Molecular gastronomy is no fad, as Ian Kleinman proves at O's

It would be impossible to repeat all the nice things that egullet's Steven Shaw had to say about Ian Kleinman and his molecular gastronomy menu at O's Steak and Seafood at the Westin Westminster, which Shaw experienced when he was in town for the International Association of Culinary Professionals convention.

Shaw and I spent a long time chatting about Kleinman's menu. There were jokes buried in those four or five or six plates that no one in Shaw's party got until the next day (Kleinman's starter for that menu, the eightieth he's done since he began this experiment, was grilled butter shrimp with Old Bay popcorn, a weird combination until the nickel drops and you get the gag: popcorn shrimp) and techniques that still had them puzzled days later.

But one of Shaw's most pointed observations was that Kleinman still calls his food "molecular gastronomy," even though this descriptor has fallen far out of favor among both the chefs who work in the style and the writers who write about it. This was a big warning sign for Shaw. A dead giveaway that he would be dealing with an amateur, a poseur, someone so backward and so out of the loop that he didn't even know the solid footing of the language had shifted beneath him.

But that was before Shaw ate at O's, before he realized that Kleinman's continued use of the term "molecular gastronomy" is deliberate -- grounding his food and his menus in the first crazy blush of revolution that brought these dishes and techniques into kitchens in the first place.

In Kleinman's mind, calling what he does something different would be tantamount to admitting that everything is a fad, everything is a trend -- fickle and changeable and inconstant. But it isn't. He approaches every menu with an eye towards the best use of new technique and new technologies, with the firm assertion that sphericalization processes, liquid nitrogen, methyl cellulose and cold smoking are not gimmicks, but valid innovations that should be explored and used wherever appropriate. And then, just so it doesn't all go heavy and pedantic, he'll serve a plate of wasabi pop rocks or pina colada space foam or show up beside your table bearing a frozen ball of whiskey fresh from the tub of liquid nitrogen.

It's one of the things I've always appreciated so much about Kleinman's work. Sure, the boy can really cook. He knows his business, inside and out, and can discuss it both the way a chef would (talking product and ingredients and technique), and the way a philosopher might (the meanings of words -- of terms -- and the weight that they carry among diners). But he tops it all off with something stronger than whimsy, heavier than pure fancy. He's got a sense of humor that runs dark and deep, heavily galley-inflected and pop-referential. This is, after all, a guy who (at Indigo) served popcorn spiked with sesame butter and wasabi peas just because he thought it was funny to send customers home with their tongues tinted blue; who once made a gelee of seawater so that a fish filet wouldn't get homesick while on the plate.

It has always seemed to me that it is the revolutionary action that has gotten Kleinman's pulse racing, not the interminable coffeehouse discussions of one. He's a guy who loves to play, to do, and while he's more than capable of talking about his menus, his choices, his plans, what he's even better at is simply cooking.

That's something I've always liked about Kleinman: He's a working chef, most comfortable behind his stoves (and thermal immersion circulators). And now, I hope, it's something that Shaw and his friends will like about him, too.

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