeff Buben, was helping define modern American cuisine.
The greatest tribute to them are those in the city who continue to push the boundaries, such as chefs Cathal Armstrong, Johnny Monis, Bryan Voltaggio and Eric Ziebold. Even within the rubric of modern cuisine, we all have very different styles and are redefining Washington, D.C. as a food city. Our restaurants are not designed to be in the same realm as stolid eateries; I, for one, am glad. We hope to inspire each other and create a supportive environment for young chefs to grow. But give us our time.
As for Lehrer's claims about uncomfortable chairs, rudeness and contracts? These are nothing but straw men. We absolutely seek to pamper our guests and believe great service is essential to any dining experience. Period. Our 'contract' is even part of that, despite the media hoopla. Many of the no-nos are things that are distracting or bothersome to fellow guests, e.g. being late, talking on phones at the table; otherwise, we ask for dietary restrictions so that we can better accommodate food preferences and allergies. (We also believe everyone has the right to comfortable chairs and that's why my wife and I personally sat in chair samples for three hours before we purchased them).
The bottom line is this: Washington, D.C. is a great food city and we are proud to be a part of it. Despite Lehrer's dire warning, there is no threat from advances in modern cuisine. Far from the ruin that Lehrer foresees from these culinary journeys is modern food that is an expression of the chef's own journey in cooking. I see a bright future for both District restaurants and diners.