Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Musings on Molecular Gastronomy

I watched an episode of Iron Chef America last night. The contenders were making a microwave sponge. Powdering peanut butter. Dropping grape juice in liquid nitrogen to make instant frozen grapes. Venison was going sous-vide in the immersion circulator: it cooks the interior, to be pan-seared after. "They are using their science" the presenter in Kitchen Stadium commented, referring to techniques as they developed under the umbrella of molecular gastronomy.

Born in the early 1990s as a scientific approach to food, molecular gastronomy evolved when it was applied in an empirical exploration of culinary possibilities. Molecular gastronomy developed from the science of food into a culinary art of revolutionary innovations and reinventing: spherified liquids, fragrant foams, smoke-captured aroma or dry ice vapor, gelified and reshaped liquids, fatty liquids transformed into powder, "popping" effervescent sweets. Deconstruction became a food word, a method where the elements of a (classic) dish are still there, yet appear in a different shape or form. Sous-vide (French for "under vacuum") was reinvented not to preserve food, but as a new approach to cooking. As constantly evolving as molecular gastronomy is, invariably the term itself is being reconsidered, re-evaluated, or abandoned altogether.

Constructivism and DEconstructivism
Considered the godfather of molecular gastronomy, Hervé This reintroduced it in 2004 as "culinary constructivism". Ferran Adria, the groundbreaking culinary trailblazer in the application of science in the kitchen, considers "deconstructivism" to be the essence of what he does. He refers to his style of cooking as "deconstructive gastronomy". Rene Redzepi "explores deliciousness" as he is "reinventing Nordic cuisine". Heston Blumenthal (in conjunction with his leading molecular cooking contemporaries) published a "cooking statement" on his Fat Duck website in 2006, saying "[molecular gastronomy] has become a convenient, catch-all phrase to describe science-driven cooking. It explains little, and misleads a lot." He'd like to view it as a "window on modern gastronomy". 

Driven To Explain
In the early 1990s, molecular gastronomy was the co-fathered brain child of contemporaries in the field of science, most notably physicist Nicholas Kurti and chemist Hervé This, who is known for his groundbreaking research into the science behind everyday cooking. This also worked closely with French chef Pierre Gagnaire - he himself considered at the forefront of fusion cuisine. In Gagnaire's restaurant in Paris, they spent many a day experimenting, researching, exploring culinary dimensions through a scientific approach. Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor (2005)  is one of This' many publications.

One of the most comprehensive books of all times on the science of food is Food & Cooking by scientific writer Harold McGee. It was first published in 1984, a couple of years before molecular gastronomy was born. McGee dedicated years of study and experimenting to his "scientific study of deliciousness" and published a completely revised and comprehensive new edition of Food & Cooking, An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture in 2004. It is over 800 pages thick, and gives an invaluable and detailed insight into the science behind food. Heston Blumenthal calls it "one of the greatest cookery books ever written". Understand the science behind it to understand food.

Create Deliciousness
Two decades of creative masters in molecular cooking have given the culinary world a whole range of new culinary phenomena and techniques. The kitchen and the food lab became inextricably linked in molecular cooking. In an interview with HARDtalk Stephen Sackur, Rene Redzepi explains why he has a food lab:"[in order] to create better deliciousness, we need to understand the science of it", and challenges Sackur to taste one of the extracts of mold that has been ageing for six months. With an eager look of anticipation he studies Sackur's face as the HARDtalk presenter empties the little test-tube filled with green mold extract into his mouth.

Driven to Surprise
Pioneered by Ferran Adria, molecular gastronomy skyrocketed into the culinary exosphere in the 2000s. From driven to explain, the focus in molecular gastronomy shifted to driven to surprise, to overwhelm, to astound. The approach to cooking became more and more unorthodox, and aimed to awaken all the senses: aroma, taste, texture, vision, sound. ElBulli's Ferran Adria includes a "sixth sense": enjoy cooking with the intellect. An example: Ferran Adria's often quoted Tortilla Española. All the basic elements of a spanish omelet are there: eggs, onions, potatoes. Yet it is completely deconstructed and reappears as a layered "cocktail" of onion jelly, sabayon, and potato foam. In a multisensory sensation, it is your "sixth sense" or intellect that makes you reconstruct all the flavors and aromas as a Tortilla Española. 

