Flash in the Pan
When inspiration strikes Pino Maffeo, out come the gadgets. The executive chef of Louis Boston's Restaurant L might use his Eppendorf MiniSpin centrifuge, which spins at 13,400 revolutions per minute, to clarify beef fat. He might whip out a canister of liquid nitrogen bubbling at 325 degrees below zero to flash-freeze some ice cream or a PB & J amuse-bouche. Or, with the help of collaborator and organic chemist Angela Buffone, he might select an industrial gum–guarcel, agar, or caragum–to create a margarita sponge cake layered with lemon-salt “pop rocks.” *but don't call pino maffeo a scientist. He hates that–though, thanks to his publicist and an all-too-breathless food press, he's often branded that way. Call him a “mad scientist” or even a “half scientist, half chef,” as CBS's The Saturday Early Show host Gretchen Carlson did this May, and the characteristically brash East Bostonian begins to squirm. “I think if you're labeled a scientist, people get scared. . . . We're inventive,” he protested. It's not that Maffeo is trying to be difficult; he wants to give those perky journalists answers that please. But he also knows, deep down, that this so-called molecular cooking trend–which to date has made such contributions to the gastronomic pantheon as fried mayonnaise (New York's Wylie Dufresne), pâté wrapped in cotton candy (Washington, D.C.'s José Andrés), and seaweed-flavored edible paper (Chicago's Homaro Cantu)–is just another culinary fad.
It's the dark side of celebrity chefdom. The pressure to grace the pages of not only Gourmet but People and Us Weekly is forcing chefs to constantly evolve just to stay in the public eye. And molecular cooking, which has arrived at the peak of the celebrity chef craze, is the ultimate example. “Food is now fashion,” says Mimi Sheraton, the veteran New York restaurant critic. “And like designers, chefs believe they need to bring out three lines a year to continue to get the press's attention.”
And so this summer Maffeo agreed to lead me through the creative process of his latest flight of fancy: stretchable ice cream. For a while, he put on a good show. (“I want it to pull, like mozzarella,” he breathed excitedly to Buffone at the first planning meeting.) But as time passed, it became clear that playing mad scientist was the last thing Maffeo wanted to do, between daily double shifts, charity events, and a September kitchen fire that nearly closed his restaurant. You see, while Maffeo's culinary fireworks make good copy, and Maffeo knows that fills restaurant seats, he isn't really interested in making weird and wacky food for its own sake. He just wants to use science, as chefs have done through the ages, to make his food taste better. Conveniently, that's exactly what diners really want, too: great food regardless of what's trendy. “There are things I want to do to benefit my cuisine. But you shouldn't do it for the sake of gimmicks,” Maffeo says. Or, he adds sheepishly, “because you want to be on the cover of a magazine.”
The latest gastrowizardry–in which chefs conjure up edible air and deconstruct gazpacho into its component flavors–is the supreme food fashion. It doesn't aim to perfect a classic cuisine but to invent a new one, full of outlandish dishes that explode, evaporate, or dissolve. So it's no wonder chefs across the country are running to order centrifuges and syringes. Why cook another plate of plain old chicken when you can be compared to the molecular cooking king, Spain's Ferran Adrià, who at a recent conference of his country's top chefs demonstrated a dish called the licorice dragon: Diners eat pellets of crushed licorice flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen, all while blowing water vapor out of their nose. Really.
Of course, Maffeo's decision to comply with our request says as much about the food media as it does about him. We are smitten with anything new, whether it's a $300 double-digit-course meal at a showy Las Vegas palace, or Adrià's paella made from Rice Krispies. One reason is the 24-hour news cycle, which demands something fresh every day; a chef turning out solid, impressive food night after night–what a chef is actually supposed to do–is a hard sell. Another is that we critics tend to be, well, overindulged. In winter, we shave truffles onto everything from pasta to Kobe beef; in spring, we gorge on morels and slender asparagus. As each plate of marvelous (and sometimes not so marvelous) local, seasonal food is set down in front of us, we begin to wish for something different. “Sensationalism is necessary in order to gain notoriety,” says Michael Schlow, executive chef at Radius, Via Matta, and Great Bay. And notoriety, every chef knows, is a good way to fill restaurant tables.
But is it worth it? That's the question consuming Maffeo in what is unfolding as a classic clash of art and commerce. How does a passionate perfectionist straddle the line between following his heart and doing what's expected of him?
Pino Maffeo is an unlikely kitchen wizard. With his thick Eastie brogue, buzzcut, and boxer's physique, he could be mistaken for a Boston version of Seinfeld 's Soup Nazi, sans moustache. Outside the kitchen he's always up for a good time, but inside he runs a tight ship. When a young line cook nervously reported during one of my visits that he'd overbaked some flatbread, he was frog-marched back to his station to do it again. “You have to get it fuckin' right,” Maffeo mumbled under his breath.
His relentless reach for perfection springs from Maffeo's lifetime passion for food: He grew up in a very large (he has 18 uncles and aunts), very noisy Italian family of self-professed food snobs. Some weeks, Maffeo remembers, his mother would stay up until 3 a.m. canning tomatoes or churning out homemade pasta. Each year, Maffeo's parents took the kids to Italy to eat.
By the time he was four, Maffeo knew he wanted to be a chef. At eight, he already was trying to think differently: “When I was young I'd go to bed and think about food. I'd think about how to give people something they've never had before.” He deboned and stuffed chicken wings, then fried them–something he learned later is an age-old Asian recipe.
