What matters more — ingredients or technique?

What drives excellence in restaurant cooking? Is it the chef’s commitment to purchasing and showcasing the best ingredients? Or does technique matter more — i.e., the chef’s ability to get the best flavors and textures out of whatever ingredients come into the kitchen?

I’ve seen this pendulum swing back and forth a couple of times. In the 1980s I was working as a restaurant cook during the height of technique cooking. We made black-and-white-striped “Tuxedo” lobster ravioli (some of the dough colored with squid ink), which we arranged with precise symmetry over glossy chive butter sauce.

For dessert we served impossibly high tuiles (sheer cookie cups made by draping them hot from the oven over a wine glass) filled with the decade’s favorite white chocolate mousse. The mousse itself is a difficult recipe, as it easily turns grainy. We placed this dessert over a starburst plate painting made with crème anglaise raspberry coulis sauces.

But soon an easygoing wind started to blow east from California. Casual Mediterranean dishes came into vogue (known at the time as “Cal-Ital” cooking), and the Alice Waters Chez Panisse revolution was in the breeze, even if few communities had access to the kinds of produce that made her cooking possible.

I worked at a restaurant where we paid a fortune to air-freight in boxes of baby lettuces directly from California farms. We cleaned and mixed the red oak, mâche and frisée ourselves; mesclun salad mix wasn’t yet available, but everyone wanted to taste it. Pretty soon we were all roasting vegetables out the wazoo.

In more recent times, the great modernists like Spain’s Ferran Adrià and Chicago’s Grant Achatz showed how an unbridled imagination and modern equipment could conspire into new, mindblowing techniques. Chefs could suddenly turn fruit juice into poppy beads of “caviar” or carrots into froth, and they coddled eggs at such a precise, low and slow temperature that they registered on the tongue as … what? Raw? Cooked? Both and neither, a magic coagulation.

That kind of cooking became so widely and poorly imitated, and led to such mannered cooking, that the emergence of hyper-local, seasonal cooking felt like a blessing.

There is no arguing with a delicious summer tomato unadorned by froth and gel. You simply bow before it. Chefs in the American South, such as our own Linton Hopkins and Charleston’s Sean Brock, really led the charge for rediscovering traditional foodways and heirloom varieties of produce nearly lost to progress.

But Denmark’s Rene Redzepi — with his brilliant focus on foraging and eye for creating landscapes on his plates — has done more than any other current chef to push ingredients to the forefront. The flavors of nature are far more expressive than anything a chef could create.

So, where are we now? Just about to tip back to technique. I can feel it in my bones.

For starters, a spirit of earnest boredom has established itself somewhere between farm and table. I was thinking about this the other day over a dispiriting dinner of springy slices of local pork, chewy roasted okra, and bland cubes of orange winter squash at a restaurant I normally like. The chef was letting these ingredients speak for themselves, but they didn’t have a lot to say. This is happening a lot, right?

On the other hand, less established chefs are reviving classic techniques. You can see this in the French that has started popping up all over menus. French is the language of technique in the kitchen.

At Kimball House in Decatur, co-chefs Jeffrey Wall and Philip Meeker offer pommes macaire, a classic potato side made with cream puff pastry.

At the new Luminary in Krog Street Market, chef Eli Kirshtein goes really old-school with a veal breast roulade, a preparation that requires stuffing, rolling, braising, breading and frying a flavorful flap of meat to render it tender enough to eat. Kirshtein soon will be joined at this new dining and shopping complex by Kevin Ouzts, who will open a restaurant called the Cockentrice. This chef makes the city's most beautiful pâtés and terrines, a master of the French art of charcuterie.

Maybe it’s all part of the new DIY ethos — that whole trend toward making, curing, pickling and dry-aging every possible thing in-house. But is not all of this preparing us for a new age of mastery? A time when dining out means reveling in the technical marvel of a finely executed dish?

Count me excited.