Chefs have been applying science to their cooking for many years now. Is the "molecular gastronomy" revolution here to stay, or will it soon give way to a new trend? Carol Godsmark reports.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the celebrated French gastronome, was on to something. "The creation of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a new star," he wrote in The Physiology of Taste, published in 1825. But in his wildest dreams could he ever have conjured up some of the innovative dishes created by the likes of Ferran Adrià and other so-called molecular gastronomy chefs of our time?
It all started in the late 1990s when molecular gastronomy (coined by Hungarian physicist Professor Nicholas Kurti and French physical chemist Hervé This in 1988) emerged to describe a new style of cooking. While the term was only meant to refer to scientific investigation, some chefs used it to explore new possibilities in the kitchen. They embraced science and technological advances in equipment, and explored the commercial food processing industry's use of natural gums and hydrocolloids.
This and Kurti aimed to discover how ingredients were affected by different cooking methods and how the senses played a part in the appreciation of food. Aroma and myths (such as needing salt to cook green vegetables or searing meat to seal in juices) were also explored. Chefs associated with this type of scientific exploration and cooking initially called it progressive or culinary constructivism, techno-emotional cuisine baffling all but the exponents of the genre.
Meanwhile molecular gastronomy is a term that has many modern chefs, including Heston Blumenthal, chef proprietor of the three-Michelin-starred Fat Duck, foaming and fuming. He argues that molecular sounds complicated and gastronomy sounds elite. "We embrace innovation: new ingredients, appliances, information, techniques and ideas; whatever can make a real contribution to our cooking," he says. "But we do not pursue novelty for its own sake. It is, after all, just cooking."
Similarly US chef Grant Achatz, owner of Chicago's acclaimed Alinea restaurant and a leader in progressive cuisine, is fed up with the name-calling. "I personally have decided to devote my energies to moving cooking and eating along rather than wasting time trying to label what it is we are doing," he says. Meanwhile Pedro Subijana of Spain's two-Michelin-starred Restaurante Akelarre in San Sebastian, isn't happy with the molecular denomination, either. "It's not like cooks have the background or the devices to see molecules," he complains.
Fergus Henderson of St John's restaurants is to the point: "Food is a splendid, permanent rolling thing and broad-shouldered. Once you've knocked the animal on the head it seems only polite - as well as delicious - to eat it all." Traditional methods he employs include salting and brining to create new and rediscovered flavours and textures. Not for him liquid nitrogen tanks or dehydrators.
Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adriá and others have influenced many chefs to take up the challenge - with varying degrees of success. Wylie Dufresne of New York's innovative WD-50 restaurant comments: "It is true that poor imitations don't help the profile of what we are trying to do. Bad food is bad food, whether it's bad innovative cuisine or a bad hot dog."
Blumenthal is naturally canny enough to recognise that diners will point a finger at him if coming across poorly copied dishes.
We've been through the nouvelle cuisine stage and the Asian fusion craze in recent decades. Will foams, gelatine-laden and dehydrated dishes also have their day? You know it's all over if avant-garde cooking is like Primark: hip fashion seen everywhere but poorly reproduced. Or will we be eating Adria's and Blumenthal's type of cooking in the future?
Lately, three-Michelin-star chef Pierre Gagnaire has taken innovation up another notch, the completely synthetic dish. Made of chemical compounds including ascorbic acid, maltitol and citric acid, the resulting jelly balls, tasting of apple and lemon, are both creamy and crunchy. But is the world ready for fake food? According to Herve This, chefs of the future will be using these elements to create billions of new ideas.
However, Simon Rogan of L'Enclume, Cumbria, although seen as an innovative chef ("it pisses me off to be called the poor man's Heston"), says "I'm more infatuated by cooking the perfect carrot than playing around with a siphon." He uses local flowers and up to 40 different herbs and is working on prolonging seasons by growing organic vegetables in seven heated poly tunnels.
He doesn't shun equipment, either. "We use sous vide, gastrovac (a vacuum chamber), a hold-o-mat (an accurate low-temperature oven) and cryogenics, which involves working with liquid nitrogen to produce shots, virtual frozen powders, bubbles and all sorts of weird effects," he explains. Rogan also uses ancient cooking methods such as white clay as a crust for baking, "soaking" lamb sweetbreads in hay stock and cooking vegetables such as potatoes and onions in embers and ashes in traditional Cumbrian style.
And molecular gastronomy is spawning other new styles of cooking from chefs empowered by the movement, as demonstrated by the Cook It Raw, a Nordic-Italian endeavour. The concept, according to founder, gastronomist Alessandro Porcelli, "is to rethink the role of energy in cooking, to produce cutting-edge cooking with zero-energy impact while making the most of the native and wild foods in season". Essentially it brings foraging to the fore.
Those already embracing the concept include Albert Adriá (El Bulli), Claude Bosi (Hibiscus, London), Rene Redzepi (Noma, Copenhagen) and Daniel Patterson (Coi, San Francisco), who all spent a weekend in Collio, northern Italy, hunting for local food for a new dish to be presented at a celebration dinner. Bosi used pig's blood, pig's liver, clams, potatoes and herbs for his "Brass Monkey" dish, while Patterson chose ricotta, hay gelatine, beetroot, radish and herbs for "Imagining Collio from California".
In terms of the preparation of food, innovations include an anti-griddle, a -30ºF cooktop which almost instantly freezes sauces and purées and the use of enzyme Activa TG as a "meat glue" to form pasta out of puréed shrimp.
The pursuit of umami, the fifth taste, is another area where chefs can benefit from food science, although scientists have upped it to 21 tastes, perhaps a goal too far for some. Fat Duck diners' ears are also put to the test with iPods dishing out the "Sound of the Sea" for optimum sensory pleasures of crashing waves and seagulls while eating seafood.
But the linchpin of any scientific advance must be nutrition. Chefs have an important role to play creating healthy, balanced food over cheap mass-production before taking on innovative cooking practices. There's certainly a place for dishes such as Dacosta's platinum-coated oyster or Sat Bains' chocolate truffle with black olive purée, balsamic vinegar and salt, but the future of food remains a healthy dollop of nutrition with a smear of flair on the side.
Carol Godsmark is a restaurant critic, food writer, author and editor of Savour, the Guild of Food Writers' magazine