Bumping into God in the Kitchen: Savory Stories of Food, Family, and Faith

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We sat down for dinner in the nearby restaurant, and had a meal of five courses, all sweet, or at least sweetish, yet all beginning with a savory theme.

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Then a green-apple granita with bay leaf, as fresh and acid as a winter morning, and, finally, truffle-hazelnut-toast cream pudding. The genius showed in the details: a curry-and-salt cookie, thrown in as an extra but a study in itself. There was something perfectly modulated in the transition from savory herbs tarragon and bay and savory tastes salt and curry, particularly into sweet dishes. I sat in my little hotel room in Barcelona, jet-lagged and sugar-satiated, and read about the history of sugar. Yet the picture is more complex.

The primate instinct for sugar is particular, adjustable, and sometimes seasonal. The lesser mouse lemur of Madagascar, a gourmand among monkeys, raises its threshold during the rainy season so that, when sugars are less abundant, it requires less sweetness. Yet this may be why the lesser mouse lemur has always remained so deeply lesser. They strolled on all fours, then walked, then ran, just to have dessert. As both the anthropologist Sidney Mintz and the historian Jean-Louis Flandrin have documented, it was only recently that the instinct for devouring sweets met the availability of abundant sugar.

For centuries, sugar was a spice as rare as myrrh and as precious as saffron: an expensive extra used to give food taste and color. Only in the Renaissance did sugar slowly, through the New World, become widely current. Then, in the late seventeenth century, the price of sugar plummeted, never to recover, largely as a consequence of that hideous invention the West Indies sugar plantation.

The cheap-sugar revolution took different paths in different places. In England, sugar combined with tea became the staple drink of the masses. In France, a full-blown dessert cuisine emerged, with the pastry chef as its hero. Reading the primatologists and the anthropologists, I got the sense that the double life of sweets ever since the sugar revolution—as a thing we universally crave, and as a highly specific, French-derived cooking culture—has led to a strange fight between disciplines. The primatologists insist that we eat sugar because our genes scream for it, while their humanist colleagues insist that sugar is above all a cultural symbol—we eat as many sweets as we can in order to emulate the rich, who usually get to eat more.

Yet surely an artifact and an appetite are not opposites to be reconciled but the same thing seen at different moments in its history. The artifact gives the appetite shape; the appetite makes the artifact shine. He is a classic younger brother—earnest, hardworking, self-critical—and he explained the rise of the Barcelona dessert as a series of accidents disciplined by labor. First, because the pastry chef left. I had just finished moving through all the other stations, and I was due to be at the dessert.

And I also have a severe allergy to shellfish, which limits my movement. But the real reason was that pastry seemed much more interesting—a world without limits. Meat cook? Fish cook? What are you going to do with it? And also there was a lot more to learn in pastry—just the techniques! I asked when the new style had first appeared. He furrowed his brow, trying to recollect something that had clearly not been the result of a deliberate plan. I suppose we first made an ice cream with saffron in My first step is, I have to draw it.

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I have to sketch it, get it down on paper, and then do the explanatory texts. A sweetened illusion. I can use that! So: blood!

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So we made sweet snow and sweet blood. The key for the blood is your belief that it is.

Hot ice cream! He nodded gloomily. Every year I thought I had it! But I never had it.

Bumping into God in the Kitchen: Savory Stories of Food, Family, and Faith

What we discovered was to use an ice-cream machine but invert it, so that it was pumping in hot air, and to use gelatin to get the form. That was as close as we could get. I have a lot of them. By now, the story of elBulli has become part of modern cooking lore: how the combination of science and culinary curiosity created a real revolution in cooking, with high-tech equipment borrowed from the mass-produced-food industry for the purpose of wild, semi-surrealist picture-making.

You weave your way there on narrow, winding cliff roads along the Spanish coast.


The terror of the ascent surely adds to the delight of the arrival. A coconut iceberg floats on a sea of lemon gelatin and water ice, with squash confit, mint-and-vanilla ice cream, broken chocolate cookie, and grape-syrup oil slick. Like every first-rate artist, he has the kind of immense egomania that is oddly impersonal: his greatness is so uncontroversial to him that it is an act of generosity to try to limit it in words and dates. His guttural, consonant-driven Catalan accent made everything he said sound as though he were murmuring a list of Jewish holidays.

The problem! He called for paper and pen from one of the countless earnest, eager apprentices, and began to draw floridly and actively, making swooping charts of the history of cuisine, filled with Venn-diagram-like circles enclosing famous names and long arcs and arrows connecting one significant moment with the next. He drew as he talked—I realized that he was the inventor of the Barcelona diagram—and soon turned to sketching boxes and vectors on a large sheet of white paper.

Very interesting that two revolutionaries have been pastry chefs. Escoffier more than being a cook was a codifier. And, after that, nothing, really. Because he was a pastry chef, and the pastry chef was the second-class citizen of the kitchen. He was, in truth, speaking so quickly, and mentioning so many names and concepts, that I was a bit confused by the argument—until I looked down at the paper where he had been drawing the complex flowchart of French dessert-making. Pastry-makers were natural magicians, and magic in cooking would always come from them.

Then he called for one of the many illustrated books that document the ascension of elBulli, and flipped through its pages for examples. It extends an incredible dialogue between me and Albert. One of the important themes for us was about construction: how do you construct a dessert? Deconstruction began here.

Black Forest cake. This is mythical. Turning the pages of the book while drawing rapid diagrams and speaking in even more rapid Spanish, Ferran went on to explain that the true point of the deconstructed dessert was to create a kind of analytic Cubism of the pastry plate. Once the fracture was achieved and accepted, you could move on to your own mythology. He looked at me with delighted triumph. As Lisa and I approached the door, Ferran grabbed the pages of diagrams and handed them to me for further study.

He continued brooding on the subject of dessert, explaining that for him the big question was not that of sweet and savory but that of sequence. With a surprise? A flourish? How do we finish the meal? His face came alive again. But gelatin is the same way: gelatin used to be both gelatin and cold. There must be some way.

We will. A meal at elBulli—sweet-and-spicy flash-fried shrimp tortilla, wild strawberries in wild-hare bouillon—showed that the French line setting off savory from sweet could be entirely bypassed, like other French defensive lines in history, by mechanical ingenuity, speed, and superior strategic thinking. But I was still interested in desserts as such, pure desserts, desserts that always ended sweetly.

And so the next morning Lisa and I travelled to meet with the young Mozart of pastry, Jordi Roca, at the restaurant he runs with his brothers, in Girona, in northeast Catalonia, about an hour from elBulli. Jordi, the baby brother, is still young-looking—startlingly so, at thirty-two.

Dreamy of visage and gentle of voice, he came out of the kitchen before lunch, tentative and eager and even a little wide-eyed in his chef whites, to talk about his dessert work. A cake or two or three.

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So we felt free to invent and compete. After an apprenticeship at elBulli, he realized that his preoccupation was with scent. We had this new machine that could extract essential oils, and I began to play with it. I began making perfumed desserts. And I started making desserts built around their smells. Calvin Klein-like aromas. I wanted to make something as wonderful to taste as Chanel perfume was to smell.

We have the machine to extract essential oils. Another just for smokes. Working with smokes and smells, this has a—fragile aspect?