What does “avant-garde” mean in the dining world?

From our latest newsletter:

In the 1930s, Italian “Futurist” Filippo Tommaso Marinetti ) probably embodied that era’s version of “avant-garde” (defined as “an intelligentsia that develops new or experimental concepts” by Merriam-Webster) in the dining world, what with his controversial ideas about abolishing the tradition of eating pasta in Italy (as he’s pictured doing below). Amongst other things, he claimed that eating pasta both made people “heavy, brutish … skeptical, slow, pessimistic” and also harmed Italy’s rice industry by supporting the import of the foreign grain crucial to the production of the national staple.

Image courtesy of Estorick Collection

Almost a century later, René Redzepi of noma restaurant in Copenhagen – listed four times as top of the San Pellegrino “50 Best Restaurants in the World” list – might be Marinetti’s modern counterpart, credited with “re-inventing Nordic cuisine” and operating at the “cutting edge of gourmet cuisine, combining an unrelenting creativity and a remarkable level of craftsmanship with an inimitable and innate knowledge of the produce of his Nordic terroir”, thanks in no small part to his insistence on only using “locally sourced, seasonal produce” (no Italian olive oil on these Scandi tables!).
After sojourns in Japan and Mexico, noma has recently re-opened in a new location in Copenhagen as “noma 2.0”. While the critical acclaim has generally been overwhelmingly positive, not everyone is buying it, like one critic who claimed that “outside of the bubble of fine dining, generations of rural communities around the world have not regarded eating local as a movement nor as a cool new thing to try out: It is simply a question of necessity. Far from offering a whole new outlook on cooking, Noma has spent the last 10 years repackaging pre-existing approaches, making them more comprehensible or fashionable (and therefore more palatable) to an urban Western audience drawn to third-wave coffee shop aesthetics and chef-bro tattoos.”

It’s a provocative stance to take in a global food scene mostly populated by chefs, restaurants or other food personalities who become media darlings by virtue of a fashionable philosophy presented as the “next big thing”, many of which are admittedly exactly the right thing to be popularising, like more sustainable and ethical practices when it comes to kitchen suppliers and behaviours. But this (rare) critique of one of those media darlings also reminds us that it’s also worth stopping to consider, once in a while, whether the praise is merited without question, just as someone else recently did about David Chang’s new Netflix show, Ugly Delicious (which we highly recommend, by the way), suggesting that the erstwhile “rebel” chef has just become mainstream.

Then again, mainstream needn’t be anything to be ashamed of, and “avant-garde” surely shouldn’t be something to be chased for the sake of being ahead of the pack – whether making affordable food “for the masses” or producing exclusive tasting menus for the relative few who can afford a trip to Copenhagen, hopefully the thinking behind menus is simply delivering a meal that’s worth your time, money, and experience as a diner.