A small gathering of invited guests at Angelina’s Pizzeria in Toro Park ooh’d and aah’d — not over Chef José Aranda’s pizza, but instead over his visually stunning display of fusion cuisine and molecular gastronomy at his food show/dinner on May 23.
“Fusion cuisine” is the combining of foods from two or more cultures into new, fresh dishes. Most people are familiar with, for example, Tex-Mex cooking, or Hawaiian Chef Roy Yamaguchi’s East/West combinations. At its best, fusion unites two or more classic dishes into something new and wonderful. At its worst, it’s novelty for its own sake, well-deserving of the “confusion cuisine” nickname it’s earned among critics. Aranda’s largely successful menu showed both creativity and respect for the food.
In addition to fusion cuisine, Aranda showed off his skills at molecular gastronomy — the latest darling of the culinary world. In this world of chef-meets-mad-scientist, common ingredients are manipulated into different shapes and textures that fool the eye and trick the palate.
Like fusion cuisine, it can easily lapse into preciousness, but with a little respect, it can be a fun take on familiar favorites. For example, Aranda added chemicals to orange juice to make small beads that resemble caviar. Aranda took his orange caviar and topped it with champagne for a twist on a mimosa. He also used liquid nitrogen to freeze the central ingredients of a mojito into a snowball, to which he added sparkling water. Another caviar of Bloody Mary was nestled into individual shrimp and topped with lime foam for a pleasantly salty-tart taste that showcased the shellfish’s natural sweetness.
Aranda, who originally comes from Mexico City, is almost entirely self-taught. “Almost” because his mother, a professional cook, taught him from the time he was young to work with food. “When I’m cooking, I’m happy,” said Aranda. “I just want people to see what I can do. Maybe if people like it, I’ll make it here.”
“What he can do” is quite a variety of dishes. The shrimp appetizer was followed by a sushi roll with a jalapeno tortilla and chicken mole; although the mole was excellent, the tortilla and the large amount of rice overshadowed it somewhat. The Piedmont tamales playfully combined the familiar corn-husk wrapper with a filling of polenta, mozzarella and marinara sauce. A baby carrot and arugula salad garnished with bacon and a bit of balsamic caviar was flavorful and refreshing. Aranda’s Mexican lasagna was easily the highlight of the dinner, perfectly melding tomatillos, a little kick of chipotle and a thin topping of sour cream into the iconic Italian dish. The taco spaghetti that followed seemed almost predictable by comparison, but would be a good introduction to Aranda’s ideas.
For dessert, guests were served individual gelatin molds with roses created by injecting brightly colored gelatin into clear domes of more gelatin. The bottom layer — which became the top when the molds were consumed — was also gelatin with fresh strawberry puree. One of the younger diners enthusiastically pronounced it “the most beautiful dessert ever.”
Aranda’s show was an impressive display of restrained creativity and his love of food. As he said, “Food is my passion; food is my life.” And while the pizzas and pasta he’s been turning out at Angelina’s for eight years are satisfying comfort food, we definitely look forward to his further culinary adventures.
Elaine Hesser is a food/freelance writer who lives in Salinas. Contact her at email@example.com.