Molecular Gastronomy: New Cooking Techniques with Familiar Food Flavors
By Andrea Rappaport
Imagine an orb shaped dish brimming with fluorescent orange foam is placed in front of you. As you place the spoon on your tongue, the foam vanishes leaving behind nothing more than the essence of fresh, sweet carrots lingering in the back of your throat.
A single peeled grape, still attached to its stem, is dipped in creamy peanut butter and then wrapped in a gossamer sheath of brioche. In a play on a childhood classic, it elicits at once the comfort of familiarity and the shock of the completely unexpected.
This is molecular gastronomy, the trendy new chapter of the ever-progressing culinary movement.
Molecular Gastronomy: What's in a Name?
Molecular gastronomy, a term often considered to be vague and off-putting, was coined in the 1990's by a duo of culinarily enthusiastic scientists. Ultimately, the term came to define an entire movement, although many in the field prefer the terms "post-modern cooking" or "experimental cooking."
The Kitchen: A Chef's Laboratory
The term molecular gastronomy conjures images of laboratory derived experiments more than a dining experience, but in most cases it's actually both. Many practitioners do create in laboratories, which are simply modern kitchens outfitted with new high-tech equipment.
- Anti-Griddle. A reverse cook top that instantaneously, at minus 30 degrees, transforms liquids to frozen solids.
- Sous vides cookers. Food encased in plastic is placed in water and slowly cooked at a precisely maintained temperature.
- CO2 dispenser. Converts practically any liquid into an ethereal froth or foam.
Progress for the Food Movement's Sake
Despite the ultra-modern equipment and strangely presented food, the goal is not to completely alter the concept of cooking, but rather to find a new way of expanding on a foundation that has been building for centuries.
Ferran Adrià, the chef/owner of the restaurant El Bulli, explains it as a way of using "new techniques to elicit new emotions." He considers this type of cuisine a play on tradition, one which is at once both familiar and jolting.
Many of Adrià's contemporaries agree that the transformation of technique and application is the key to progressing the food movement. While the tastes and flavors remain familiar, it is the form, the presentation, and the manner of preparation and consumption that are unique.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Perhaps the concept is best explained in a film called "Decoding Ferran Adrià." The film documents chef Anthony Bourdain's visit to Spain, on which he followed Adrià through his process from inspiration to inception. Mid-way through the film Bourdain dines at El Bulli and before entering the restaurant he is nervous, not knowing what to expect and fearful that he just won't get it.
As the meal progresses, however, Bourdain's facial expressions alone seemingly capture the essence of the entire philosophy. With each bite his expression shifts from fear to curiosity to confusion and ultimately morphs into to a huge smile that at once exudes the whimsy of childlike wonderment and the realization that the concept does make sense. You cannot help but smile along with him.
The intent of molecular gastronomy is consistent with the chapters of the culinary movement that have preceded it--innovation, amusement, inspiration, and ultimately pleasure.
About the Author
After receiving degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the Culinary Institute of America, Andrea Rappaport moved into a full-time career in the restaurant business. For over 12 years, she worked in various culinary jobs, including as a cook for Wolfgang Puck at Spago, and ultimately as the executive chef and partner of the highly revered San Francisco restaurant Zinzino. For the past seven years, Andrea has worked as the private chef for one family in the San Francisco area, and continues to expand her culinary portfolio by catering, teaching, and consulting.