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Chocolate Dirt: Is It Art or Is It Dinner?

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A few years back, an unknown chef, at restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, created a strange series of tableaux on his dining room tables, using tree bark, pine needles, lichens and other things normally grazed by reindeer. And so it was that in 2010 the Nordic forager René Redzepi (sounding much like an acid rock band) displaced the Spanish chemistry wizard Ferran Adria (for whom he once worked) as the world's numero uno chef.

Since last year, molecular gastronomy hasn't exactly evaporated, but now you might get trampled by dozens of upscale chefs who are rushing to harvest dinner from the underbrush and under rocks - or assembling dishes that looked like they might be untamed gardens. Although many chefs preceded Redzepi, dozens of acolytes are now making pilgrimages to Copenhagen for a chance to stage at his stoves.

In the US, "wildcrafting" is largely, but not entirely, a West Coast trend. Forerunner to Redzepi, Jeremy Fox created a global stir with beautifully composed plates at Ubuntu, in Napa, years ago, and Daniel Patterson at Coi in Los Angeles and David Kinch at Manresa in Los Gatos are masters of the style. You'll find similar efforts at the restaurant McCrady's in Charleston where chef Sean Brock lists farmers and foragers on his menu; at Toqué in Montreal, where chef Normand Laprise's website lists his kitchen staff as "artists" and its suppliers as "artisans"; and at Castagna in Portland, Ore., where chef Matt Lightner, who's been rooting around woodlands for years, produces still-lifes-with-leaves and calls them dinner.

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Perhaps the most "florid" exemplar is Dominique Crenn at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco (her restaurant is subtitled "Poetic Culinaria"), whose vegetable presentations look like bonsai gardens and who claims she is reliving her childhood food memories and fantasies.

These chefs' horticultural foodscapes appear to have been assembled with tweezers and dental instruments. Their foraged dishes might contain upwards of 20 plants and herbs, and they're sent to your table on slabs of slate, miniature rock slides, primordial wood shapes and thrown glass instead of plates. They come with lyrical names such as Ocean Creatures and Weeds, A Walk in the Garden, Into the Vegetable Garden, Summer Bids Adieu, or Le Jardin d'Hiver.

In truth, if you substituted gems for the food, these presentations would look perfectly at home Tiffany's display windows. Caravaggio might have painted them.

You'll be eating roots, stems and petals of plants that used to be discarded or that you might step over on the sidewalk. One chef famously quipped, "Not the sidewalk. We'd never use stuff from there!" Which makes one wonder whether this chef has any idea what bears do in the woods.

As this trend of "food as naturalistic art" takes hold in upscale restaurants around the country, you'll find lots of new ingredients slipping onto upscale menus: White acorns; tips of fir needles; "dirt" made of dried and crumbled mushrooms, pumpernickel breadcrumbs, black olives, bulgur wheat, or sprouting grains; aloe vera, eucalyptus leaves, chickweed, wild ginger, wood sorrel, yarrow, pineapple weed, and sumac. Dirt is so hot that Crenn cooks her potatoes in the stuff before washing them clean. You'll find a similar plating style at just-opened modernist Korean eatery Jung Sik Dang in New York, where you'll need to bring lots of money. Next up: Dessert assemblages growing out of chocolate "humus" (as in dirt, not as in chick peas).

All of this comes at a price, of course, which is why you'll only find these goings-on at fancy restaurants. Some restaurants actually have foragers on their payrolls, and others need to hire artistically talented cooks to plate dishes so that each leaf, each carrot stalk, each nasturtium flower, each pod of immature sweet peas, is placed just so - a serious challenge when tonight's wild harvest contains a surprise crop of newcomers. You won't be stumbling across such food at your local Olive Garden.

But is it food? Is it art? Or is it merely extravagantly imitative horticulture? Some critics have complained that taste is taking a back seat to artifice, but they said the same thing about earlier shenanigans of molecular gastronomy without recognizing how new laboratory trickery might be transformative in the kitchen.

In this case, I think we're witnessing a reaction to cooking-with-chemistry with a romantic return to naturalism, or, to coin a word, "gastro-naturism." It is a way for high-flying chefs to differentiate themselves from the rest of the herd and it is guaranteed to get a thousand bloggers and their cameras into these restaurants.

Photo Credit: Atelier Crenn

--Rozanne Gold, award-winning chef and author of "Eat Fresh Food: Awesome Recipes for Teen Chefs"; "Healthy 1-2-3," and "Radically Simple."

Rozanne can be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RozanneGold.

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