Did you have your alginate bath yet?
Twenty years on, molecular cooking methods and techniques have established and are part of cooking in many kitchens, including - in fact - at home. With the availability of (molecular) food additives and even DIY molecular cooking kits, you can make your own balsamic caviar and chocolate sand at home. And that is a good thing, inventions are meant to be used. The culinary masters who made molecular gastronomy big, have long since moved on and up, pushing the boundaries of culinary perfection ever further. Molecular cooking as a term is still used today, even if the mot du jour is modern gastronomy.

For a great insight into the cooking and methods of Ferran Adria: the 2011 documentary Cooking in Progress, and the fabulous must-read The Sorcerer's Apprentices by Lisa AbendAbend spends a season in ElBulli's kitchen observing the cooking in progress in what turns out to be the last season of ElBulli before the restaurant closes its doors. 

The documentary follows the creative process in the cooking lab, where Adria with Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruch work on the menu for the next season. The book begins where the documentary ends: at the opening of the 2011 season and the arrival of the lucky few selected stagiaires. Are they so lucky? In her captivating narrative, Abend visualises life in the kitchen through a focus on the stagiaires. For the love of working with Adria, they spend six months of long, arduous hours with no pay, no tasting anything, and definitely no room for error: "Anytime you make a mistake, we're going to send the plate back. And let's say that plate is part of a four-top and you've got other tables behind you. We send one plate back, we're going to throw everything off. You'll be totally fucked." They try again. This time Oriol calls, "Three gnocchi," and for a moment, the stagiaires all freeze, like deer caught in headlights." (p.39 of The Sorcerer's Apprentices)

NEXT POST: Molecular Cooking explored based on a demonstration in Dubai's Marta's Kitchen (here).

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  1. On an intellectual and conceptual level I understand the sixth sense and reuniting the flavours of deconstructed food. However my first choice would be to eat it in its original form cooked really well. You've explained the whole concept in an engaging and thought-provoking way here and I love to see the boundaries being pushed. Do not put popping candy on my plate though!

    1. The concept of molecular gastronomy fascinates me. I do admire the sensational effects of molecular techniques on a plate in a super-fine restaurant. But at the end of the day, it is the fresh wild mushroom stew with hand-stirred polenta on the terrace of a refugio high in the Italian alps, after a long hike that will stay with me forever. The sound of clear mountain water dripping the tap, the smell of alpine meadow, the tiredness in the legs easing, the taste of the mushrooms, a little local vino. Multisensory sensation without all the reinvented molecular hot air... there, I said it.

  2. Very well written Francine! A fantastic summary of molecular gastronomy! A very interesting read.

    I personally have a lot of fun experimenting with food and deconstructing, but i like to keep it at that stage, as a fun element, maybe incorporating 1 or 2 items into a classic dish.

    1. After the demo at your culinary forum, I will certainly try a few things. Particularly keen to gelify a mousse: I thought the tomato was simply divine, both in appearance as taste.

  3. Very new to this concept....great insights into Molecular Gastronomy...Look forward to your post on Lets Get Molecular:))

    1. keep an eye out also for a culinary forum at, it is where I saw the demo on molecular cooking!

  4. I'll have Sally's popping candy any day :) So eloquently written - beautiful to read. I am constantly astounded that all these chefs, Ferran in particular, hate the term 'molecular gastronomy' - who cares what it's called - it's bloody innovative! Check out Chef Stephane's cuisine - Pierre Gagnaire/ Reflets aside here, he tried to bring molecular to Dubai a good few years ago with Tang at Meridien Mina Seyahi. Sadly the market didn't quite grasp the concept and the location was clearly it closed. He's Exec Chef at the Westin.

  5. I find it confusing, the need to rename. It is an established name, and most of the chefs who made it big are established authorities themselves. It's like changing your name when your already an adult. You can try, but people will still refer to you by your "old" name. I mean, remember TAFKAP... we still call him Prince. Thanks for the link on Chef Stephane, I know understand why I could never find any information on Tang (I'd read about the restaurant just before I came to Dubai). Would have loved to try! I had popping candy on the most delicate and fluffiest mousse at Iggy's in Singapore, loved the sensation!