Plotting the future of food

Hold on a minute. Remember how, as a kid, the idea of eating raw fish turned your stomach? How many spicy-tuna rolls have you eaten recently? Even a few years ago, who would have thought that pork belly, bone marrow, and lamb cheeks would be routine on Vancouver menus, foam would decorate plates, sustainable would be in our culinary vocabulary, and Safeway flyers would promote organic produce? Before you cross your eyes at the thought of bacon-and-egg ice cream, or a device called a teppannitro that "grill-freezes" food at tableside, remember you're viewing changes this radical from a 2006 perspective. In 10 years' time, or 20, who knows how the Vancouver food scene will have developed.

The big question is whether chefs will be more technicians than cooks. Curious eyes track megastars Ferran Adrií  of El Bulli in Spain and the U.K.'s Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck, chefs who have meshed laboratory and kitchen to create what's been called "molecular gastronomy". Although chilly scientific conditions seem at odds with the sensuality of ripe fruits and fresh seafood, cooking is already chemistry: all modern kitchens contain the equivalent of measuring flasks, thermometers, and electronic scales; even amateurs own miniature Bunsen burners for caramelizing crí¨me brí»lée.

Back in his hometown for two weeks, Kevin Cherkas can report from the frontline. With Vancouver Community College training and Diva at the Met experience under his belt, Cherkas spent 18 months in New York with superchef Daniel Boulud before moving to San Sebastián, Spain?-a place, he says, that boasts the world's highest concentration of three-star Michelin restaurants. An e-mail offering to work for free got him into the progressive Restaurante Arzak, where eating happens upstairs, and downstairs is a chemistry lab that experiments with liquid nitrogen, agar, and making the familiar unfamiliar.

By then, Cherkas already knew about deconstruction and reassembly, he says over chai at Tearoom T. "At Daniel, pearl tapioca is cooked in saffron broth?-the idea stems from bubble tea-[and added to] a bouillabaisse with no saffron. Is it creative, edgy food? No. Bouillabaisse has been around for years." For him, the creativity is in the combination of open mind and "the traditional background of solid cooking”¦ Where people don't enjoy the [new forms of] food is where you go to secondary restaurants and the foam [an Adrií  creation] has no flavour."

Cherkas talks of coffee-flavoured papers made of agar, powdered yogurt, and Nescafé powder, and new techniques like cooking fish for hours at 65 degrees Celsius, high enough to set the protein but low enough to keep moisture in, comparing it to "putting yourself in a hot tub". He refers to "caviars", not fish eggs but thin gelatin shells encasing liquid centres, and imagines how he might do "steak tartare maybe with a beautiful beef sauce [in caviar form] on top".

The approach won't go mainstream here, Cherkas feels, not because Vancouverites lack adventurous palates but because of our vast global pantry. "In Spain, ginger is exotic. Why did they come up with creative food? They don't have Japanese and Indian," he explains. However, a Spanish chef asking "What can you do with a tomato?" might combine the little "juice pods" of liquid plus seeds in a salad with lobster and lobster gelatin, or make spreads to go on top of fish of soft fresh cheeses, fried toasted bread, ground nuts, and garlic: ingredients found in all Spanish kitchens refracted through the prism of invention.

As this issue of the Straight hits the stands, Cherkas will be en route to Spain for a six-month volunteer stint in the El Bulli kitchen. (There's a three-year waiting list to do that.) What role will he play? "Mr. Nobody," he says. His eventual goal is to be chef at his own restaurant in Vancouver, serving a menu that's equal parts traditional home-style and "food you can't get anywhere else". Example: "Take osso buco," he says. "Cook it beautifully, then hollow out the marrow and do a bone-marrow foam or custard, put it back in the bone, and serve it with a spoon. Is it creative? Not really. You're just cooking a dish in a different way.”¦I want people to leave thinking 'For what we've paid, it's brilliant.'?"

