Friday, December 24, 2010

A Cook's perspective: Molecular Gastronomy

Do you remember when the most interesting thing you ate was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Or maybe it was just the peanut butter because jellied fruit was just too far out of a concept? How about when, even though you didn't want to, your parents had you try a frozen creamy concoction that would possibly turn into one of your favorite desserts ever? What about when you discovered that people would pay money - a lot of money - to eat a a fried fish that has been gingerly wrapped with cotton candy much like a dust bunny from hell, just tastier?

Maybe this last thought is new to you, but then again maybe going to Gourdough's and eating a doughnut that is crammed full of pork and jalapeno jelly is too. Yes my friends, what has the world come to when the current trend is to take a pound of aged stinky French cheese and make it look and feel like noodles with the delicate flavor of a tree ripened peach? Sound far off? Not anymore.

Welcome to the world of Molecular Gastronomy. While mastering French cuisine is still widely considered the pinnacle of all that is cooking, there is a new group of chefs who are taking over from the old guard. Working late at night in what would more closely resemble a mad scientist's laboratory than a kitchen with little test tubes scattered across tables, cluttered with notes that look more like some ancient runic code than anything resembling a recipe for edible food. You would almost expect to catch a glimpse of a hunched over servant lumbering around his master while shouting "It's alive!"

For the last decade this culinary movement has been gaining tremendous momentum with its techniques being used in an increasing number mainstream restaurants, including the two best restaurants in the world. (#1 El Bulli 2004-2009 now #2, 2010 #1 is Noma whose chef trained at El Bulli). It's almost odd now to turn on Iron Chef on the Food Network and NOT see someone with a 5 gallon jug of liquid nitrogen pouring it into a bowl of liquid to render a smoking ice cream almost instantly.

But what exactly is Molecular Gastronomy? Simply put it is the study of why food works the way it does. At what temperature does an egg white start to coagulate and start to congeal, and why? Why does the protein in meat act the way it does when a very high heat is applied, and whether or not searing meat is actually sealing in its juices (it's not, by the way). Scientists who study in the field of molecular gastronomy want to know the answers to these questions and more. But how does this all lead to me being able to get popcorn made with liquid nitrogen? That's where Hungarian physicist Nicolas Kurti and French physical chemist Herve This come in. These two scientists arranged a series of meetings from 1992-2004 with culinary professionals to discuss everything from sauces and food flavors down to how to mimic and create specific textures using food. Slowly after this, more and more chefs started to become interested with what was being discussed and embraced the science, and started to look to the new technology that was available (including many pieces of equipment that until recently you would only find in a hospital or lab for growing bacteria) and how it could add to their style of food.

But why the big change? Why not stick to the ideals of Alice Waters and just use 'the freshest seasonal ingredients' and cook them simply but perfectly? The answer is simple: people got bored. Chefs got bored. With the availability of restaurant quality cookware at every mall, outlet, flea market, or unmarked van in the back of a parking lot, its no longer amazing that someone can perfectly braise a veal cheek without culinary school training. Chefs want to dazzle patrons. They want to have the feeling of being magicians and having their guests leave with amazed looks of disbelief and whispering, "How the hell did he do that?" Think of it this way- you're the head chef of a restaurant. If you could take a simple dish, tweak it slightly by employing the new techniques that this style of cooking offers and create a plate that now resembles something from a Buck Rogers episode, and induce the ooh's and ahh's from all of your diners would you hesitate? Also, who as a kid - when hearing that liquid nitrogen could allow you to freeze and smash something into tiny bits- didn't want to give it a try?

What effect has this had on the culinary world at large though? The implementation of these new techniques has caused restaurants the world over to produce new and exciting combinations of food that one may never have thought to combine, such as tobacco flavored ice cream, sardines served on sorbet toast, or the combination of caviar and white chocolate. This revolution - which, at first, may have seemed to be no more than parlor tricks cooked up by a few grad students with too much time on their hands - has been hailed as one of the fastest sweeping culinary trends the world over.

Personally, I love this movement. Not only is it interesting to see what people can create with a few grams of agar-agar (an algae extracted gelling agent) but moreover, around the world chefs are not leaving their culinary roots behind but rather incorporating these new techniques to give a new look and feel to the world's most traditional dishes. So the next time you visit a restaurant like Moto in Chicago's Fulton Market and you read through the menu, you might want to try and take a bite of it too.


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