Photo: Courtesy of The Robin Collective.
Somewhere in England, stuffing is being shot into the thoracic cavity of a dead chicken. It's one of the tricks performed by experimental food outfit The Robin Collective, which creates theatrical events for major brands and holds classes in making food that does more than just taste good.
The Daily Mail claims that The Robin Collective's exploits in what it calls "extreme garnishing" will be the hottest food trend of 2014. "At their extreme garnishing classes, [Robin Collective's Brandy Wright] and her partners, Robin Fegen and former child actress Elspeth Rae, also show students how to create cocktails that change colour, marshmallows that double as medicine and bitters that taste like Charles Dickens or Alfred Hitchcock. The point? To show the world how to take food to Heston Blumenthal style extremes — and beyond."
That's not really the point, though — or, it shouldn't be. The thing is, there's a thin line in today's food scene between seemingly odd innovation and pure theatrics. Robin Collective's creations probably belong in the latter category — unless you'll really be attempting a "chicken rocket" at home — and that's okay. It would hardly be the first to use food as an artistic medium rather than a source of nourishment or gastronomic pleasure.
Food art duo Bompas & Parr, for example, made their name by doing incredibly over-the-top things with Jell-O: making it glow in the dark, molding it in the shape of British government buildings, even putting it in fashion shows. (It's worth noting that Bompas & Parr have collaborated with Robin Collective in the past, too.) Though the pair has recently moved into other media, when it focused solely on gelatin, it transformed a humble dessert into an artistic material. They needed to understand its limits, its structure, and how far it could be pushed to do what it was they wanted. But, Bompas & Parr's goal isn't to make tasty food — it was to use food as a medium to create a multi-sensory experience.
That's not to say that good food and theatrical presentation are incompatible. Blumenthal, owner of the multi-Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant, is both leader in the modernist food movement and perhaps its biggest clown. He has contributed an inestimable amount of research and knowledge to the science of cooking. Low-temperature water baths, modern hydrocolloids, manipulating texture via vacuum — these techniques are increasingly found in restaurant kitchens not because they're zany, but because they work. Those bacon-y ice creams that were all the rage a couple years ago? You can thank Blumenthal for spreading that idea nearly a decade ago.
He also has a flair for the spectacular, and his many television shows have provided him the opportunity to ham it up for the cameras. Sometimes his dishes are mind-blowing for their innovative combinations of flavors and execution, and sometimes mere gimmicks that serve the overall theme or experience. Creating a more stable ice cream with the addition of a small amount of a natural thickener is well within any decent cook's grasp, but none of us will be putting lickable wallpaper in our houses anytime soon. Blumenthal is a proponent of the idea that we eat with all of our senses — even hearing — which has led him to create "fantastical feasts" and dishes that require you to listen to an iPod while you eat them. Still, for him, that's all secondary to making good food.
That brings us back to The Robin Collective's chicken rocket. Will shooting stuffing into a chicken make either the chicken or the stuffing taste better? Maybe, maybe not — but chicken rockets, color-changing cocktails, and bitters that taste like dead novelists will certainly not be a "trend" anytime soon. Spectacles that feature dishes like that are about the totality of the experience — and awesomely explosive ones, at that — but not about changing the way we cook at home.
Your own chicken will do just as well in an oven — or even a low-temperature water bath. (Daily Mail)