NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Once, dining at one of the world's best restaurants meant being served by white-gloved waiters from a menu that followed a classic repertoire.
For the most part, chefs worked off the same page of a dusty cookbook. A kitchen was judged by the texture of its bernaise sauce, or whether its creme brulee cracked just so.
Technique and execution, not innovation, made a chef "great."
Today, the best chefs still know how to roast a duck and render its fat. But over the past 20 years, a reformation has swept through the temples of fine dining. Inventiveness is everything now.
Many ambitious modern chefs would no sooner cook in the classic style than Kobe Bryant would wear black canvas high-tops.
A recently released ranking of the world's top eateries reveals that to be the best, a chef must be creative to the point of absurdity.
In April, the British magazine Restaurant unveiled its fourth annual global ranking of the 50 Best Restaurants. According to spokesperson Rebecca Reed, this year's poll was the magazine's biggest yet. (Click here to see it.)
The list is compiled from an international survey of chefs, restaurateurs and food journalists. And the No. 1 conclusion to draw from it might be that "haute cuisine" now means "wacky."
May I recommend the molecular gastronomy?
The quiet village of Bray, a London suburb in the Berkshire countryside, is home to two restaurants on the list, including the one occupying the top spot, the Fat Duck.
There, Heston Blumenthal, 38, is at the forefront of a radical style of cooking known as "molecular gastronomy."
A popular perception of a top chef is as a painter using the plate as a canvas. But Blumenthal -- like the style's founding father, Ferran Adria of second-ranked El Bulli in Spain -- is as much a chemist as an artist.
Chefs like these approach food as a collection of tastes and textures whose attributes may be reduced to their most elemental form, then recast in daring ways.
When a master chef thinks of food in this manner, the results can be startling.
The Fat Duck serves items like sardine-flavored sorbet, snail porridge, or a puree of mango and Douglas fir.
At El Bulli, you might have monkfish liver with tomato seeds and citrus or barnacles with tea foam. Yeast soup may appear on the menu, too.
For some reason, molecular gastronomists really like ice cream. Ferran Adria makes a version that tastes like parmesan cheese. Blumenthal concocts his with smoked bacon and eggs.
In a magazine profile a few years ago, Adria defended his approach as nothing more than ultra-refined technique, married to unusually playful creativity.
"People say, 'Oh, there is all this chemistry at El Bulli!' But there is chemistry and physics in every kitchen, in all cooking," he told Newsweek. "The magic moment, when you find that gelatin can be [transformed into] tagliatelle, I cannot explain."
Whether pasta made out of Jell-o sounds exotic or just silly, there's plenty of method to the madness. Crowded dining rooms and reservations that take a year to get are proof.
So is the fact that these experiments are apparently thrilling to eat. Global adulation by fellow chefs underscores that -- and lands you on a list of the world's 50 Best Restaurants.
The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.