Carrie Havranek 0000-00-00 00:00:00
You don’t have to be a trained chef to brush up on trends in the culinary world these days. Even casual enthusiasts of “Top Chef” may have encountered the experimentation that drives molecular gastronomy, which combines the precision of a science lab with equal parts good humor and creativity. Its iconoclastic chefs and gee-whiz presentation make for great television and impressive, often theatrical, dining experiences. The process of turning your dinner into artful little stacks, swirls, suspensions, gels, foams, leathers, syrups and other forms has spawned scores of imitators, lots of media coverage, and some heated conversation about science, creativity, and cooking. It has even spawned debate about the meaning of the term itself. Call it what you want, but it all started with European scientists. THE STUDY OF DELICIOUSNESS Food writer Harold McGee called molecular gastronomy “the scientific study of deliciousness,” but the term was born in the late 1980s when two Europeans, chemist Hervé This and physicist Nicholas Kurti, undertook a scientific investigation of cooking to better understand why we cook the way we do and ask whether we should believe conventional wisdom about cooking or seek new methods. Many chefs disavow the term because it does not satisfactorily describe what they do. Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 in New York City calls it “misleading” and Richard Blais, a finalist from season four of “Top Chef” and creative director of his Flip burger boutiques, says the term is “kind of cold.” Instead, he describes what he does as “taking simple, beautiful traditional cooking and extending it to make it better.” But how does molecular gastronomy work exactly? Michael Ruhlman, author of Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, says it’s characterized by the “pervasive use of sous-vide” which involves submerging meats in vacuum-sealed bags and cooking at generally low temperatures and the use of agar (also sometimes called agar agar), a gelatinous substance that comes from seaweed and other things to make “gels that stay hot,” says Ruhlman. Most famously, it means “the pervasive use of foam” he says, which becomes a delivery system for concentrated flavors. The practice often involves ingredients, methods and tools (liquid nitrogen, xanthan gum, for example) more common in mass-produced foods. In short, it asks chefs “to embrace technology to make food better,” says Blais. “It has opened up a new ingredient box—200 ingredients that most of us hadn’t really even worked with before,” says Blais. Chef John Campbell, head of food and beverage at The Vineyard at Stockcross (the recipient of two Michelin stars) in the United Kingdom, echoes the sentiment. “We are on the dawn of understanding more about food, combinations of ingredients and methods of cookery, as our curiosity has gone into overdrive compared to the past 100 years.” At its core, cooking requires an understanding of three things: what happens when you apply temperature, mechanical action and/ or combine ingredients. Campbell says, “if you understand three key factors in cooking you are practicing molecular gastronomy.” Most of us do that every day when we add cold milk to hot coffee and stir in some sugar. However, these chefs take it a step further. THE PRACTICE OF DELICIOUSNESS Successful molecular gastronomy is the domain of few. “It is very hard to do well and there are very few chefs who can do it well and make money doing it,” Ruhlman says. Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck in Bray, England, became well-known for surprising diners with salmon encased in licorice and a tea that is hot on one side and cool on the other, among other culinary feats. Blumenthal garnered three Michelin stars for his efforts in 2004 and Restaurant magazine rated his the top in the world in 2005. Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, whose restaurant El Bulli in Roses, Spain receives 2 million requests a year for 8,000 seatings, has garnered accolades and the fascination of diners around the world. He is known for his high-tech, fastidious experimentation that requires two labs, an industrial designer and about 60 employees to execute one seating per evening. Certainly there is an element of drama to dinner that takes all night to eat, but that’s the point. Adrià’s name has become synonymous with foam; his revolutionary use of it to deliver flavors such as espresso, beetroot and mushroom, is much imitated. El Bulli has the three Michelin stars to prove it, and the ranking of best restaurant in the world four times. In the United States, along with Dufresne, Blais and Grant Achatz (the James Beard Award-winning Chicago chef of Alinea), diners may have heard of the Chicago chef Homaro Cantu of Moto. He creates sushi by using a printer whose cartridges are filled with organic, edible inks. These meals often surprise, delight and confound the expectations of diners. Ruhlman says that lack of familiarity may be “disconcerting; it can alter your perception of the food. Sometimes some of them want to make you feel uncomfortable, they want to challenge you, they want you to think, “We’re not accustomed to having to think when we eat,” says Ruhlman. “ We use [science] to explain something that’s happened that we can’t figure out, or the opposite, to help us find a solution to a problem.” But thoughtfulness and curiosity drive molecular gastronomy. A graduate of Colby College with a degree in philosophy, Wylie Dufresne spent six years in the kitchen with Jean- Georges Vongerichten, who then helped him open his own place, WD-50 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 2003. Dufresne has been nominated several times for various James Beard awards and is most known for frying mayonnaise and creating popcorn soup. His flavor pairings are often uncommon, usually surprising—trout and root beer, for example. As to why he cooks this way, Dufresne says, “Well, it’s really an evolution of wanting to cook, of wanting to find the answers to all of the questions. I like the idea that we can all add to the body of culinary knowledge out there by pursuing the answers and, in turn, make things better.” However, this cuisine isn’t solely about expensive, time-consuming, multi-course and unorthodox renditions of everyday favorites. These chefs are united by innovation that creates food that tastes good and makes sense. Blais, who is also chef/owner of culinary company Trail Blais, looks at it pragmatically. He considers sous-vide “a modern crock pot. It’s an execution wonder. It rearranges your time; you have to rearrange your thinking but, at the end of the day, makes things more organized.” At Flip, Blais uses liquid nitrogen at the milkshake bar to make a better, colder, creamier product more quickly, and vodka is used in fried foods. “The alcohol burns off, but it makes the crust crisp and light and dehydrates it.” DELICIOUSNESS COMES HOME One might think molecular gastronomy will remain a restaurant kitchen mystery, elusive to home cooks. At its core, it is not too dissimilar from the fastidious research and development that takes place on the pages of Cook’s Illustrated and the PBS program “America’s Test Kitchen,” overseen by Christopher Kimball. “We use [science] to explain something that’s happened that we can’t figure out, or the opposite, to help us find a solution to a problem,” he says. Home cooks are curious, too, and signs point toward a slow adoption of some of these techniques. Campbell believes that grocery stores will soon carry preportioned sous-vide meals ready to reheat at home. Blais is planning to release his own line of molecular ingredients aimed at the home cook. The award-winning chef Thomas Keller (French Laundry, Bouchon) wrote Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide. Achatz published the James Beard Awardwinning cookbook Alinea; its website (www.alineamosaic.com) features video demos demystifying the process. A fearless eater, Carol Blymire, has been working through the cookbook’s recipes and chronicling it through her Alinea At Home blog. Techniques aside, she says she has learned much and is more comfortable taking risks. “I’m willing to bet that the more Grant [Achatz] talks about his food, and the more people get past their fears of trying something new, the book will be used by more home cooks, whether its making these dishes verbatim, or using it as inspiration for something else.” After all, improvising to create something entirely new is what cooking is all about.
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