There are no big answers without big questions. At elBullifoundation they asked ‘What is cooking?’ and they tried to explain it in a chart they called the Map of the Gastronomic Process.
“We tried to decipher the steps from the beginning to the end of a culinary process. With this map, we aim to explain what cooking is,” explains elBulli member Eduard Xatruch on a March morning at the Foundation.
They began to search through history and found that there was no common language. “We reviewed the cookbooks and saw that everyone wrote things down in their own way. The classifications were very different. Chefs use different words to refer to the same thing.”
With the map for “decoding the gastronomical genome” they aim to gather together “everything that is involved in the cooking process.” “It is the representation of the gastronomic process, and that means it can be applied both to the complex and to the simple. To a highly sophisticated dish and to a cream of vegetable soup. So far it works perfectly with everything we’ve tried.”
The principle of this process, as obvious as it may seem, lies in people. “We need actors to carry it out,” explains Xatruch. At elBulli they classify these individuals into actors (professionals of the culinary process) and diners (those who eat the creations).The words “cook” or “chef” are discarded.
Then you need two spaces. “A space where you cook and a space where you eat.” Even when they are one and the same, they are in fact different. The activity changes the environment. “Even if the food is served in the same place where you’ve been cooking, the space changes conceptually,” he says.
Now the people and the space are set. The process begins.
“The first thing we decide is what to cook. The beginning is a mental process,” he says. “You think about how you are going to be nourished by the ingredients you need to cook with. When you are an actor and you enter the space, you see that the first thing you need is the products. Cooking has evolved a lot, but at first the products are what nature provides us with. Then there are the fishermen and farmers… These people prepare the product for you so that you get the best possible quality, and you can work with it.”
You think about how you are going to be nourished by the ingredients you need to cook with.
At elBulli they classify unfinished products no as primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary. “We consider that you can buy meat but not a cow. You can buy soy but not the land it grows in. You can buy oranges but not the orange grove,” says Xatruch. “We have bounced ideas off of several botanists and concluded that the product is the way nature provides it. A cow and an orange grove, for example, are primary.
The secondary items are the orange leaf or leg of the cow. They are morphologically defined parts.”
“The tertiary items are a part of the product. For example, I can get orange seeds and use them in a dish. Or I can cut up a cow while observing the contours of the animal”, he continues. “The quaternary items are, for example, the marrow that we take from a cow’s leg. This is what we get when we do much deeper cutting”.
Next come the tools. The hands are vital. But there are knives, spatulas, etc. as well. “We sort them according to the purpose for which they were created.”
Next come the techniques used. “Peeling, boiling, frying… Each one has its own method. This leads us to another map. We need to be able to distinguish between them and know how to execute them. It is not enough just to read about it or memorise it. When you put it into practice you can see that you lack the knowledge. It is necessary to master the technology. Consider, for example, the tournée cut. There are countless definitions, but you have to know how to do it. Ferran gives the example of cutting ham. We’ve all been told how to do it, but you need to know how to really do it effectively. In addition, there are always a number of important factors, like whether it is hot or cold.”
Then comes the time to decide on the type of preparation. “You decide whether you want to serve it now or preserve it. Sometimes we cook to preserve. We can make a jam because there are lots of tomatoes and we don’t want them to spoil, or we can prepare it for today’s lunch. What you do with it in each case is different. You apply different techniques of conservation.”
Time to serve. This is where service technology comes in. “We have to change spaces, even if it is the same space. Even if you cook in the kitchen and then eat there too, you are crossing an imaginary boundary, and it becomes another room.”
The actors create different dynamics of service. “From the moment the diner enters the restaurant there is service technology. How they enter, how the menu is presented, how the dish is explained…
And within this service technology there are subdivisions; for example, the technology of serving beverages to the diner. “It is not the same to have an oyster with white wine or with red wine.”
The diner also plays a big part in the cooking.
The dish arrives at its destination. “It could be that the diner ends up cooking (a fondue, for example)”, he says. “The diner also plays a big part in the cooking. It is not the same thing for them to cut the meat thickly or thinly, to add more or less mustard, to add salt or not… You can cook with all the love in the world, but the diner changes it completely. They can even destroy it.”
That is why for elBulli it is important to “educate the diner”. According to Xatruch, “you have to explain to them how to eat it”.
This changes the order of things. Toni Segarra, who is listening intently for his research for The Table, voices a thought. “In a traditional restaurant, power emanates from the client. In a creative one, however, it lies in the kitchen.” Furthermore, “the traditional restaurant just reproduced. It did not research the recipes. It executed them.”
Indeed. “When you have not invented the recipe, what you do is reproduce it,” says Xatruch. “But since there have been restaurants there has been creative cuisine. Otherwise, we would be eating the way we did a thousand years ago.”