Who’s Afraid of Molecular Cuisine?

(Spa&Wellness, Sept 2007)

“Molecular what?” may be your first response. Eric Fettke, the Executive Chef of the Intercontinental Hotel in Warsaw, shows how kitchen science can serve us and take our taste buds to places they haven’t been to.

“Molecular cuisine is about understanding food,” says Chef Eric, who is South African. “It is understanding why one ingredient reacts with another. For example, what is happening inside the cake when it is baking. Basically, it is the principles of physics and chemistry applied to food.”

This understanding goes all the way down to the molecular level. Like curious home mechanics who take radios apart to see how they work, molecular gastronomy deconstructs a dish to see how all the components and cooking techniques gel together to yield an unforgettable epicurean moment.

The deconstruction leads to molecular awareness. For example, it is hydrocolloids that makes jelly set. Myosin and actin proteins in the muscle fibers bind meat, fat and water in sausages. Calpains and cathepsins are enzymes working in low temperature to break down collagen to produce tender steaks. The flavor molecules in asparagus are water-soluble while those in broccoli, oil-soluble.*

These are just a few examples of zooming in on the nitty-gritty. Not only are these molecular “gastronauts” highly professional in going about disassembling a dish, they are also bold in inventing new food experiences.

Knowledge is Tasty

The question is: why bother with the pedantic details? Just as we can drive a car from A to B without caring how the camshaft works, we can very well produce a smashing scramble egg without thinking twice about protein coagulation at different temperatures.

“So that when you cook a dish, it makes you pay more attention to the ingredients, the interplay of flavors and texture,” answers Eric. “It gives your dish an extra lift.”

For example, knowing the percentage of dry matter in different species of potatoes help us to choose the ideal ones for roasting, making chips or mashing. Obtaining water with the right acidity and hardness is just one step in arriving at the perfect pizza dough.*

Eric says that such attentiveness helps to ensure consistency in the end products and enable us to replicate the same perfect results every time. “It also allows us to introduce new flavors, textures,” he adds.

The market now has more products and tools to create dishes with flavors and textures which previously were difficult to achieve.

The Molecular Gurus

“Molecular gastronomy” was coined in 1992 by Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti. Kurti and French chemist Hervé This led the way in applying the scientific approach to expand the frontiers of gastronomy. Much in the same way as science and technology have brought advances in medicine, telecommunications, space travel and cinematography.

Currently, the figures closely linked to this culinary branch are Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal. In a peer review conducted by a US magazine, the “Food & Wine” (July 2007), Adrià was rated as one of the most respected chefs. The waiting time for reservations at El Bulli, Adrià’s restaurant in Costa Brava (Spain), is said to be one year long.

Blumenthal is a self-taught chef who owns and runs a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in the UK called the Fat Duck. A tasting menu costs £150 per head. He refers to his kitchen as the “development kitchen” where famous combinations such as white chocolate with caviar and tobacco-flavored chocolates were engineered.

“I’ve based a large amount of my research on Blumenthal,” says chef Eric. “I am an avid fan of his work and follow his career very closely.”

Show Time and Mind Games

For today’s demonstration at Frida’s (a Nuevo Latino restaurant in the Intercontinental Hotel), Eric has adapted some of Blumenthal’s recipes. Except for the texturePro jars of white chemical grains (mail-ordered from a company in Germany), everything looks remarkably ordinary. A sieve, bowls, measuring spoons, a whisk and syringe. There isn’t any pressure probe, centrifuge, liquid nitrogen or the immersion circulator I’ve read about.

There is, however, a toy called Paco Jet. Once the machine stopped whirring, Eric hands me a spoon to try the snow white contents within. It tastes like cold bacon cream cheese.

“It’s bacon ice cream. There’s the question – should there be this kind of food?” Eric says. Since he hasn’t told me earlier that it is a dessert, my mind and taste receptors are not prejudiced against the meaty notes in the ice cream. In fact, I like it very much. The same I cannot say about the green pea and mint “ravioli”.

“It is an exact science, you must really follow the measurements,” Eric says as he adds a texturePro stabilizer into a watery puree of green pea and mint. “You don’t add an extra bit of powder for luck.”

He fills a syringe with the mixture and carefully injects green droplets into a bowl of liquid sodium chloride. The bath solidifies the exterior of the verdant mixture to produce little pellets. He sieves them out and rinses them in water.

“They must be eaten straight away. If you wait too long, the chemical process continues and turns them rubbery,” he says.

I try a small spoonful. The thin jelly ‘skin’ breaks and pea liquid spills onto my tongue. It tastes like green pea but it is not accompanied by the pasty pea texture. My mind gets a jolt and rejects this sensation.

Cool Contrasts

The combination of multiple flavor, texture and temperature in a single dish is common in molecular gastronomy. Eric demonstrates this with a dessert and starter.

He places a chewy ginger cookie on a plate and slathers it with a carrot and sunflower seed “butter”. The “butter” has a light caramel hue. He tops it with pumpkin and butternut ice cream.

“It isn’t sweet,” Eric says of the ice cream. “But it will go nicely with the sweet carrot and seed butter.” More than nicely. Along with the cookie crunch, this dessert is divine. It is an adaptation from a dish served at the Fat Duck.

The starter is a cold soup with tempura. Eric reduces some dessert wine and allows it to cool. Then he adds Celluzoon, a gelling agent and stabilizer from texturePro. He blitzes the mixture to get a foamy texture. The melon is battered and deep-fried.

“Presentation is key,” he says while tipping the aerated wine-soup into a shot glass. “Especially after all the effort to make a two-bite portion.”

“Sweet, acidic (of the wine), crunchiness from the tempura batter, hot melon within, coldness of soup,” Eric describes the ensemble. It is delicious.

A Taste of Things to Come

“It’s way too complicated to put into a normal menu,” Eric answers when asked if molecular cuisine would take off in Poland. He notes that these days, molecular cuisine information has become more freely available. Early this year, he sent two of his chefs to Krakow for a training on molecular cuisine. However, the recipes are still closely guarded secrets.

“Investigating, questioning, exploring, trial and error,” he describes the process of coming up new dishes that could withstand the test of time.

Putting science in the kitchen is very expensive and labor-intensive. At the Fat Duck, the restaurant seats 40 people and has a crew of 50. Eric doesn’t think there will be El Bulli-style restaurants in Poland in the near future. For now, the Chef’s Table is Eric’s playground. On such occasions, he serves apple and tea flavored “caviar” and apple “caviar” with foei gras mousse.

In recent years, in some circles “molecular gastronomy” has become a dirty word. Comparable to how nouvelle cuisine fell out of grace from overuse and abuse, molecular food has become a circus act. The original intent of understanding food got sidetracked. Magicians-chefs are serving artwork food that are novelty for novelty’s sake. Even Blumenthal disassociates himself from such conduct and stresses that he is searching for perfection.

In some ways, molecular gastronomy is simply thoughtful cooking and consumption. That’s nothing to be afraid of.

Footnote

* Most of the information in this paragraph is summarized from “In Search of Perfection” by Heston Blumenthal

Recommended Reading

  • Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor (Arts & Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) by Herve This
  • In Search of Perfection by Heston Blumenthal

(Spa&Wellness, Sept 2007)

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