It is now 20 years since elBulli, Ferran Adrià’s dazzlingly ground-breaking restaurant in northern Spain, gained its third Michelin star. And 1997 was the first time I visited The Fat Duck, in Bray, the restaurant that launched the career of Heston Blumenthal: two years later, it was awarded the first of its three stars. Not bad for an old pub with an outside loo.
These two pioneering chefs took new equipment, ingredients and techniques, many gleaned from industrial food production, and applied them to a new kind of haute cuisine. Their ideas became hugely influential: soon foams, jellies and spherification were all the rage, and flasks of liquid nitrogen adorned every table.
Then came the inevitable backlash: critics claimed they were denaturing food, and local, seasonal food – preferably foraged from a Scandinavian beach – became de rigueur. But nearly all great kitchens now use at least some of the technology that “molecular gastronomy” (as it was controversially named) had espoused. The avant-garde has become mainstream.
I was reminded of all this during dinner at Kitchen Theory recently; actually, “dinner” is a somewhat reductive name for what was an extraordinary evening. I arrived at an old factory (ol’ factory?) in north London, was ushered into a goods lift, then guided into a smart, two-storey loft space with a screening room, white dining table, open kitchen and gallery. The next few hours involved a succession of witty, erudite and thought-provoking excursions into the world of modernist cuisine. And, I was thrilled to find, it was also a terrific dinner.
The brainchild of chef Jozef Youssef, working with his partner Lulu Razzaq – in collaboration with Professor Charles Spence of Oxford University, a long-term collaborator of Blumenthal – Kitchen Theory treats its guests to a multisensory immersion in the science of flavour and how we perceive it.
Elements of mythology feature too. One dish invokes Ryujin, the Japanese sea god, with a dish of jellyfish, gazpacho made from nukazuke (pickled and fermented) cucumber, and seaweed, eaten wearing headphones to explore the impact of audio on crunchiness. Another recalls the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl: corn in various forms – grilled, puréed, dried – with black beans and chilli, served with neither cutlery nor crockery.
The table does not stay white for long. Dramatic projections of Aztec runes; an undulating turquoise sea (for oyster “ice cream” with lime and red onion); and the earthy undergrowth of a forest, backdrop to a superb mushroom dish: various fungi are baked, puréed and powdered, then perched on olive oil “pebbles”.
There are 13 courses in all, and Kitchen Theory has established itself as a corporate favourite for team-building, but anyone can book a weekend seat at its Chef’s Table. Twenty years ago, I mused, this kind of experience would have been unthinkable, especially in High Barnet. And really, it still is.