Food, Love, and Molecules
This post is late because I came unstuck on a piece about food shortages and revolution and must entirely rethink my argument. So instead I present you with a soufflé of a post: a reflection on this year’s list of Top 50 restaurants which was announced on Monday.
For a long time I’ve wanted to discuss the kind of cooking labelled ‘molecular gastronomy’, practised most famously by Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck and, originally, at El Bulli in Spain by Ferran Adrià. I suppose that given last week’s rant about the adoration of the pavlova on MasterChef Australia it would be reasonable to assume that I am deeply critical of the food served at these restaurants. On the contrary, I’m fascinated by it and am a fan of both Blumenthal and Adrià.
This may seem like I’m trying to square the circle, but let me explain. It’s worth defining precisely what I mean by molecular gastronomy because, depending on context, it can refer to two separate, yet related, activities. Firstly, it describes what has also been dubbed ‘modernist cuisine’: a type of cooking which uses a range of unorthodox methods and equipment radically to alter familiar foodstuffs and dishes. For example, in a recent television series, In Search of Perfection, Blumenthal entirely reinvented, among other things, that classic of 1970s dining, black forest gateau. Adrià dislikes the term molecular gastronomy, preferring describe his cooking as ‘deconstructionist’, and I think that this is a useful way of understanding his and Blumenthal’s technique.
Blumenthal reduced the gateau to its most basic components – chocolate, cream, maraschino cherries, and kirsch – and then reassembled it using aerated chocolate and cream jelly to emphasise the intensity of the dark chocolate, the richness of the cream, and the sweet-sourness of the cherries. Drawing attention to its origins during the 70s, the cake was spray-painted with a mock wood veneer in chocolate. Finally, Blumenthal poured the kirsch into a spray bottle and spritzed it in to the air as the cake was being eaten: we use our sense of smell to taste (which is why everything tastes of boiled knitting when your nose is blocked), and the scent of the kirsch combined with the taste of chocolate, cream, and cherries blends together as the cake is eaten.
In its second, more exact, meaning, molecular gastronomy describes a branch of food science which pays particular attention to the process of cooking. It was invented in 1988 by Nicholas Kurti and Hervé This, who explains:
Despite having a huge impact on other aspects of our lives, scientific advances have done little to change our cooking habits. When it comes to preparing food – the most important aspect of our life from a physiological point of view – citizens in developed countries still cook almost the same way as their ancestors did centuries ago. … Kitchens are equipped with basically the same pans, whisks and sieves that cooks used in the seventeenth century.
Indeed, cooking was the last of the ‘chemical arts’ to become the object of scientific scrutiny and it still relies on telltale and anecdotal knowledge rather than solid science. As recently as 2001, an inspector from the French Department of Public Education said, during a public lecture, that her mayonnaise failed when she was menstruating. Such old wives’ tales were partly the reason behind the creation of molecular gastronomy: I first started experimental studies of cooking after encountering a recipe for cheese soufflé that advised adding egg yolks ‘two by two, never by fractions’. Another reason was that the late Nicholas Kurti, professor of physics at Oxford University, UK, was upset by the poor and unscientific way that people cook. …in 1988, Kurti and I decided that we should create a new scientific discipline to investigate culinary transformations.
Originally, molecular gastronomy had five aims: ‘to collect and investigate old wives’ tales about cooking; to model and scrutinize existing recipes; to introduce new tools, products and methods to cooking; to invent new dishes using knowledge from the previous three aims; and to use the appeal of food to promote science.’ This has since been reduced to two: to look at how food is described or defined (a mayonnaise is a thick, jelly-like emulsion of egg yolk and oil, for example), and the range of hints, tips, and advice that accompany instructions for making food (when making mayonnaise, heat the bowl and add the oil in a thin trickle).
However, we rapidly found this new programme insufficient as well, because the main aim in cooking is to produce good food, which is art and not technique. Furthermore, a dish can be cooked perfectly, but if it is not presented in an appealing way, all the art and science will mean little to the customer or guest; we therefore decided that we must include the ‘love’ component of culinary practice. Of course, science will probably never be able to fully explain art or love, but it can help; for example, evolutionary biology can contribute to the exploration of human behaviours, and, accordingly, culinary practice. Consequently, molecular gastronomy not only uses science to explore the technical aspect of cooking but also the ‘art’ and ‘love’ components, both of which are important for the main aim of cooking: to delight guests.
I think that this sums up why I am fascinated, rather than repelled, by molecular gastronomy: it melds scientific enquiry (why do we cook in the way we do?) with a recognition that much of our response to food and eating is emotional, aesthetic, and irrational. This argues convincingly that the usefulness of molecular gastronomy lies in its ability to tell us more about how food is cooked: ‘If we are able to use the knowledge gained on food preparation, we might find new ways to make healthy food more attractive, we might persuade more people to cook better food and, last but not least, we might convince society to regard eating as a pleasure rather than a necessity.’
It’s for this reason that I am interested in what top-end restaurants do: the two uses of molecular gastronomy overlap in that both require us to think more closely about how we prepare food, and then to use this knowledge to look again at how we eat. I agree that it would be impossible to accuse Pierre Gagnaire and René Redzepi of producing affordable, interesting, and healthy food for the masses – and the same is true of the three South African restaurants (Le Quartier Francais (36), Rust en Vrede (61), and La Colombe (82)) listed in the Top 100. But then none of them pretend to do so: these restaurants are spaces in which food is the subject of experimentation and where, paradoxically, chefs are at liberty not to take it too seriously (as on MasterChef). They are free to play with food, and to rethink the ways in which we eat and respond to food.
There is a connection between restaurant and home cooking. When the much derided nouvelle cuisine of the 1980s swopped heavy, flour-laden sauces for lighter reductions, home cooking gradually followed suit (although this change took place within a broader context of heightened concern about healthy eating in the West). When Blumenthal unveiled his snail porridge at the Fat Duck, the dish was greeted with derision and disgust. But now – around a decade later – deeply savoury snails on a risotto-like porridge of oats is no longer thought to be repellent. In fact, Blumenthal simply combined a collection of ingredients usually loved by diners in a slightly different format.
In this way, these restaurants can be seen as laboratories in which the food of the future – the jellies, foams, sous vide cooking, and new flavour combinations – is developed. It’s worth noting that Adrià has recently announced the closure of El Bulli, and the opening of a research foundation dedicated to spreading the lessons learned from the technology developed at the restaurant. In particular, he aims to show how cooking and eating can – and should – be both healthy and delicious. That love, in other words, is as important as technique in cooking.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.