Research-work

50 Glimpses

Sasha Correa and Iñaki Martínez de Albeniz

Gastronomy is everywhere. Not just in the mouths of those eating, but also those sat around the table creating the imaginary in which food serves as a bridge to everywhere else.

There is a lot more than nutrients in what we bite off: there is economics, politics, communication, science, training, technology, and the environment. There is society, and therefore culture. In this sense, gastronomy isn’t just haute cuisine, nor is it simply cooking food, it’s a collection of relationships in which very different agents intervene in an ecosystem whose common denominator is nourishment, and whose meaning reaffirms, as French philosopher Gastón Bachelard would say, that Man is a creation of desire, not a creation of need.

So, in addition to purely the culinary, gastronomy is about good practices, natural environments, technologies, forms of production, distribution, marketing and consumption, and also the dialogue between knowledge, identity, proximity, sustainability, biodiversity, health, food safety, and traceability. Perhaps most notably, it has to do with managing the contradictions that emanate from the ensemble formed by farmers, fishermen, and ranchers, distributors, scientists, institutions, research and development centres, industries, chefs, restaurants, and a long etcetera that are, in turn, inseparable from the role played by those who eat with their bodies and minds.

“Accepting responsibility” for this crowded panorama, we see chefs above all, despite this trade having made those wearing an apron or those dreaming of donning a chef’s jacket blush until just a few decades ago. Not only is demand for professional training on the rise among students, these days you can’t swing a cat without hitting a chef. They’re everywhere: supporting different causes, making headlines, hosting radio programmes, appearing in documentaries, and an endless array of TV content (even being part of a select group of celebrities that TV stations select to present their New Year’s programmes).

Nevertheless, far from being a mere trend or media blitz, there is a sense that we are facing a pulsing movement involving those who understand that gastronomy is more than the sum of its parts, and that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg.

Yet being hasta en la sopa (a Spanish expression literally meaning ‘even in the soup’, and figuratively meaning ‘seen everywhere’) has a trade-off: your mouth can be so full of soup that no one understands a word you’re saying. This is the challenge that we face in 50 perspectives: How do we make ourselves understood while expressing what is happening in the culinary world, addressing this phenomenon’s growing complexity and its almost ubiquitous social presence, without making the audience’s head spin?

Physics uses the concept of entropy to refer to the disorder caused when infinitesimal new inputs burst into a system. Systems evolve if they are open to outside influences, are capable of processing noise from their surroundings, and converting it into information for their own use. Even in its darkest moments, gastronomy has never been a closed system, but if it were, it would have died of starvation, as paradoxical as it may seem, in a sort eternal repetition of the same. Now, opening up too much to external stimuli, as seems to be the case currently, can do away with specificity and result in it being absorbed by adjacent ideas.

Like Ithaca-bound Odysseus, who was forced to navigate between Escila and Charybdis, the two mythical monsters each attempting to attract him to their respective shores, contemporary gastronomy finds itself straddling a divide. On one hand, or on one shore, are those that proclaim that living in entropy’s “anything goes” atmosphere is comfy and cosy. For their part, those on the other shore maintain the opposite, that “nothing goes”, and that any change or opening up is nonsensical. It is the ancient battle between the apocalyptic and integrated, which Umberto Eco speaks of when discussing pop culture’s emergence sweeping away the pillars of western society in the second half of the 20th century.

With the goal of avoiding these two extremes, the Basque Culinary Center (BCC) has created 50 Perspectives as a project that attempts to create a story through interdisciplinary research on the change that gastronomy is experiencing, that is both prudent and useful at the same time, at a moment when an unprecedented level of visibility has been reached. We are seeking to construct a narrative that aspires to put events in order and share a unique, distinct perspective on the culinary movement: a movement that transfers its energy like Newton’s pendulum, with its future formed by the BCC’s present aspirations.

Going beyond futile controversies, transforming gastronomy into an interesting debate worthy of reflection and discussion means letting the sirens’ song fall on deaf ears, simultaneously navigating between the Escilia of art for art’s sake and the Charybdis of easy criticism, and fleeing from lazy or self-satisfying opinions, whatever they may be. In a word, offering more purposeful accounts that understand how to confront complexity in the only way that it can be faced, by generating more complexity. However, this complexity must be attainable.

Certainly, the social presence and media visibility that gastronomy has achieved deserves calm, critical reflection regarding the phenomenon’s evolution and scope. Its difficulty increases exponentially when the information surrounding the phenomenon attempts to reach general audiences that don’t necessarily have first-hand experience with the culinary world, an audience that is simply interested and curious, as if that weren’t enough.

In general, although we know that the balance sheets look promising without going any further than gastronomy’s growing importance in terms of GDP, the same does hold true with the narratives that can help us flesh out the change and take sides. In this sphere of narratives, where a project like 50 Perspectives hopes to make a place for itself, an attempt is made to respond to a dual objective:

  Understanding (ourselves) internally: critically analysing the process of transformation gastronomy has undergone over the course of the last forty years, coinciding with the rise of New Basque Cuisine.

