Hunger Strike—4/1/2010

Set phasers to “Yum!”

By Iliya Gutin

Food: the final frontier. These are the experiments of Molecular Gastronomy. Its mission: to explore strange new ingredients, to seek out new techniques and new technologies…

Yes, a Star Trek reference. There are few times in life when Star Trek is applicable to food. This is one such moment, and I am not letting it pass me by. The two have more in common than you would think. Whereas Star Trek revolutionized the public’s notion of space travel in the ’60s and ’70s, molecular gastronomy is fundamentally changing the definition of food.

And what is molecular gastronomy exactly? The term itself has been around since the 1980s when French chemist Hervé This decided to focus on the scientific aspect of food preparation, the molecular nature of reactions, the tools and techniques used for preparing dishes, and a general investigation into the commonly held notions of food. The fruits of this initial exploration were bountiful: the rediscovery of sous-vide, or vacuum-sealed pressure cooking, the incorporation of chemicals to manipulate the texture of food, and the demystification of cooking in general, such as proving that the weight of a chunk of meat has no bearing on its cooking time. Molecular gastronomy was just the next logical progression in the culinary timeline.

As the focus of molecular gastronomy shifted away from the science, and more towards the “artistic” and “social” norms of cooking, it assumed a role as the most prestigious culinary tradition. For the past five years, El Bulli and The Fat Duck, meccas of molecular gastronomy, have been rated as the number one and two restaurants in the world, respectively. Both have achieved the elusive rating of three Michelin stars, and their waiting lists span years. Both will also drain your wallet faster than you can say bacon-and-egg ice cream.

But with this great success came great pretentiousness. Soon every chef was buying anti-griddles, thermal immersion circulators, and even (freakin’) lasers. Anything that remotely resembled food was frozen with liquid nitrogen in the hopes of sticking the dish with a fancy name and a hefty price tag. Molecular gastronomy has its merits, but certain chefs were really pushing it when they referred to themselves as psychologists experimenting with the public’s attitudes towards food. It’s one thing to surprise someone by presenting his favorite fish as a delicate sorbet, but it’s another to argue that fish sorbet represents the struggle of humanity in the face of inescapable adversity.

Recently the top chefs in the field, Ferran Adrià of El Bulli and Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck, have both distanced themselves from the term. Although El Bulli plans to close its doors in 2011, Ferran Adrià plans to start up a culinary “think-tank” for food innovation. Meanwhile, Heston Blumenthal now seems to focus more on preparing simple dishes with seasonal ingredients. Nothing new or shocking here. Even the Italian government recently voted to ban some of the substances and chemicals used in molecular gastronomy. These developments have raised the inevitable question in the food community of whether molecular gastronomy would soon be seeing its own last meal.

However, the fate of molecular gastronomy is as uncertain and strange as the food it has produced. While the field seems relatively confined to the upper echelon of the culinary world, it only appears to be spreading outward towards the wider consumer base. As more restaurants start incorporating the molecular gastronomy techniques into their dishes (here in Chicago Alinea, Charlie Trotter’s, and L20 are the most prominent examples) and as more chefs are seen using the techniques on Iron Chef and Top Chef, the more demand there will be for these outlandish dishes. Hence, we now have nice, consumer-friendly versions of the same fancy instruments in restaurant kitchens all across this great land. Think easy-bake oven for adults.

Still, seeing people this excited about food is a pretty remarkable phenomenon. Some of the finest examples of molecular gastronomy really do make you question why we are so strict with our definition of foods. An amazing transformation happens to the taste of steak if you eat it with a fork intertwined with rosemary. Or how about a delicious whitefish pasta, where the noodles themselves are made of fish? And nothing compliments a chocolate soufflé like airy dragon-fruit foam. Though this food “movement” may seem a bit too avant-garde, or honestly too obnoxious for most diners, it is nonetheless important for its contributions to food science as a whole. The process is full of trial and error, and if we are on the fringe of the movement now, who knows where we will be in a few years as the practices of current molecular gastronomy become commonplace and, dare I say, boring? But, we can rest assured that molecular gastronomists will never fail to astound, shock, and even appall because, as William Shatner reminds us, a molecular gastronomist’s mission is…

…to boldly go where no chef has gone before.