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Back to the future: reverse Baked Alaska

September 2011

What constitutes 'retro food'? Retro - as in retrospective - suggests a nostalgic eye towards the past. Re-reading the gargantuan A Day at El Bulli, unsurprisingly published by the art imprint Phaidon, I was surprised by the wave of nostalgia that swept over me. Perhaps engendered by the recent closure of the legendary Catalan restaurant... which is to reopen as a foundation and not, you understand, as a museum. That would be El Bulli's Hacienda Benazuza outside Seville, which is nothing less than a repository for Ferran Adria's greatest 'hits'. 

So Molecular Gastronomy as retro food? Hard to swallow I know but, as far back as the Battle of Mahon, chefs were making stable emulsions out of eggs, oil & lemon juice, (mah(y)onaisse). The cognomens 'fine dining' and 'gastro pub', spurious titles at best, are now firmly retro - The Good Food Guide has banned the word gastro pub from its publications.

The declension (or deconstruction) of a single ingredient - say a tomato - into a granita, essence, jelly, foam and simple seeds, a classic El Bulli trope, will be rendered as  Proustian 'taste memory' after the closure of the great restaurant. All the foams, spumes, cold cooking with nitro-gas, hot jellies, spherification techniques, will become retro overnight, which is to say, a parody of their former concept.

Homaro Cantu, chef of the most futuristic restaurant I've eaten in, Moto in Chicago, used edible dyes so that you ate the actual menu as your first course and then showed us how he could make food float before feeding us a 'cigar with edible ash'. But with the evident successes of Le Fooding (Michelin starred grub in cheap local spaces) and the excellent slow food movement, not to mention a double recession, that all seems so last year. Back to the future indeed!

So where to go for the best retro Molecular Gastronomy? Why that hotel outside Seville - Hacienda Benazuza. Since Adria started cataloguing his dishes in 1999, this has been their final resting place. Screens around reception show a constant loop of El Bulli dishes dating back to the early 90s. Olive oil marshmallow, Sangria in suspension, 'Quicoguaca'? They are all, utterly superbly, still here. Preserved in aspic or, if you like, tranglutaminase. Unfortunately, for the purposes of this piece, 'reverse Baked Alaska' (hot inside, cold out), that double whammy of a retro molecular classic isn't. That one belonged to the father of them all, Nicholas Kurti.



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