Tell me because I honestly want to hear people’s opinion. How interested are you in the scientific applications in cooking? To be more specific, are you interested in learning about the chemical reactions, the molecular properties, and the nerdy applications for creating and eating food?
Molecular gastronomy is nothing new. Chef-idols Ferran Adria and Jose Andres started applying these techniques decades ago. They’re even talking about it to Harvard students in a new course called Science and Cooking. Really, Harvard gets it. In an effort to be creative, the class intends to bridge a gap between what we’re eating, how it’s made, and why it’s made that way. Can it be better, and how could it be better? Any foodie that is worth his salt (pun intended) knows the famed Modernist Cuisine cookbook series, authored by Nathan Myhrvold. I can happily say it has its place on my cookbook shelf. So what is it about molecular gastronomy that has everyone up in arms? Happily or not-so-happily?
The thing is that molecular gastronomy is a double-edged sword. It’s like the really pretty, popular girl in high school. It’s the girl you love to hate. Some people love to hate molecular gastronomy because they don’t understand it. The idea of someone using stabilizers in a mousse to help it set properly and to achieve a perfect texture makes people leery. Or how about gluing meat together with an enzyme that chemically bonds like proteins? These may seem unnatural to you, but truthfully, they’re not.
It’s about three things: problem solving, seeking a better alternative, and creativity.
Why does anyone do anything? Why do we have laptops that are lighter than cantaloupes or phones that can turn off your lights at home 100 miles away? It’s technology. Molecular gastronomy is just a different segment of technology. It’s no different than using a mandolin to slice onions, instead of your knife. At one time, that was considered a modern technique.
So then, why the issue with using additives or unusual mechanical devices to make food better? I think the answer is simple. It just takes time. Nothing remarkable ever happened overnight, and some things just take time to catch on. The proof is there. Look at xanthan gum for example. Ten years ago, people didn’t know what to do with it. Only thinking of it as a weird chemical chefs use to mess up their food. Now, you can find it anywhere. Seriously, any grocery store across the country carries it. The gum is used all the time by home cooks and bakers to make everything from gluten-free breads to perfectly unbreakable vinaigrettes. I believe the same will happen with other forms of molecular cooking. Williams Sonoma now carries sous vide machines, and many kitchen supply stores sell multiple versions of vacuum sealers and dehydrators. These items are just tools. As with any craft, the artist is only as good as his or her tools.
Don’t be overly cynical just yet. I implore you Los Angelenos to first go eat at Ink, Red Medicine, or The Bazaar and then to form your opinion. The chefs at these restaurants are utilizing many different forms of molecular cooking to enhance their own creative cuisine. The true balance comes when the chef makes the decision to utilize modern techniques because they should, not just because they can. These are definitely words of wisdom that we can all benefit from in and out of the kitchen.
The image is one I photographed of a chef’s Foie gras peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Molecular ingredients and techniques were most certainly utilized in its delicious creation.