How Chefs Make Experimental Cooking Work in the Age of High-End Comfort Food

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A dish of scallops, apples, and horseradish at Atera. Photo: Melissa Hom

Most people don’t want to spend a lot of money in order to be provoked. That fact rings especially true at dinner, when time-crunched adults simply want to unwind. "One of the places that has always been allocated for free time, and for shutting down, is the table," says Wylie Dufresne, a chef who's known for playing with diners' expectations. Think, he says, about the question that people ask themselves when choosing a restaurant, which usually doesn't involve any mention of avant-garde cuisine: "'Do you want to go have Chinese? French? Thai? Or do you want to go think?' … It's like, 'Ah, fuck, I don't want to think.'"

Yet the success of, and admiration for, experimental chefs like Dufresne, Paul Liebrandt, Ignacio Mattos, or Matthew Lightner indicates there is at least some appetite for provocative restaurants, where dinner can be an intellectual exercise to a certain degree. There used to be anyway. Lately, there's a pervasive sense in the restaurant industry that it's become more difficult than ever to ask diners to leave their comfort zones.

In a recent interview, Drew Nieporent discussed the ways in which the food at his successful, newish restaurant Bâtard compares to the high-wire dishes that chef Liebrandt became known for in the restaurant's previous incarnation as Corton, which closed in 2013. Nieporent said, "I still believe that the food people ultimately desire doesn't need to be super creative ... in the end it's not the food I want to eat." Liebrandt, meanwhile, has no professional kitchen to call his own at the moment after his larger, slightly less ambitious Corton follow-up, the Elm, was turned into a middle-of-the-road nouveau "fern bar" serving French onion soup and pasta primavera. Lightner's distinct, highly technical cooking style earned him two Michelin stars at Atera, but he left the restaurant earlier this year to oversee a massive three-story bar and restaurant in California with the design group AvroKo. (Atera’s new chef, Ronny Emborg, has imbued the restaurant’s tasting menu with his own highly technical, though slightly less challenging, sensibility.)

After wd~50 closed last fall because of real-estate concerns, it's hard not to see the upcoming closure of Dufresne's Alder — which serves reimagined crowd-pleasers like burgers and pigs in a blanket, alongside more imaginative creations such as okonomiyaki pancakes and eel with cauliflower and pistachio — as a sign that even lightly challenging dishes simply don't capture diners' attention the way they might have in the past. (Lastly, the unorthodox Romera opened big in September 2011, serving dishes like scallops in white-chocolate sauce and chef Miguel Sánchez Romera's flavored waters; it closed six months later and still serves as the most notable warning to any chef looking to make a splash with overly ornate food in New York.)

"You would think that in New York, one of the most educated cities in the world, there would be this market for esoteric cooking, like there is with esoteric dance or esoteric writing," says New York's restaurant critic, Adam Platt. But "New York is an old-fashion meat and potatoes town ... diners are quite traditional, and they tend to equate experimental food with going abroad."

There are plenty of ways that New York's chefs display creativity, of course: At Mission Chinese Food, the egg-and-pork-stuffed whole-roasted chicken that's based on a recipe from chef Angela Dimayuga's grandmother is creative. (Delicious, too.) Even a chicken sandwich can be reengineered. That's great, but what's become tough to sell is that fussier, more European style of thought-provocation and creativity, one that's firmly rooted in the fine-dining (and, yes, Michelin-starred) tradition.


 

Razor clams with pineapple dashi and basil seeds at Momofuku Ko.
Photo: Gabriele Stabile

One common thing you hear when talking to restaurant-industry watchers about the business challenges facing experimental chefs is that, in America, this phenomenon is unique to New York, and that other major cities have a stronger appreciation for extremely inventive cuisine. Yet, chefs I spoke with pointed out that the oft-named restaurants on this list — Atelier Crenn or Benu in San Francisco; Trois Mec and Alma in L.A.; Grace, Schwa, El Ideas, Elizabeth, and the mighty Alinea in Chicago — while all great, represent only a handful of spots in the national restaurant scene. It's not as if many Chicagoans are sitting down to plates of curried marshmallow crisps and carrot graffiti every night. Perhaps the shift towards high-quality comfort food that's defined restaurant culture since the 2008 financial crisis feels more pronounced in New York because it seems like we should be able to sustain a roster of moderately priced, bleeding-edge restaurants, and it remains the city where many chefs most want to see their culinary identities flourish.

But Platt says that the most successful newcomers these days adjust to the new comfort-food sensibility, instead of pushing against it. He points to chef Enrique Olvera, whose Mexico City restaurant, Pujol, is known for preparations like "tongue broth" and chicken livers with huitlacoche (which sounds better than its other name: corn smut). When Olvera decided to open Cosme in Manhattan, he made clear that he'd be adapting his culinary sensibility to match New York tastes, and the menu includes dishes like sirloin carpaccio, and burrata with smoked-chile salsa. As Platt noted in his review of the restaurant, Olvera "clearly tailored his menu at Cosme to New Yorkers' current obsession with the clean, the comforting, and the non-ornamental."

