In the News
April 27, 2008
IN THE NEWS
When you eat at a fancy restaurant, you don’t usually expect that your meal will come with a side of science lessons. But that’s exactly what you’ll get when you dine at a restaurant that features the art of molecular gastronomy. From white truffle ice cream spaghetti served in cold spoons and balanced on magnetic poles of a small steel platform to a scallop dish served with bitter orange and smoked tea, molecular gastronomy is a sort of kitchen wizardry now practiced across the globe.
Typically defined as the application of scientific techniques and tools to cooking, molecular gastronomy is really about how diners interact with food, especially when it is presented in a surprising way. It also relates to how food formulas can be broken apart and then re-paired into literally billions of new and fascinating dishes – with the help of certain elemental powders, lab equipment and a working knowledge of a food’s natural chemistry.
Flash freezing (quickly freezing the outside of various foods, sometimes leaving a liquid center) and spherification (the spheres you get when you mix liquid food with sodium alginate, then drop them in a bath of calcium chloride) are just two of the techniques unique to the field. Other popular dishes are served on wires, made with “meat glue” (noodles made from shrimp meat), or enhanced by frothy foams produced with items like whip cream canisters and lecithin.
The trend is most often credited to Chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli restaurant in Spain, however, many other chefs have taken on the art form and made it their own. Chef Homaro Cantu of Moto restaurant in Chicago is one such visionary, having created the now famous edible paper with savory inks, made on, you guessed it, a reformulated ink jet printer. Moto calls his food “postmodern cuisine”; his customers simply call it delicious. Moto books up to two months in advance for one of its coveted 50 seats.
“We take things that our customers are familiar with, like pizza, and then bring it to them in different forms. The new forms almost always taste better than the original. Ultimately, the experience must be pleasing,” Cantu says. “It’s a visual, textural experience.”
Interestingly, the term molecular gastronomy, coined by Hervé This and Nicholas Kurti in 1988, has been pushed aside in recent years by the chefs who cook this way, as many of them consider the term to be both complicated and elitist. Cantu resolves the issue by simply calling this method of cooking “having fun with food.” Whatever name suits your fancy, one thing is clear. The use of scientific principles applied to food preparation has changed the way we look at (and experience) food entirely.
The science is not simply about producing unusual textures and flavors. It is about discovering why particular tastes and flavors appeal to our likes and dislikes and how our brains interpret culinary signals. Experimenting with how our enjoyment of food is affected by other influences, through things like environment, presentation and production method, is another important aspect of the field. And, Cantu says, the importance of molecular gastronomy even goes beyond that.
“This science is also significant in the way we can use it to knock down the processes in making cool food. I spend half as much energy producing my pizza as a regular pizza place does,” says Cantu. “We are working now with big manufacturers to help them eliminate steps, redesign foods and make the production of their foods more economical.”
Collaboration between scientists and chefs is now commonplace, and is helping to develop new cooking processes and dishes that are not only changing the face of the field, but finding their way into domestic kitchens as well. A newly developed filtration system that reduces the preparation time for stocks and consommés is one such technique that home cooks may eventually find useful. Yet another process, ultrasonic mixing to produce emulsions, could one day become routine.
“We have limited resources on our planet, and cooking this way can be extremely efficient,” says Cantu.
Cantu is currently developing devices for the home kitchen that will launch at retail within the next two years. His goal? To manufacture renewable products that last longer and that are made from renewable energy. Sort of like bringing Willy Wonka into the home kitchen, he says.
“Why not make a sauté pan that can change shape to become a stock pot when you need one? It’s time to think sustainably and creatively when we’re dealing with technology and food,” Cantu says. “In the future, you’ll be able replicate mom’s homemade apple pie exactly as she made it, but in half the time – and it will probably even taste better.”