Certain dishes do stick in your memory. Years ago, when he was top tuque at Diva at the Met, Michael Noble served an unforgettable chili sorbet-fire and ice-with grilled prawns. Now, Noble is director of culinary and product development at Earls. "If we only had that crystal ball, we would all be extremely wealthy," he says by phone from Calgary, when asked his views on the future of restaurant food. "It's all about timing. You can't be too far ahead." Since moving to Earls, he says he's had to "embolden flavours. We can't keep enough chili chicken in house," he adds, citing the need to stay relevant to diners in their 20s. "In a nutshell, it's staying up with what sorts of cooking are popular. North Africa, Turkey-it's a big wheel that keeps turning."

Restaurant comfort food is increasingly replacing the Leave It to Beaver family dinner. Noble has already pencilled in a meat-loaf sandwich. Beyond that? "A big question in my mind is this whole chemistry thing going now," he says, wondering if it will peak, then plummet Atkins diet-style. "Will I ever see warm jellies at Earls made with agar-agar? It's hard to say." A recent Chicago research trip exposed him to chef Grant Achatz's 26-course "tour" at Alinea, whose menu descriptions include "juniper aroma" (remember, smell is essential to taste) and where the lunch-box classic morphs into a peanut butter- coated grape wrapped in brioche, then toasted. "We deconstructed the Nanaimo bar at Diva in about 1997," Noble remembers, a move that was too ahead of its time; now he thinks we're ready. Currently under test at Earls is a Nanaimo-bar gelato cake with "the punch of the chocolate, the custard flavour, but amazingly light".

Noble foresees "a huge focus on ingredients". Earls has already turned to organic vegetables, hooking up with a farm in the Fraser Valley to supply "teen" (i.e., not "baby") veggies for all 48 Canadian locations. "It's kind of exciting to depend on Mother Nature instead of greenhouses," Noble says. Not knowing exactly what varieties will show up does mean "our kitchen partners have to be a little more agile." In his view, the next decade will demand a focus on "provenance, quality, and how natural our ingredients are". And how varied: chefs are constantly searching for unusual vegetables like the crosnes, crunchy little multisegmented tubers that recently showed up at a Blue Water Café special dinner. Climate change means B.C. may grow a far greater range of produce down the road, such as caramel-flavoured abiu fruit or the right kind of local sumac to make our own zatar spice mix.

Gord Martin of Bins 941 and 942 and Go Fish already uses both. Even though Martin is one of the city's most original chefs, he calls the integration of science and food "a fad that won't last", leaving little evidence behind beyond spuma. "I think everything will come full circle: Back-to-basics but incorporating more spice mixtures. Don Letendre at Opus has started to delve into Moroccan”¦they have some of the boldest flavours on Earth. And everybody's ready for Mexican fine dining."

Martin feels that "talk about wild and sustainable is redundant by now, with any chef of noteworthy calibre already doing that and the public increasingly educated." Wild cards in the future, he thinks, are the threats of avian flu and mad-cow disease. And if the former does take hold, it's not just farewell to KFC. No more poultry means no more eggs, no more hollandaise, mayonnaise, crí¨me anglaise, soufflés, Bennies, meringues, cakes, and pastries, or at least not the real thing. On the bright side, he adds, if consumers take conservation seriously for long enough, Chilean sea bass could become sustainable again. With Go Fish adjacent to Granville Island fishing boats, he's hip to current realities like the fisherman who, given last year's limited salmon openings, switched to herring. But herring on the menu? Unlikely. "People here are very finicky and fussy [about fish]," Martin says.

His forecast is more wish list than prediction. "We have wonderful farm-gate operations [around B.C.], but no way to get the product here," he explains, recounting how Greyhound bus is the only way to get hold of the terrific beef he's found in the Interior. He would also like B.C. to become "pretty much self-sufficient. If we can grow figs here, why the hell aren't we?" To see diners moving beyond rice and potatoes to quinoa, amaranth, and other supergrains would be nice too, he says-and increasingly likely as we become more informed about the link between balanced diets and disease prevention.

Meanwhile, Martin is fine-tuning a dish of sablefish to be served with what he calls "a clear flower gastrique", made of orange-blossom and rose waters, lily and jasmine flowers, dried banana chips, and dried scallops, all strained out and thickened with agar, the ingredients chosen to offset and balance each other as carefully as voices in a choir. Indicative of the future? Only time will tell.