  Making (ourselves) known externally: showing public opinion the types of implications (social, ethical, economic, political, aesthetic, etc.) that mark this transformation.

Particles and waves

Gastronomy broke through its glass ceiling and was able to open itself up to influence from many areas of thought, experience and knowledge amidst an intense change in polarity. At first, chefs approached other disciplines (scientific, social, humanistic) with curiosity and respect, and sometimes an unconcealed reverence. Today, experts of all kinds take interest in gastronomy, probably because they are becoming aware that the three main dimensions of reality, the material, the technical, and the human, emulsify better under its influence than in their own areas of activity. This dual opening, first of doors to the outside, towards unknown lands, and later doors to the inside, opening wide the kitchen doors, making gastronomy a new republic, if you will pardon the metaphor.

But how can this story be told? That depends on whether we look at the particle or the wave. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is the basis of a law of modern physics that tells us that knowing a particle’s position and movement at the same time is impossible. Contemporary gastronomy is strongly subjected to this principle: either you can observe the position of a particle, of some renowned chefs as the change’s sole protagonists, or you can  focus on the wave, the extraordinary process of change that gastronomy has undergone in its transformation into a social movement.

It is bizarre to say the least, and at the same time symptomatic of the times we live in, that a process of collective and multi-dimensional change goes hand in hand with the growing visibility and notoriety of a very select few of its protagonists. It is as if only a few stars shine in the sky, while the constellations remain unseen.

What probably happens is that our ancestral anthropological condition of listening and telling tales only makes these stories possible on the condition that they have a flesh and bone protagonist that makes things happen, or to whom things happen, with whom we can identify. It is as if complex stories needed the helping hand of a face, a hero, an ally or a loser in order to be understood. But things are not so simple. Gastronomy is a dish prepared by many hands. Falling in love with the hero limits, and even prevents observation in all its rich nuances, of the movement; that is, the process underlying the hero’s ups and downs. In a word, it keeps us from understanding the story’s plot.

Appreciating the storyline, gastronomy as a movement, means becoming aware that change happens above all through the social perceptions and cultural norms that articulate daily life. We have moved from an exclusive gastronomy of chefs, critics and gourmets, to open-source gastronomy that takes on the shape of a citizen or social movement. The difficulty of this new position, of being ‘hasta en la sopa’, stems from the fact that a helping hand from other languages and ways of communicating is necessary.

So, we find gastronomy everywhere, ‘hasta en la sopa’, not because its media presence has become unbearably oppressive, but because it is resonating in other possible spaces. Because it is many other things: gastronomy is conversation; gastronomy is movement; gastronomy is science; gastronomy is value; gastronomy is experience.

Constellations

It was Walter Benjamin, one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers, who said that the constellations are new ways of seeing things, new enlightenment, built on a combination of unsuspecting objects, words, images, points of view, etc.

Following this idea, we have chosen five constellations to dive into the behaviour of gastronomy today, as part of the culmination of months of research work that was nourished by creativity sessions and workshops held with students -such as those from the 2018 Gastronomic Sciences Master’s Programme- and professors, as well as internal and external collaborators.  Support from members of the BCC’s International Council and Trust helped equally to sharpen the focus.

Far from aiming for thoroughness, the conglomerates are more inspired by the logic of a cubist painting and their presentation of multiple perspectives than by those of a realist painting, with its aspirations of reflecting a supposed objective truth. They are different stories because they are different ways of expressing the same thing about a phenomenon that has become multifaceted since it has been opened up to the world. Each side of the polyhedron is a door to access the plot. The stories will cross each other along the way. Sometimes, they will enter into contradiction and generate controversy. Other times, they will push in the same direction.

In any case, talking about constellations is still a pretext for escaping from unidirectional, heroic narratives in which certain iconic characters hoard the spotlight. It is too easy. The constellations that we put on display in this text are five different montages. They are five perspectives. Perspectives that are characters, devices, concepts, materials, places, processes, moments, ideas… through which the story of recent culinary history is told.

Gastronomy is a conversation

What isn’t communicated doesn’t exist. Gastronomy will be a conversation, or it won’t exist. An ever-more complex and open conversation that has definitively broken though the limits of table talk.

The world was transformed into a great conversation about the things we eat. A polyphonic conversation that produces as many calming harmonies as defiant dissonances. Interlocutors are no longer those traditionally called to the culinary table, those critics and gourmets that spoke in the chef’s timid and anxious presence from a position of authority. The chef would not so much as say a word about the soup ey had prepared.

Today, authority has been distributed, passing the torch to bloggers, the chroniclers of experiences, and foodies who have made food the new focus of their lives through self-awareness. And to chefs, who have also started to be heard, and not just in terms of culinary topics; to activists, documentary filmmakers and researchers, or even to active diners on platforms like TripAdvisor and to the space opened up by hashtags.

