Most can agree that eating on a daily basis is pretty damn important. And aside from an ever-growing contingent of foodies who want their leafy greens local, chemical-free, and cooked very slowly, that’s about the extent of the collective awareness (look no further than the recent Double Down from KFC if unconvinced). But a new contingent of culinary artísts is acting to expand the way we conceive of our fodder. The official field of molecular gastronomy is a new and succulent beast, though its founders’ interest and inquiry into old wives’ tales suggests that amateurs, too, have theorized on the same old queries for centuries. The co-coiner of the phrase “molecular gastronomy” and former Oxford physicist, Nicolas Kurti, was rather indignant about the kitchen’s separation from academic study: “I think it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.”
The current big wigs of the industry, Hervé This and Ferran Adriá, are leading the exploration into these processes, one in the lab and the other in his world-class restaurant elBulli, respectively. Both employ chemistry apparatuses that any nerd would swoon for—we’re talkin’ titration burettes, rotary evaporators, vacuum chambers, and nitrous oxide canisters for the foaming of unusual items (read: meats). These make for a most interesting, if not entirely substantial, carte de jour; liquidized olives that pop in one’s mouth like a balloon are complemented by the foie-gras cotton candy. Kellogg’s paella—it snaps, crackles, and pops! and is eaten with forceps— and tobacco flavored crushed ice are some of his more bizarre concoctions, but surely serve to keep things interesting throughout his thirty course meals.
Adriá opens elBulli, situated in rural Spain, for half the year, only serving 8,000 in that span despite the two million dining requests. Ranked as the best restaurant in the world for five of the last eight years, one can only imagine as to how it operates at a loss, barely sustainable only due to Adriá’s more profitable pursuits—lectures, trainings, and writing. Ferran Adriá is a much-admired figure, though controversy plagues him due to assertions that he is in fact poisoning people through his cutting edge chemical tinkering. Oh, well! It was probably worth it…
In reviewing Adriá’s new book, Anthony Bourdain, host of food travel show “No Reservations,” may have said it best: “Pastry chefs everywhere—when they see [his book]—will gape in fear, and awe, and wonder. I feel for them; like Eric Clapton seeing Jimi Hendrix for the first time, one imagines they will ask themselves ‘What do I do now?” One of the more mysterious assertions of the Top Chef’s Wikipedia page is that “Adrià has made almonds into cheese and asparagus into bread with the help of natural ingredients.” I honestly do not understand it, but there it is ladies and gentlemen—the guy is pure magic.
The pairing of certain ingredients like cocoa and cauliflower, or marshmallow and parmesan, may seem strange until one considers the importance these chefs place on “mouthfeel,” which is a much more nuanced definition than that all too familiar sensation of, well, tasting something. Foods are categorized throughout mastication based on nineteen factors that include fracturability, mouth coating, moisture release, and uniformity of chew and bite. The quantitative analysis of heaviness is determined by the item’s weight. That seems straightforward enough. Force and energy come into play when testing for gumminess and viscosity, however, which leads me to a fantastical image of scientists in lab coats, all strapped into their chewing monitors and chomping down on giant carrots. You might ask yourself why, following the ingestion of spinach, one has that strangely-gritty-and-yet-squeaky-clean mouthfeel. Oxalic acid is the culprit. This type of investigation is just the tip of the iceberg lettuce, and Adrià has decided to close his restaurant so he can limit his focus to the creative exploration of avant-garde cuisine. His culinary physics class scheduled for Fall 2010 at Harvard is wildly popular, signifying the extent to which molecular gastronomy has infiltrated intellectual circles. Or perhaps it signifies the extent to which we all love food. Either way, this futuristic cuisine has crossed the pond and is likely to inform our opinions on the proper use of foam and forceps in the coming
_Cooking Myths Debunked:_
Adding garlic before onions in the frying pan? Nope. Add the moister ingredient first.
Three minutes to the perfect boiled egg? Hervé suggests four hours in an oven of 68 degrees Celsius.
Sear your meat to lock in the juices? Don’t. Searing meat actually allows all the mositure to evaporate, giving you a tougher and less juicy steak.
Silver spoon in the champagne to keep it bubbly? How about finish the goddamn bottle.