Samui Wining & Dining
Kitchen or Laboratory

Sorting through the jargon and hype to see what ‘molecular gastronomy’ really is all about.

 

14It’s both a science and an art. It’s a fad; it’s a fashion; it’s a sausage cooking whilst connected to a car battery. It’s ice-cream that’s hot but still solid. It’s an orange that smells of mint. It ranges from deadly serious to tongue-in-cheek – and it’s not always easy to tell which is which. It’s been known as ‘molecular gastronomy’ for the last 15 years or so, although that’s become a bit passé now.


In fact, most of the innovators of this genre of haute cuisine seem to be a bit embarrassed by it all and are trying hard to come up with a different name for what they do. As one of the movement’s leading lights, Heston Blumenthal, recently (dismissively) explained, “Molecular gastronomy was dreamt up in 1992 by a physicist who needed a fancy name for the science of cooking so he could get a research institute to pay attention to his work. ‘Kitchen Science’ didn't hack it. Hence ‘Molecular Gastronomy’.


And, bluntly, this is the heart of it all: kitchen science. But today’s science applied to today’s kitchens. And, over the last decade or so, there have been huge advances in both. Take something simple like cooking meat at a low temperature. Way back in the 1680s, Sir Isaac Newton experimented by cooking beef at 80˚F for times ranging from 8 to 16 hours. It’s not a new idea. But do this in the partial vacuum of a sealed plastic bag and not only does the time reduce but the fats and juices are all retained making the meat drop-off-the-bone tender. This sous vide technique (and all the esoteric homemade equipment that’s used to go with it) was not so long ago only to be found in the suspicious realms of those avant-garde chefs dabbling in Molecular Gastronomy – the ‘alchemists’ of cooking. Today, however, this technique has passed into the mainstream and there are dozens of ready-made specialist (kitchen) machines to cope with the task.


But this is all about the science of cooking and that includes chemistry, too. And now things begin to get more complicated. And, some might also think, sillier. On the one hand, there are those chefs who’re dedicated to using their senses, in particular their sense of taste, to guide the composition of their dishes. They’ll happily experiment with new techniques, but only if these fit into their scheme of things. And it’s now a universally accepted hallmark of gourmet cooking to use only the freshest and finest ingredients and to vary the menu according to what’s in season … this is a ‘given’.


But, up at the frontier of culinary innovation, some chefs are working in laboratories as well as kitchens. They’ve become seduced by, and entangled with, technology. And they’d indignantly disagree that the food – the plate on the table, the dish that the customer gets – has become of secondary importance. But when your chef is analysing the molecular make-up of your ingredients with an infrared spectrometer and nuclear magnetic resonance machine, using pressure probes to determine the crunchiness-quotient of your batter, has casks of liquid nitrogen to flash freeze your dessert and uses a blow-torch on your beef, then you’d probably be right to wonder if the food itself is all that important.


And when a culinary guru, such as three Michelin-star chef, Pierre Gagnaire, excitedly announces the ‘completely synthetic dish’ then you’ll really wonder what’s going on. Made solely from chemical compounds including ascorbic acid with maltitol and citric acid, the resulting jelly balls, tasting of apple and lemon, are both creamy and crunchy. According to Gagnaire, the chefs of the future will all be using this approach to create billions of new ideas and dishes. Sounds like great … fun. But, if it doesn’t actually prompt the question, then let’s ask it anyway. Why? What’s wrong with real food?


The term ‘molecular gastronomy’ was, in fact, coined jointly in 1992 by the physicist, Nicholas Kurti, and the chemist, Hervé This. Their original goal was to clarify the physical and chemical processes going on in the kitchen and thereby help cooks to improve their skills. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, these ideas had taken root and were being explored by the above-mentioned Blumenthal at his London restaurant, The Fat Duck, together with pioneers, Ferran Adria, at El Bulli in Catalonia, and California’s, Thomas Keller, at The French Laundry. And, today, these chefs are firmly established as amongst the most accomplished and sought-after in the world, even though now they’re becoming disillusioned with that word ‘molecular’!


The alternative label of ‘Orgasmic Cuisine’ has been suggested – as an acronym of ‘Organoleptics, Gastronomy, Art and Science Meet In Cuisine’ (but you don’t really need to know that, let alone be able to remember it!) But this entire bag of herrings was neatly and perceptively nailed by one of Samui’s former restaurateurs, Master Chef, Stefano Leone, who once stated, “There will always be people who think that doing crazy things with food is being creative. But for a very long time now all top chefs have aimed to draw out the natural flavours of their ingredients, no matter what techniques they use. Quality ingredients and fresh seasonal produce are at the core of their menus. For success you need skill and talent, not just some kind of passing gimmick.


A fad molecular gastronomy may have been but it’s now an established trend. It’s firmly on the map, in one form or another absorbed into gastropubs and respectable restaurants alike. Like any technique, it’s a means to an end but not the end itself; that’s up to the diner to decide, as it’s all about making food better. And whether you call it ‘molecular’ or ‘orgasmic’, what’s in a name? It’s firmly here to stay!

 


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