These new culinary audiences are as diverse as the means they use to communicate. Culinary knowledge is no longer transferred sotto voce in the kitchen’s back room. It now constitutes a transmedia phenomenon: it is in books, on television programmes with huge audiences, on social media, and even in the internet of things, that new dimension in which the data we produce and algorithms we write butt in on our own opinions, resulting in a data soup that speaks about us, about what we consume (through payment, clicks, or ‘likes’), what we eat, what we are –warning us, in the age of fake news, about our tastes better than our own mothers could.

Gastronomy is a movement

As a result of the growing media recognition they are acquiring, 21st century chefs have moved on to being considered as social influencers by public opinion. Responsibility, social commitment and activism are facets that culinary professionals have been forced to incorporate into their daily routines. This fact, however, cannot bypass the perverse consequences that can come with a poor use of the visibility or social prestige that chefs have obtained, which can drag their profession towards trivialisation or conventionalisation.

At the other end of the board, gastronomy’s visibility is also a good backdrop for echoing worthy initiatives with which so many individuals aspire to face the paradoxes that our present eating habits pose, making gastronomy a force for transforming realities. With this being the case, it would not be over the top of conclude that the gastronomy’s ubiquity has been one of the factors that has most contributed to the emergence of intense social mobilisation around food, to say nothing of a charitable welfare-oriented perspective. Do we really know what we eat? Is it too late for us to harvest with nature and to return to cooking as a daily practice? Can we influence the policies that govern the way our food is produced? Are we capable of sustainable consumption that does not drown the planet in garbage? Can we ensure “good, healthy, and fair” foods are accessible to a growing population? Can we preserve the world’s biological, social, and cultural diversity? Will we avoid exploitation in the ways we work?

These are some of the challenges to face in the medium term. Nevertheless, despite ever-growing social and political awareness, gastronomy must urgently face certain historical injustices that are an embarrassment; to start with, acknowledging gender inequality and correcting it once and for all.

Gastronomy is a science

Gastronomy has experienced an internal transformation since collaborations began with scientists, experts, and professionals from different fields of knowledge (physicists, chemists, nutritionists, food technologists, anthropologists, philosophers, sociologists, economists, publicists, communications professionals, social media experts, artists, etc.). At this point, it is not unreasonable to affirm something that scandalised some and freightened most not so long ago: gastronomy already is a science. The Basque Culinary Center is nothing more than the 3D testament to this paradigm shift.

The main difference is that what was previously done intuitively through an empiricism of trial and error and “we’ll see what happens”, is now done methodically and systematically. In a word, scientifically. We are living through a revolution both in terms of the basic science applied to gastronomy, and in the field of the techno-science, with prominence of the techno-emotional aspects that it has known how to introduce and develop the culinary arts better than any other discipline. As a result of all this, gastronomy also sets an example to follow for scientific practices, because it has understood how to cross the boundaries of what C. P. Snow called the two cultures; the culture of science and the culture of humanities, that traditionally turned their backs on each other.

Gastronomy is value

Gastronomy’s value has always hung from the food chain. Sometimes, this chain has choked out its possibilities. For example, the idea that value is only measured in economic terms, and that only things that can be monetised are valuable. What could gastronomy provide in terms of value? It is time for a paradigm shift so that we can move away from the value chain towards the values themselves, most of them intangible, that gastronomy has known how to string together with the different links of its practice, from the production out of raw materials to consumption, including environmental conservation, applying regulations, the transformation sector, the distribution-marketing-tourism triangle, and R&D.

We no longer talk about activism or jumping into action, but instead about a new culinary engineering in the literal sense of the term: the use of ingenuity to optimise business models, improve work methods, and make them more sustainable, while at the same time providing widespread access to the culinary world. Innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity are the triple helix that can accelerate this process. Why not start with understanding them as assets? They surely facilitate the task. Between 2013 and 2018, the number of active investors in the agri-food and gastronomy sectors has tripled internationally. Those who decide to commit money, knowledge, leadership, their personal life and reputation in order to contribute to the world of gastronomy will find the table set for them.

Gastronomy is experience

Chefs scream themselves hoarse when it comes to expressing an idea that resists becoming common sense because of its counter-intuitiveness: gastronomy is “more than eating”. A culinary experience is a concept that is part of a culinary alphabet soup. Through it, aspects or dimensions of gastronomy that go further than the functional fact of food are addressed. Understanding how experience relates to gastronomy is a dimension that we cannot forget if we don’t want to make the topic too serious and bland, or a mere problem of subsistence: hedonism, the sublimation of cooking through the senses. The culinary experience mobilises a series of resources to obtain great pleasure, not just sensory pleasure, but intellectual and existential pleasure as well.

The paradox of the situation is that, as Martín Caparros says, food has become “a consumable object that does not need to be food to be consumed”. The act of observing a photo posted to Instagram by someone eating at a fabulous restaurant is itself a culinary experience. The challenge lies in improving these experiences, making them accessible, and transforming them into a luxury that is within everyone’s reach. This is arduous work, because chefs are facing an empowered public that is difficult to please due to the fortunate fact that their culinary knowledge is growing.