News that Ferran Adriā will temporarily close "the best restaurant in the world", El Bulli in Spain, has left many in the culinary fraternity wondering if it means the death of molecular gastronomy. But at MadridFusion 2010 last week, Adriā said there is still a future in avant garde cuisine, the distinctive cooking style known variously as molecular gastronomy, nueva cocina, culinary constructivism or new cookery.
"I believe there is still room for many people to create," Adriā said. The three-Michelin-starred El Bulli, voted best restaurant in the world for the past four years, pioneered the renaissance-style explosion of gastronomic innovation in the late 1990s. Spain overtook France as the epicentre of gastronomic excellence and creativity. By 2009, Spain claimed more restaurants at the top of the San Pellegrino World's Best Restaurants list than any other country. Its influence has spread around the globe, with other avant garde chefs such as Britain's Heston Blumenthal and America's Grant Achatz achieving international acclaim and numerous awards.
However, controversy has surrounded molecular gastronomy. Adriā has been attacked by critics who claim his food is pretentious, elitist and even poisonous in its use of colourants, gelling agents and emulsifiers. Even the chefs of the avant garde movement have shunned the term molecular gastronomy, instead preferring new cookery or, in Spanish, nueva cocina. Last February, as Blumenthal's The Fat Duck became the only restaurant to receive a perfect 10 in that year's Good Food Guide, it closed following an outbreak of sickness among diners. The cause was identified as norovirus, not food poisoning, but the incident gave critics of avant garde food ammunition and led to a surge of bad publicity.
The economic downturn has taken its toll, too. This form of cookery demands high-quality ingredients and intensive manpower; each meal is extremely expensive to make. The dwindling number of diners has become a major concern, and ethical questions about how the food is produced are increasingly being asked. This has fuelled claims that molecular gastronomy is in crisis and its creativity has run dry. However, despite the changing landscape, supporters of the movement - while conceding it is at a critical point - defend its future.
Adriā admits that the current format of El Bulli is finished, and he recognises that before reinvention can take place, there needs to be some reflection about the next phase of development. While the restaurant is closed for the 2012 and 2013 seasons, he and his team will plan and work out the "next big thing", so that when the restaurant reopens in 2014 it will be completely different. The El Bulli team will also consolidate their know-how into an encyclopaedia of avant garde cuisine. The revolutionaries, it seems, are becoming part of the establishment by creating a culinary text book.
However, many rising stars of the culinary world believe there is still space for creativity to continue, albeit at a slower pace and in new directions. Quique Dacosta of the Michelin starred restaurant El Poblet near Alicante, Spain, says: "If you think of the culinary world as a universe, Adriā is one of the biggest suns, but there are many other stars too." Young chefs such as Dacosta, Achatz and David Muņoz of DiverXo Madrid do not view the temporary closure of El Bulli and current challenges as the end of nueva cocina but as an opportunity to build on discoveries of the past decade.
Achatz, whose restaurant Alinea in Chicago was voted the best restaurant in the US, says: "We are still doing it. More practitioners are popping up. People feel it is ending because at the beginning of any movement there is an explosion of ideas and new technique. Eventually those ideas are going to plateau and there is going to be a period of what I would call execution. That is really where we are now. The movement's not dead. We are simply using the tools we learned early on."
Another issue facing nueva cocina is what some have called innovation fatigue. An important aspect of avant garde cuisine is the theatricality of its dishes, but diners are becoming jaded with pyrotechnics. Even if chefs still come up with groundbreaking ideas, Achatz says diners may have become desensitised. The new generation of chefs is using novel approaches to re-engage the diner, changing the experience and taking the spotlight off pure technique. Achatz, for example, pays homage to history.
"In the course of a 30 dish meal you juxtapose one course that is 'antique'". Ten courses into the meal, we put a course down on the table straight from 1910. We don't just stop at the food; we serve it on antique plates, glasses and silverware." He likens it to a "gastronomic time capsule". Dacosta also plays with what he calls the "primitive and rustic". "I still want to maintain ties with the vanguard but at the same time seek a prehistoric view," he says.
And Muņoz, who won the Madrid Fusion Best Chef Cook Revelation in 2008, says that he does not make molecular food. "For us it is just about the imaginative concept and the flavours." Muņoz is working to take his cookery to international audiences but also gets inspiration when he travels. Muņoz says his biggest influence has been London, where he worked for more than two years at the Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant Hakkasan. At this year's Gourmet Abu Dhabi, he will give a masterclass and people will have an opportunity to sample his food.
"I like to go to foreign conferences because they are open-minded," he says. "You can learn a lot of new things." So as we enter the new decade, it is safe to say the initial phase of nueva cocina is over. The cooking revolution began with an explosion of creativity and technical innovation, but the economic and ecological landscape is changing. And within the movement there is a sense that things cannot go on at the same pace.
Many will anxiously await the return of El Bulli, as there may be more revelations in store in 2014. But in the meantime, new stars from Spain and the avant garde movement are rising up; finessing and improving on past achievements, developing their own innovations and looking around the world (particularly to Asia) for ideas. Technology will continue apace, bringing with it new possibilities. Dining experiences are changing, too - one company exhibited levitating plates at MadridFusion, so you may soon find flying saucers in a restaurant near you.