The magical world of the gastronomical lab can render taste buds stunned, says Joe McNamee, but is it really where the future of food lies?
MOLECULAR gastronomy may draw furrowed brows, and puzzled looks from Joe and Josephine Public, but start talking bacon and egg ice cream or snail porridge and there’s every chance you’ll get a more positive response.
Aha! That rather strange Heston Blumenthal character off the telly who has experimented with the tampon as the ultimate palate cleanser.
Or that Spanish restaurant, ‘The Best Restaurant in the World’, El Bulli, only open six months of the year despite two million plus booking enquiries annually, serving Kellogg’s paella — Rice Krispies, shrimp heads, and vanilla-flavoured mashed potatoes.
In other words, fancy chefs losing the run of themselves with the chemistry set, turning your meat and two veg into all manner of foams, gels, smoke, and powders.
The Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences in UCC had anticipated roughly 30 people for their recent molecular gastronomy workshop, but almost four times that amount from all walks of culinary life in Ireland attended and they had a full- blown conference on their hands.
Hervé This, the father of MG, spoke by video from Paris and Michelin Star chef and former UCC food science graduate Ross Lewis opened the conference.
Culinary movements and trends spread like wildfire, invariably beginning with a brilliant innovator who soon has a band of devoted disciples. These disciples in turn spawn legions of slavish imitators until eventually the world and its mother is up to some bastardised and extremely faint distillation of the initial innovation.
Over the last decade, in particular, cutting edge MG has been the only show in town.
“MG is about understanding the science that underpins what happens in the kitchen,” says conference organiser Professor Alan Kelly.
“We always think of cooking as an art but MG is understanding the physics, chemistry, sensory psychology, putting the science behind the art and can be applied to any food product to create new food products, structures, flavours, textures that are very innovative and lots of top restaurants are now doing this.”
It all began with a soufflé. Following a domestic culinary disaster, French scientist and keen home cook Hervé This, began to unravel the recipe.
It called for the addition of two eggs at a time; when he did otherwise, it flopped.
He began collecting and testing what he calls ‘culinary precisions’ such as the ‘two-egg’ rule above, and this evolved into a desire to establish a hitherto absent systematic, scientific study of food preparation and cooking.
In tandem with Oxford physicist Professor Nicola Kurti, he established a new branch of food science christened MG.
Chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli was the man to introduce This’s and Kurti’s science to the culinary world and though the three Michelin Star restaurant closed for good in 2011 (the only profit El Bulli generated in final years was from associated businesses, not the restaurant), he remains revered by chefs around the world.
“He is the most important chef in the last 50 years,” says Lewis who worked in El Bulli for a week in the early 90s, an experience he credits as enormously influential on his professional life.
“There are those who change they way professionals feel about their craft. Picasso did it for artists; Adrià did it for chefs.
“He is one in a million. There are now loads of people using his techniques and technology he pioneered but he is the original.”
So what actually happens?
Well, there is an enormous amount of expensive equipment and chemical additives and techniques to transmute produce into entirely different taste experiences: for example, nut oils are served as powders, potatoes served as foams, fruit, apples say, liquified and turned into gels.
How about lavender-flavoured smoke? Or the edible stones they serve at Mugaritz in Spain? Edible ‘soil’ is a familiar trope while Adrià was long obsessed with the creation of hot ice cream.
Accompanying sensory experiences are almost as important: Blumenthal’s Sound of the Sea offers an evocative soundtrack on an iPod to accompany the eating of a seafood dish; Adrià has worked with experimental psychologist Professor Charles Spence on presentation; Spence’s research has shown diners found a strawberry mousse 10% sweeter when served on a white plate rather than a black plate.
To eat these dishes can be exhilarating and stimulating in the extreme; many tastes evoke the childlike delight of first experience, the familiar rendered in a manner unlike anything you have ever had in your entire life, blurring the border between entertainment and nourishment.
Spherification, devised by Adrià, involves the use of chemicals to create vegetable or fruit ‘caviar’ by turning liquid into little balls of gel with a ‘skin’ that pop with the same initial resistance to the tooth as fish caviar.
Adrià’s renowned version using olives is time and labour intensive, taking nearly 48 hours.
No doubt, the taste is incredible but then could the same be said for one’s very first olive in its natural state?
Though Adrià’s genius is rooted in his grounding in ‘conventional’ cooking, he makes no distinction.
“In the end, everything is science, everything,” he has said.
“People see MG as something almost like magic. But frying an egg is a chemical process that is probably much more complex than trying to do spherification.”
His 2006 manifesto, co-signed with Blumethal, US chef Thomas Keller, and food writer Harold McGee stated: “We do not pursue novelty for its own sake.
“We may use modern thickeners, sugar substitutes, enzymes, liquid nitrogen, sous-vide, dehydration, and other non-traditional means, but these do not define our cooking.
“They are a few of the many tools that we are fortunate to have available as we strive to make delicious and stimulating dishes.”
Despite stressing his complete independence from and lack of financial interest in any commercial organisation, This is equally concerned with its application for the food science industry, albeit on a more altruistic level than your average shareholder.
“We are going to face hunger crises, energy crises, and overpopulation,” he says, “and we have to be prepared. MG can help.
A truckful of tomatoes containing 95% water uses a lot of extra energy to transport all that water,” says This.
What, he wonders, if we could remove that water and add it again at a later stage? As another industry professional laconically remarks to me a few days later, “Erin were doing that 40 years ago with their dried packet soups. There’s a reason ‘fresh’ soup in cartons took off so spectacularly!”
And here’s the rub, much of the science behind MG has been around for years in industry.
“All these ‘modern’ gadgets we have in the restaurant kitchens, I was using most of them in the labs in UCC back in 1985 as a student,” recalls Lewis.
“Turning liquids into powders? The crisp industry have been doing that for years, turning vinegar into powdered flavouring.”
Adria’s now globally ubiquitous spherification is actually based on a technique devised in Unilever labs in the 1950s. Sous-vide, cooking food in vacuum-packed bags in water, is a very popular technique birthed by the MG movement, but veterans of 1980s boil-in-the-bag fish pooh-pooh this type of thing as old hat.
Possibly triggering industry’s current obsession with MG is the notion that so many of the world’s most renowned chefs have embraced MG.
Using similar processes somehow validates what is betimes an oft-maligned industry. Lewis, however, an ardent champion of world-class Irish natural produce is cautious: “The food science world has an obligation not to see progress solely in terms of profiteering, science needs emotion, it needs people.
“I believe agriculture must operate at several speeds, from small artisan production to industrial-scale farming and food production.”
Darina Allen, another conference attendee and panel speaker, confesses: “To be honest, my heart sank when someone asked about MG’s application for artisan food producers.
“It is horses for courses but this is a very different area to what artisan or speciality food producers are doing.
“It’s all fine, you go to a restaurant doing that type of thing and you experience these moments of entertainment or stimulation but it is not the sort of food people are going to be eating every day.
“There is no substitute for good food produced from good, natural, seasonal ingredients.
“This industrial technology has its place in some kitchens and some of the elements will be subsumed into the general cooking scene but I don’t think it’s ever going to overtake good ingredients cooked well.”
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