Molecular Gastronomy - weird or wonderful?

 Leanne Neufeld (BarChef Toronto)

Leanne Neufeld (BarChef Toronto)

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Science and art combine

Perhaps you have seen mango spheres that look like fried eggs, or cocktails that look like marshmallows. Maybe you have heard of Egg and Bacon Ice Cream or the edible Helium balloon? These were all created by chefs who are masters in an innovative way of cooking called, among other things, molecular gastronomy.  

Molecular gastronomy was invented in 1992 by physicist Nicholas Kurti and chemist Hervé This, who were interested in using scientific methods and techniques to create new and original dishes to tempt and tease diners. 

In the UK, the most renowned chef who uses these experimental techniques is Heston Blumenthal, but like many other chefs he rejects the scientific label, preferring simply to talk about a 'new approach to cooking'. Others, such as the celebrated chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli, prefer 'deconstructivist' or 'modernist cuisine'.  But given the lack of consensus on terminology, for now let's call it molecular gastronomy and explore more about what it is and where you can find it.

What exactly is it?

This new way of cooking blends science and artistry together and often involves changing the physical properties of the ingredients. Chefs use scientific equipment that you are more likely to see in a laboratory rather than a kitchen to manipulate shapes and form. For example, an important technique is low temperature cooking, which requires a thermal immersion circulator for sous vide cooking. Other dishes require the food to be dried out, so dehydrators are needed to remove the moisture from the ingredients. Centrifuges will separate out liquids into component parts and the anti-griddle will flash freeze or semi-freeze foods placed on its metal top. Liquids to solids, solids to gases, smoke and vapours. Yes, molecular gastronomy is complex and the correct tools are needed to provide the incredible results.

It's all about the chemistry

Cooking has always been based on science, and everyone can appreciate how the miracle of bread happens when simple ingredients are combined together and cooked at the correct temperature for a certain period of time. Chefs who use molecular gastronomy take their understanding of chemistry to a whole new level. They use chemical substances such as enzymes,  maltodextrin, lecithin and hydrocolloids (e.g. gelatine, pectin). The reactions between these chemicals under certain conditions produce unexpected results. Expect to eat foams, flavour-intensive jellies, even food that can taste hot and cold at the same time. Their experiments can also lead to discoveries, such as Blumenthal's find that fat can hold flavour, which led to his famed dish that had three flavours - basil, olive and onion - with each taste being perceived in sequence. Adria used alginates to create his technique of spherification. These small, gelled spheres burst in your mouth like little flavour bullets (as well as looking beautiful!)

The art of presentation

The presentation of the dishes is supremely important. The diner is invited to look, touch and taste the creations, and the chef hopes to create an element of surprise and wonder. At Minibar, Jose Andres' recently opened 12-seat restaurant in Washington, you may think you are being served with a piece of rain gutter containing dead leaves. But no, it is in fact black garlic with a parmesan cracker. Other chefs play with flavour expectations, so ice cream is savoury and burger baps are made from spun sugar and egg white.

At the Fat Duck (Blumenthal's restaurant), his complex dish 'the sound of the sea' is enhanced with the headphones you put on while eating to transport you to the beach.

Many restaurants where you can experience this kind of cooking have a tasting menu with multiple small courses, each one designed to provoke a reaction. Modern cookery thrives on unexpected flavour combinations, but chefs using molecular gastronomy challenge the eater with additional twists and playfulness. For example, Adam Molonas, chef at the Dubai’s Burj al-Arab hotel, created Octopops, which look like orange flower-shaped lollipops but are made from octopus, while in London, Tom Seller's restaurant Story has edible candles (made from beef dripping) and Oreo-type biscuits made with squid ink and smoked eel mousse. 

The one thing that is consistent is that appearances are deceptive!

So, what's the verdict?

Although there are very few restaurants in the UK devoted entirely to this 'modernist cuisine', those that are, such as the Fat Duck, are booked out months in advance. Blumenthal's book sales and his 'celebrity' chef status all suggest that diners love what he is doing and want to experience it for themselves. It is, however, an expensive treat. The current price is £255 per head (+ service + drinks). However, with El Bulli now closed, it is the Michelin-starred, surreal experience that today's diner with deep pockets is looking for.

There have been some grumblings that with all the trickery and transforming food, using liquid nitrogen and strange sounding chemicals, the result can hardly be good for you, let alone healthy.  But key proponents hit back with the fact that the tiny amounts of chemicals used are virtually all natural in origin (plant, marine, animal or biological) and that the cooking techniques are simply faster or more convenient ways of doing things that have been done for centuries.

Perhaps the proof of the pudding is in the types of meals that are being created and loved in the many restaurants around the world, where the trickle down factor of some of these incredible experiments is proving a great success. Faux caviar will not be on every menu, but deconstructed dishes may well be. Molecular gastronomy is a clumsy label for this new modernist cooking, a better description would be edible magic!