Santi Santamaria Throws His Two Pesetas Into the Ongoing
Discussion Battle Between Traditional and Contemporary Cuisine
In a recent article in London's Telegraph newspaper, Santi Santamaria, chef/owner of El Raco de can Fabes in Sant Celoni, Spain, has accused El Bulli's Ferran Adria of "unethical" cooking practices because he uses additives like methylcellulose in his cuisine. Santamaria also implies that Adria's cooking is "dangerous" and has the potential to "poison" diners. He even delves into the aesthetics of cuisine by saying, "cooks should not be preoccupied with creating sculptures or painting pictures with their work. A table is not an art gallery." The full article is available here, Ferran Adria accused of 'poisoning' his diners.
Santamaria's arguments basically fall into two categories. He isn't the first person who has argued that food isn't art and in fact, my blog post, People Who Insist That Cuisine Needs to Be Representative Should Get Over it Already, addresses this very point. Sure the discussion the discussion is heated (take a look at the comments offered in response to my post by the person who goes by the name of Sailly Disciple, an Argentinian born chef by the name of Mariano Belinkey who lives in Barcelona and who claims to know a lot more about food than he actually does.) But Santamaria's charges of modern cuisine causing a health problem for diners, besides exhibiting a level of resentment towards Adria and the modern culinary movement that I personally find astonishing, takes the debate to a new level and it merits a response. First of all, which do you think is worse for your health, the amount of additives that Ferran Adria uses to form the artificial pearl he places atop the Gillardeau oyster he serves or the cholesteral in Santi's roast pork or lamb? Or take Wylie Dufresne's infamous pizza pebbles. Which do you think is less healthy, the pebbles or a greasy slice with sausage and extra cheese at Joe's Pizza on Sixth Avenue?
Given that the answer is obvious on its face, and given that Santamaria, whose restaurant is less than 100 kms down the road from Adria's, is perfectly free to use an oven to roast as he sees fit, why offer such charged statements? The answer is stature. Or I should say, a loss of stature for chefs serving Santamaria's style of cuisine within the fine dining community. Let's face it, while Santi can still roast a lamb with the best of them, 10 years ago, many more people would have yelled "hola" when his roasts came out of the oven than are yelling it today. But like other artisans who did not understand how their craft was changing, and who focused on the excesses and exagerations of a movement in an attenpt to delegitimize it as not complying with the rules, Santamaria misses the point as to what the movement is actually based on which is cleanliness and the ability to maximize the flavor of ingredients with a minimal use of fat.
I recently had the pleasure of having a long, multi-course lunch at Casa Gerardo in Asturias, a restaurant that Santamaria should visit if he really wants to understand the differences between traditional and modern cuisine (I intend to post a seperate review of my delightful meal at the restaurant.) The final course was the house version of the classic dish of the region, fabadas, a white bean and sausage stew that is a not too distant cousin of cassoulet. It's a dish that is normally made with dried beans, and as is typical for a stew where dried beans form the basis of the dish, the beans are cooked with fatty meats for a long period of time so they can soften and absorb the flavor of the meat in the process. The result is a thick, heavy, viscose and hearty concoction whose leftovers could be used to heat your home in winter if you happen to run out of petrol. But unlike every other bean stew that I have eaten, the fabadas at Casa Gerardo is light in comparison and much easier to eat. In fact dare say, the dish tasted modern.
So I asked 28 year old Pedro Morain, the fifth generation of the family to run the restaurant's kitchen, how he does it and he was more than happy to share the family's secret. "It's a recipe we developed" he told me. "When the fadaba beans are fresh in September, we buy a years supply and freeze them. So because the beans aren't dried, they takes less time to cook and we can remove the sausages from the pan after 40 minutes and then the beans cook on their own for another 20 minutes. The shorter cooking time means less fat in the dish but we don't lose any flavor because the fresh beans absorb flavor more quickly than dried beans." And there it was, the secret of modern cuisine had nothing to do with turning lamb into foam, it had to do with developing culinary techniques that resulted in lighter and cleaner food. Even when preparing dishes that are hundreds of years old.
Santi Santamaria would serve himself well to revisit his comments. Maybe even to retract them. And if he would like to regain some of the stature he has lost over the last decade, maybe he should understand that if he wants to continue to cook in the image of Fernand Point, people might still eat, and enjoy, his food, but he won't play an important part in the ongoing discussion about cuisine. If that's what he wants, he is going to have to figure out how to make his cuisine more modern. That doesn't mean he has to cook a leg of lamb by inserting electric charges and detonating them, but it does mean that he has to make his cuisine lighter and cleaner, and most importantly, reduce the fat content in order to make it healthier.