Last week during my bus commute I watched a 2011 documentary on elBulli, the famed (and now defunct) avante garde restaurant in Catlonia run by Ferran Adrià. The restaurant was known for a voluminous tasting menu that delivered dishes that were creative and strange and innovative. In order to accomplish these dishes, Adrià and his staff used techniques and ingredients that were considered by some to be science-fictional. Things like liquid nitrogen, xanthan gum, soy lecithin, and edible films, gels and foams as well as techniques like spherification and emulsification. In order to create these new dishes, elBulli closed for six months every year so that its team of chefs could experiment with a variety of ingredients and techniques. Adrià and co.’s use of such ingredients and techniques led to the label “molecular gastronomy”, a label which he and some of his devotees (such as Chicago’s Grant Achatz) disavowed.
I was aware of elBulli and the world of molecular gastronomy prior to watching the documentary. I was also aware of the fact that some of the best chefs in the world hate the term. But it wasn’t until I viewed the documentary that I understood why. As Adrià explains at various points in the documentary, the food served at elBulli isn’t about the technique-no matter how untraditional it may be. The techniques and ingredients are simply tools. Instead, every dish is created in order to create emotion. Each dish–its ingredients, preparation and presentation– should surprise, delight, challenge, evoke, tantalize or punch you in the gut. And the entire meal is designed to take guests on an emotional journey. The problem with the term molecular gastronomy is that it puts what is a fundamental thing–eating–at a remove. It puts too much emphasis on the science of ingredient manipulation and not enough on emotion. And its technique are useless (or rather misapplied) in the hands of someone who isn’t focused on the emotion.
When I finished watching the documentary, I found myself thinking about the parallels to SF&F. Good SF&F is like the food served at elBulli: it has elements of the fantastic, of reality modified into new forms–forms that could be seen as strange even if they are rooted in everyday reality. But to focus solely on those fantastical or SFnal elements, to focus too heavily on the strangeness is to deny the core emotion and humanity that exists at their center. That is the mistake made by those readers who fetishize literary realism. They are so sold on realism as the key to character depth and emotion and so discomfited by the strangeness of SF&F that they miss the emotion found in the best genre works.
And just like some of Ferran Adrià’s admirers focused only on the techniques of molecular gastronomy, some SF&F writers focus only on the genre trappings. And why is that? Because avant garde techniques take a lot of experimentation. Ferran Adrià and his crew would shut down their restaurant and work like mad for six months in order to evolve their menu. What are you willing to do in order to create SF&F that is innovative and full of emotion?