New technology offered one way to try. As early as 1990, a chef friend introduced Maffeo to sous vide, in which food is vacuum-packed, then pressure-cooked in the bag to cram flavor into meats, fruits, and vegetables. (Fifteen years later, the technique is all the rage.) Along the way, Maffeo picked up other tricks. In New York he experimented alongside celebrated chef Patricia Yeo, who was originally trained as a biochemist, at her two fusion restaurants, AZ and Pazo. If Maffeo were the type to quote historical figures, he might tell you that science in the kitchen is nothing new. As the great 19th-century chef Marie Antoine Carï¿½me once said, preparing a stock is performing chemistry without knowing it.
The key, says Maffeo, is not to let culinary gymnastics take precedence over flavor. “Ferran is amazing. We all look to him because he's done something no one has. Do I want to cook like that? No. Do you get ideas and inspirations here and there? Yeah. Is he my idol? No.”
Instead, Maffeo looks up to French master chef Pierre Gagnaire, who for years has used both advanced chemistry and physics to transcend classic dishes, and French cooking star Joï¿½l Robuchon. And, of course, there's Maffeo's mother, who taught him the most important culinary lesson: Always ask why. “When I was out in San Francisco, I built things high and topped them with fried leeks, and my mother would come in and say, 'Why? What is my son doing?' And I would tell her it was the style. And she would say, 'I don't care. It doesn't work.' And you know what? She's right.”
Nowhere is that lesson more applicable than in Boston. Chefs citywide agree that most diners here aren't ready for 30-course Adrià-style extravaganzas. Nor is Atlanta, Nashville, or Houston, where shock-cuisine restaurants have gotten acres of press coverage without a corresponding rise in reservations. Indeed, diners outside New York and Chicago don't seem particularly wowed by such scientific feats. Last year Richard Blais's eponymous restaurant, famed for its foie gras milk shakes and dried chicken skin with coleslaw ice cream, was Atlanta's most talked-about dining destination. It went out of business after just six months. “I hate to say a place isn't ready for something,” says Maffeo, “but I've pulled back dramatically on my food since the beginning. Dramatically . . . I use ingredients that [diners] are more familiar with. Instead of tilefish, it has to be cod.”
Which brings us back to the stretchable ice cream. What will Bostonians make of it? If Maffeo has his way, they won't have a clue about the Willy Wonka lengths to which he went to create it. They won't know he spent nine weeks experimenting to get the consistency just right–“like buffalo mozzarella that pulls a little when it's melted, and then snaps.” They won't know he tried half a dozen types of gellan gum, commonly used in processed foods, and that none of them worked. They won't know he tried dipping the base in liquid nitrogen, but found it created a crispy outside and soft-serve inside. And they won't know about the innumerable phone calls he made before stumbling on a local ice cream vendor who tipped him off to salep, ground orchid tubers, which is known for its aphrodisiac properties and which has been used for centuries in Turkey to make a chewy ice cream called salepi dondurma. All Maffeo wants his guests to do is taste it–and be pleasantly surprised. The appetizer, which is on the menu this month for $16, is billed like this: foie gras/walnut-raisin bread/yeast ice cream.
If the press would stop badgering him, Maffeo would also like his other sci-fi secrets to remain hidden behind Restaurant L's self-consciously minimalist menu. Take the dish deceptively called hay-fired chicken/cauliflower purée. To make it, Maffeo cooks the chicken sous vide, chills it, roasts it with water-soaked organic hay, then brushes it with a mixture of chicken, duck, and pancetta fat that has been spun in a centrifuge to concentrate the flavors and combine them into one harmonious blend. The meat arrives moist and earthy-tasting, infused with such a delicious smokiness that, after eating it one night in the airy dining room, I felt I'd made a mistake by never having touched a cigarette all these years. “Pino is finding his way through this fad,” says Schlow. “He's not going to do something for experiment's sake. If it tastes good, you'll see it. Otherwise you won't.”
Maffeo's way is the future of molecular cooking. More chefs will embrace chemistry, physics, and high technology in the kitchen, but you won't see pyrotechnics on the plate. The worst expressions of the fad will disappear (goodbye, foie gras milk shake); the best will survive (hello, centrifuge-spun fat blends). For proof, you need only look to history: At its height, nouvelle cuisine was ridiculed as the fad that brought us oversize white plates with four peas artfully arranged in the center. But 25 years later, the innovations of that movement are considered the foundations of modern cooking. It's no longer de rigueur to finish every sauce with cream or butter, and chefs around the country regularly deglaze pans with water, not wine, without a thought to how revolutionary that seemed in the 1970s.
The same Darwinian process will occur for chefs. The truly gifted will keep innovating. Ferran Adrià, who closes his restaurant for six months each year to work in his lab, will continue to find ways to create conceptual dishes like butter ravioli wrapped in marine-water gelatin, just as New York master chef Jean-George Vongerichten, the star of the 1980s fusion fad, continues to wow the food establishment with his stunning blend of Asian and French flavors. The chefs who are simply hitching their wagons to a rising star will give up and jump to the next new thing.
And that will be fine with most diners. The elite may continue to crave five-hour, 30-course meals that cost upward of $250 per person. But the majority don't go out to dinner to witness a circus of scientific wonders, the same way they don't want a lesson on software code when they boot up their computers or on engine technology when they drive their cars. All good restaurants have an element of theater, but most nights, most diners just want to enjoy good food and conversation.
In other words, you won't be branded a kitchen wizard just because you use science in the kitchen. You'll just be a chef, doing what all chefs do and always have done–whether it's using physics to whip egg whites to the perfect peak or a little chemistry to stretch ice cream. And that's sure to cause Maffeo to breathe a sigh of relief.