Cooking is all technique.
Whether you're sautéing something, using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream, doing spherification, or making a mayonnaise, everything is a technique—whether old or new.
As a chef, when you are younger and just starting to learn your craft, you want to learn all of the cool stuff because you want to dive into this brand new world and do all of these cool, new modern techniques. At this stage of being a chef—or any artist, really—you are actually trying to create your identity. You have something to prove to everybody. Nonetheless, as you get older, you get a little more mature and start to feel comfortable in your own skin. And as you get more wise, you realize that it is a lot less about you and a lot more about the food.
For me, I eventually realized that it was less about showing off and more about the ingredients that I'm working with, and the people that I'm feeding—the family, the customer, whoever. It is interesting that I got famous for my modern cooking on Top Chef—during season two, which was over ten years ago—and my TV show called Marcel's Quantum Kitchen on Syfy, but it was a double-edged sword the entire time. I always had a struggle with that show because I just wanted to make solid food. Sure, it is a cool technique to freeze-dry something and then fry it, but that's only because it translates into good television. The network would always ask if I could make things glow in the dark or blow up.
On one hand, it was really good to be known for modern cooking techniques because it separated me from everybody else; it allowed me to become more of a memorable character than the rest of the pack. Also, since both shows were aired internationally, I inspired a lot of people to follow this movement as well. I probably got hundreds of letters from people writing to me saying things, "I never thought food can be thought up in this manner" or "I'm going to culinary school because of you." That was extremely fulfilling. I never dreamed I would have that much impact. You have to remember, people didn't know about modern cooking techniques back then.
When you are a chef, you have the intimate ability to give people energy. Or, you have the opportunity to make people feel bloated, heavy, and feel like shit.
However, if you're using some kind of chemical that is derived from a manufactured process and it is some kind of a GMO that tastes really bad on its own, then it may be time for you to think about things. Methocel, for example—it tastes disgusting. Calcium chloride is another example because it also tastes absolutely disgusting. It makes you think: What are these chemicals derived from? Granted, all of these things are approved by the FDA but I would never go by what they say as a standard for me. I mean, I think it is a little scary that they just approved genetically modified meat.
Thinking about these things made me shift my cooking style. I wanted to make food that was not only delicious but a little bit healthier. Well, this, along with the reality of chefs not always having the best diet. When you are a chef, you are constantly tasting different things but never really eating a proper meal. A lot of us go into service on an empty stomach and have to taste 15 sauces that are either cream-based or vinaigrettes, so you are eating fat and salt and fat and salt all day long. OK, sometimes we do shove leftover meat scraps into our faces as fast as we can while hovering over the trash can. Typically, we are very caffeinated, too. Then, when we all get home, we'll make ourselves some Bagel Bites because we are too exhausted to cook anything to eat.
When I turned 35, I started noticing that my energy levels were low and I started to have minor health issues. That was the last straw. After that, I took a couple of steps back and applied a healthier approach to cooking. When you are a chef, you have the intimate ability to give people energy. Or, you have the opportunity to make people feel bloated, heavy, and feel like shit.
I still utilize my modern techniques, information, and knowledge, but it not to have any wow factor—it is to make things taste better. Moving forward, I do think the future of gastronomy is timeless. If something makes sense and it yields a delicious, wholesome product, then go for it. Just make sure you know how to make a proper béchamel before you make a fluid gel.
Never underestimate the power of fundamental cooking techniques.
As told to Javier Cabral
Marcel Vigneron is the proud chef and owner of the non-modernist Wolf restaurant in Los Angeles, California. He almost won Top Chef season two and opened up José Andrés's modernist restaurant in Los Angeles, The Bazaar. Visit Wolf's website for more info.