Molecular Gastronomy, Food of the Future?
Standing at the crossroads of science and cooking, molecular gastronomy is blazing its own path into the future
Issue: Jun 2009
Expect new experiences, when food meets science
One of the biggest trends in fine dining in recent years is the continued interest in molecular gastronomy, the food movement typically defined as the application of scientific techniques and tools to cooking. This all sounds rather academic and indeed, to some, unappealing, however the fundamentals behind the movement are fairly simple - a large part of molecular gastronomy is motivated by a simple wish for the discovery and creation of new experiences, to create food that is increasingly satisfying.
The term "molecular gastronomy" was coined in the 1980s by a French scientist, Hervé This and professor of physics at Oxford University in the UK, Nicholas Kurti. Both men were interested in food science. Though food science is nothing new, it has mostly been motivated by questions of mass production, food safety and nutrition. The difference with This and Kurti was their wish to use their findings to create a very specific philosophy, to be applied practically to the art of cooking.
Working out of a laboratory in Paris, the two men broke foods down into their most basic components - molecules - to find scientific answers to age-old culinary mysteries. While some of the discipline investigates different cooking methods, presentation methods and how temperatures affect ingredients, the psychology of eating is also highly valued, such as how our collective senses affect the way our brains interpret flavour, how external factors contribute to the experience of eating - those of ambience, environment, décor, presentation, personal mood - and quite probably, waiting lists and exclusivity.
When Science and Chefs Unite
The Spherification technique, made popular by Ferran Adria of el Bulli
When the principles of molecular gastronomy meet great chefs, the result is molecular cuisine. For you and I, this means unforgettable food experiences of a most unusual nature. Although some have described their experience of molecular cuisine as "less dinner than performance art" its popularity is unwavering.
This year, El Bulli, in Catalonia, Spain came top of the The S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants poll for the fourth year in a row. Owner/chef Ferran Adria, in addition to being credited with popularizing the multi-course degustation menu, is generally accepted as the king of molecular gastronomy - a claim he refutes, saying that only 10 percent of his dishes were created through science. Open for just seven months of the year, El Bulli receives some two million reservation requests a year for its 8,000 available seats. Among the dishes on the menu are white asparagus with virgin olive oil capsules and lemon marshmallow and lamb's brains with sea urchins and sea grape.
Adria's signature is the esferificación (spherification) technique, in which liquids are trapped in a thin alginate casing that bursts open on your tongue. The innovative chef recently released a range of products under the label Texturas, which offers the spherification, jelly agents and emulsifiers in a kit form, enabling you to practice the art of scientific cooking in your own home. When El Bulli closes, during low season, Adria retreats to his Barcelona food labs to work on next year's creations. Driven by the desire to invent, he is the culinary version of a mad scientist. "Creativity is not copying," he recently stated.
Heston Blumenthal's restaurant, the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, UK, was voted second best. Again, food-lovers have to book months in advance to secure a table at the restaurant, where the tasting menu costs £130. This autodidact chef was inspired to take up the pan by an early book on molecular gastronomy, called On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee, a respected American food writer who was involved in the birth of the movement.
Snail Porridge, the signature dish from The Fat Duck
Blumenthal's dishes border on the surreal and occasionally sound truly unappetizing, with offerings such as snail porridge, yeast soup with cinnamon and crab flavoured ice-cream.
In a recent interview with the UK's Telegraph Blumenthal explained, "One thing I am interested in is the brain-to-palate connection and the level of influence on our palate that the brain has. If, for instance, you are told that you are about to eat frozen crab bisque, then you know what to expect. But with the word ice- cream in your head, then your brain starts preparing for something sweet. There's confusion because you are being prepared for sugars and to taste sweetness."
The crab ice-cream has about a tenth of the sugar of vanilla. Yet the brain interprets it as sweet, creating a taste sensation that can be astonishing. "Effectively anything can be made into an ice cream. The role of an ice cream can be savoury or sweet," he adds. He must be doing something right, since he is one of only three chefs in Great Britain to have earned the coveted Michelin star trifecta, after only a decade in the industry.
At the helm of seven restaurants, including his own eponymous Pierre Gagniare in Paris, Seoul, and Tokyo and Pierre at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, Gagnaire's mission statement, "Facing the future, but respectful of the past," sums up his ethos. He works closely with molecular gastronomy's co-founding forefather, Hervé This and his lively website features a page called "Where Science Meets Cooking" upon which This adds a new culinary discovery or invention each month, some of which are based on experiments with old wives tales.
Le Note à Note, the world’s first entirely synthetic gourmet dish
The pair recently launched a dish on the menu of Hong Kong's Mandarin Oriental entitled le note à note, which is being touted as "the world's first entirely synthetic gourmet dish." This says compound cooking will help to end food shortages and rural poverty because farmers could increase profitability by "fractioning their vegetables".
While these restaurants are considered among the world’s finest serving molecular cuisine, the trend is escalating, bringing the cuisine or derivatives of it, to city’s and towns around the globe from Europe to the US and Asia. So if patience is not one of your virtues, check out your local restaurant guides or the internet and it is very likely you will find a practitioner of molecular gastronomy in your area that just might have a table for you tonight.