Taylor Swift will always outsell Aphex Twin, and burrata is bound to move more product than corn fungus. But in that scenario, what chance does truly groundbreaking food have? Who's going to create the next revolutionary cooking technique if everyone's eating dry-aged steak, rustic pasta, and gastro-burgers? Several chefs say that pure innovation simply isn't something that appeals to most diners. "New things — that's something that people should be lauded for," Dufresne suggests. "I'm talking about anyone who wants to do something new. Because that's fucking hard, it's a lot of work, and it's interesting." Empellón's Alex Stupak (who also served as the pastry chef at Alinea and Dufresne's now-closed wd~50), echoes the sentiment: "We don't credit originality enough as a category that you can score on."


 

Wylie Dufresne's famous eggs benedict.
Photo: wd~50

There is a part of the dining public that does want new for dinner, to have a meal and an experience designed to make them think, and restaurants like Atera, Blanca, Take Root, Momofuku Ko, or Semilla cater to that crowd. The thing that those restaurants have in common, though, is that they have a mere 12 or 18 seats, and only about two seatings per night. (They can also charge hundreds of dollars per person.) That's a niche segment of the dining public, and even very adventurous diners will probably only go to restaurants like that once or twice a year. The other thing these small rooms have in common is that they serve long, multicourse tasting menus, a format that chefs concede gives them more freedom.

Tasting menus, of course, have their own detractors, and Elise Kornack acknowledges that even within the format, which she serves at the Michelin-starred Take Root, chefs are very mindful of the balancing act they must maintain: "Whether you're trying to get your creative point of view across to customers, it's still their money and you want them to have a nice time," she says. "You want people to be drawn in and eating a few things they haven't had — flavor combinations or techniques — but you also want to have one or two dishes that are really comfortable and really delicious."

Stupak turned over the back portion of Empellón Cocina to a four-seat tasting-menu experience where he says he can also take more chances with the food. "People sit down and they're along for the ride," he explains. "No one dish is going to make or break your night. If you're eating à la carte and you order the wrong main course, you're pissed because that was your one shot."

That's one obvious reason why so many chefs spend their time and energy improving time-honored sellers — there's almost certainly never been a better time to eat cheeseburgers in New York — instead of pushing to exclusively show diners unexpected flavor combinations or innovative techniques. "When you go out to eat, and it costs between $60 and $100 a head, you're in what I'd call the danger zone," Stupak says. At that price point, one where many upscale spots tend to hover, "people want to pick their food, they want that thing to be that thing, and they'll compare it to other iterations of that dish that they've had." For example, "If their favorite steak tartare is super classic, and they go out to an avant-garde restaurant that's doing steak tartare but fucking with it somehow, it's hit or miss. You run the risk of people eating it and saying, 'Hm, this is interesting, but I paid $18 for it and next time I'm going to go back to the place that makes my favorite version.'" That's a big risk to take in New York, where restaurants depend on regulars to keep dining rooms full every single night.


 

Ignacio's simple, subtle beef tartare at Estela is a victory for rethinking old favorites.
Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

On those occasions when a chef really does nail it, they can offer an original technique or presentation that customers immediately recognize and respond to. For better or worse, the ultimate example of a fresh technique entering the mainstream in the last few years is probably the Cronut, but a surprising dish that several chefs cite as a de-facto win for retooling something familiar is Ignacio Mattos's new-look beef tartare at Estela, a simple, subtle recipe that employs fish sauce, elderberries, and crisp sunchoke chips. It also feels like an evolution of a daintier beef tartare dish that Mattos served during his time at Isa, which came with sunchoke puree, juniper berries, and flaxseed. The version at Estela doesn't exactly scream "cutting-edge," but it nevertheless inspired a collection of imitators and manages to bring diners back. "That's the tartare I want to eat again and again," Stupak says.

Dufresne says he sees this reaction most often when the diners have some point of reference for the dish in question. "We've realized that if you play with old friends, people are much more likely to get behind it," he says, pointing out that even the legendarily experimental El Bulli was often careful about the ways in which it upended people's expectations. "Their flavors were very safe. It was always asparagus, olives, Parmesan, mozzarella," he says. "They were technique-driven, but their flavors were very full. There were always things people knew."

Dufresne allows that he's been thinking about this topic more than usual these days, since, even though Alder is closing soon, he's currently prepping a new restaurant that's scheduled to open in lower Manhattan early next year. The focus on retooled familiarity, he says, is what's led to his most successful dishes, like postmodern eggs benedict, "cold fried chicken," or everything-bagel ice cream — things that diners just get. "People don't have a warm, fuzzy spot in their heart for shrimp noodles, because they didn't exist until I made them," the chef says. "Whereas eggs benedict, people loved it and I think they loved it because they had a reference." As far as how that will inform his new project, Dufresne says he's now less interested in specifically showing off a new technique he's developed or an unfamiliar flavor combination. "That's a tough row to hoe," he concedes. "I'll leave that to the 12 seaters."