Molecular gastronomy is a scientific approach to cooking that uses chemistry, biology, and physics to create unique textures, flavors, and aromas. Scientifically honed porridge from Restaurant Story
72 degrees is the only temperature at which to cook a lemon tart. That’s at least according to Heston Blumenthal, one of the foremost proponents of the scientific approach to cooking. But, with a recent backlash against the movement, could this be the end of molecular gastronomy?
Since the late 1980s, scientific methodology in the kitchen has taken off. Blumenthal is joined by other leading luminaries in the culinary world in embracing the approach. Rene Redzepi, chef-patron of the five-time world’s best restaurant, Noma, and the Roca brothers, at the helm of the current number one, El Celler de Can Roca, are notable examples today.
Where did Molecular Gastronomy Come From?
The term ‘molecular gastronomy’ was coined in 1992 by the late Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti and the French INRA chemist Hervé This. While there were many disciplines of food science, until then no one branch was focused on using chemical processes to cook food at home or in a restaurant.
Kurti had been an advocate of these ground-breaking methods in the kitchen for some time. He appeared on British television back in 1969 to show dumbfounded viewers how to use a syringe to inject brandy into hot mince pies so that the pastry would be undamaged.
Later that year, he gave a demonstration at the Royal Society of London, where, among other presentations, he showed the audience how to cook sausages by connecting them across a car battery. Maybe not all that practical, but certainly attention grabbing. He told the audience, “I think it is a sad reflection on our civilisation that, while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus, we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.”
Hervé This, meanwhile, had begun collecting “culinary precisions” – a number of ‘old wives’ tales’ in the kitchen – to see whether they stood up to scientific scrutiny. His collection now totals over 25,000.
The pair wanted to learn why, for example, mayonnaise becomes firm when you mix oil and eggs or why a soufflé swells when you cook it. They believed that, by understanding why food is made in a certain way and what happens to the food as it is cooked, it would give valuable insights into innovation in the culinary world.
In order to receive funding to conduct their research, they needed to coin a name. And so it was that ‘molecular gastronomy’ was born.
The Development of an Idea
Over the next decade, scientific approaches to cooking became more commonplace. One of the forerunners was Heston Blumenthal. A lover of food, Heston had been experimenting with different culinary methods since his first Michelin dining experience at the age of 16.
Despite briefly training under Raymond Blanc and Marco Pierre White, when he purchased a dilapidated Berkshire pub in 1995 it was to be his first time actually working in a kitchen. Blumenthal named the location The Fat Duck and, within nine years, it had gained the maximum three Michelin stars.
Blumenthal still follows vigorous scientific methods to ensure perfection in all his dishes. For example, in order to create a portion of chips, he hand slices Maris Piper potatoes (chosen because they have the optimum starch content to be fried) and bathes them in water for an hour. The slices are then cooled to 5 degrees for some time, before being simmered at 95 degrees, cooled in a vacuum-sealed chamber and then fried at 150 degrees for around five minutes.
The chips are, at this point, placed back in the vacuum chamber, before a stint in the refrigerator until they are ordered. Ahead of being served, they are again fried – this time at 200 degrees.
While René Redzepi, chef-patron at Noma, is a keen forager who places great emphasis on local, natural ingredients, his restaurant also incorporates a great deal of science in its cooking.
In fact, just behind the restaurant lies an intriguing site: a collection of shipping containers that house a research hub, laboratory, fermentation facility and incubator. Here they develop new and innovative flavours. For example, fermented fish sauces that are made from non-traditional ingredients, such as beef trim, squid guts and trim and grasshoppers.
Two Michelin star Hibiscus provide molecular gastronomy in London
El Bulli’s Ferran Adria is also deemed one of the most influential chefs in the rise of scientific cooking. The aerated foam ‘mousse’ dish that often constitutes an amuse bouche nowadays was more or less perfected by Adria and his team’s dedication to science.
“We dreamed of making our mousses more airy and with more of the taste of the chosen product. Traditional mousses carry a significant proportion of cream or egg whites, so the flavour that you want to give is often quite attenuated.”
But Adria and his team used canisters of nitrous oxide, liquid nitrogen and other chemical aids, so that they could achieve their desired airy mousses with a more “pure taste”.
Not Without Controversy
Even though Adria is often referenced as the “father of molecular gastronomy”, he, like many of the other chefs associated with the movement, are opposed to the term. Adria refers to his approach as a type of ‘deconstruction’, while he and Heston, along with Thomas Keller and Harold McGee, co-signed an open letter to clarify their beliefs: making cooking a multi-sensory experience, based on “excellence, openness, and integrity.” In doing so, they distanced themselves from the movement of molecular gastronomy in an effort to highlight their similarities with traditional chefs.
Blumenthal told The Observer that the idea of molecular gastronomy, while helpful initially to stir up interest in The Fat Duck, was something he’d have preferred never to have taken off. He found the term to be an artificial barrier. “Molecular makes it sound complicated,” he said. “And gastronomy makes it sound elitist.”
Yet the attempt by these chefs to shift themselves back on common ground with more traditional cooks hasn’t been entirely successful.
One of Adria’s peers, the Spanish chef Santi Santamaria, was an outspoken critic. He called chefs who embraced scientific methods “a gang of impostors whose work is to distract snobs.” Santamaria labelled the use of chemical substances in cooking a “public health risk”.
Marco Pierre White criticised The Fat Duck as a place that, although a “well-oiled machine”, lacked romance.
Meanwhile, Phil Howard, chef-patron of the two Michelin star The Square, a fixture of the Mayfair fine dining scene since 1991, said the very idea of molecular gastronomy wrangles him.
“What I find frustrating is the acclaim that gets heaped on restaurants serving new food that isn’t delicious.” he told TRULY. Howard says his entire philosophy to cooking is “deliciousness for deliciousness’s sake”. Scientifically reared cuisine can be “impressive…technically accomplished, brilliant in many ways,” but still served as a dish that’s not delicious.
For his part, Blumenthal was upset by White’s comments. “I like to think my food is really emotional,” he told the Guardian. “Eating is the only thing that we do that involves all the senses. We eat with our eyes and our ears and our noses. You think about some of the most memorable meals you’ve ever had; the food will be good but it will often be about locating a mental memory and taste is inexorably linked to all the other senses and memory.”
Is This the End of the Line?
And so it is that molecular gastronomy continues to divide opinion. Those most associated with it in the culinary sphere distance themselves from the movement, while even the great master, Joël Robuchon, named ‘Chef of the Century’ by Gault-Millau in 1989, seems confused by the issue.
“Molecular gastronomy is not the kind of cuisine that should be important… Right now, I am doing the reverse of molecular gastronomy,” he told the New York Post, before going on to reveal that, in actual fact, what he is doing would make Kurti and This proud.
“I’m working with scientists to find ingredients and produce that are proven to be good for you. Turmeric is very good for you. White tea is better than green tea. One of the dishes I’m experimenting with is carrot purée with turmeric.” If the greatest chef around, with 23 Michelin stars to his name, can’t get his head around the topic, then there’s surely no hope for the rest of us.
Sebastian is a former hedge fund trader who worked only to indulge his true passion – food.
He has dined at over 240 Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, savoring culinary masterpieces and understanding the stories behind them. He now advises restaurants on menu design, decor and holistic diner experience.