What emerges when food science and technology are applied with a modern flourish to fine cuisine? Answer: An edible menu made from soybean paper and potato starch printed with fruit juice ink; faux caviar made with sodium alginate and avocado puree; aerated foie gras accompanied by pickled beet and Mashhad plum; and culinary foams infused with lemon, lime, or amaretto. These are but a few of the in-demand food novelties created by chefs harnessing scientific principles and applying them to food.
Combining science and food is not new. For decades, the food industry has used food science and technology to decrease foodborne disease, process and preserve perishable items, and provide wholesome food. But now that food safety and food preservation have become fairly routine—and resulted in mass-produced items that rarely titillate all the senses—a comparatively new application of science to food has emerged: molecular cooking. Often incorrectly referred to as molecular gastronomy, molecular cooking is the use of science and technology to deconstruct foods and food ingredients, reform them, and serve them in novel ways. For the culinary devotees of molecular cooking, science does more than make food safer; it transforms ordinary food into flavorful, unique, and visually interesting cuisine.
How can that be? Many people associate food science with packaged snack cakes that remain edible for up to a year, yogurt infused with fiber or omega-3 fatty acids, microwaveable dinner entrées, and shelf-stable meat and seafood. Indisputably, the combination of science, technology, and food has not always yielded the most appetizing food ideas. And at a time when food science is being denigrated as the source of “edible foodlike substances” and nutrients, resulting in overfed malnourished people with obesity-related health issues (Pollan, 2008), any top chef’s use of science and technology to prepare innovative cuisine at high-end restaurants seems counterintuitive.
While it may seem peculiar to use transglutaminase (the “meat glue” associated with processed chicken nuggets), soy lecithin, sodium alginate, or hydrocolloids to create a fine-dining experience, molecular cooking employs such food science staples to yield delectable dishes that prove science can make food better. Moreover, chefs who perform this style of cooking are constantly investigating innovative methods to prepare and serve fine food, using implements such as sous vide cookers, anti-griddles (cooktops used for freezing instead of heating), liquid nitrogen, dehydrators, and whipped cream canisters.
Origins of Molecular Cooking
Although it relies on the adaptation of food industry staples and technologies, molecular cooking is several tiers above processed convenience food that can be prepared and consumed in 30 minutes or less. Instead, this style of food preparation emphasizes slow food prepared with meticulous attention to detail and presentation, providing unique stimuli for all five senses. Molecular cooking originated in Europe as an application of molecular gastronomy. French chemist Hervé This and Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti introduced molecular gastronomy, a scientific discipline, in 1988 to explore “the many phenomena that occurs [sic] during culinary activities and transformations. It uses the experimental method to solve differential equations” (This, 2008).
Two European chefs, Ferran Adriá and Heston Blumenthal, pioneered using the principles of molecular gastronomy to prepare and serve food. By using unconventional tools, ingredients, and methods to cook, Adriá and Blumenthal laid the foundation for molecular cooking—even though neither chef embraces the term. These early adopters of molecular cooking firmly believe that each science-based technique or technical method enhances food in some way: intensifying flavor, maintaining or increasing moisture, augmenting color, transforming texture, and so on.
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“Cooking has always been science—physics and chemistry,” according to Chef Adriá of el Bulli in Spain, a Michelin three-star restaurant (Harvard Magazine, 2008). Known for pioneering the use of nitrous oxide and whipped cream canisters to create culinary foams, Adriá insists that customers travel far and wide to dine at his restaurant “not for nourishment, but for an experience” (Hayward, 2008). Blumenthal, chef and owner of The Fat Duck in England—also a Michelin three-star restaurant—uses liquid nitrogen to craft lozenges from green tea syrup, lime juice, vodka, egg whites, and sugar (Tan, 2009). “I think cooking is like going down a rabbit hole into wonderland—the sense of discovery, the way that things are not quite as they seem,” he says (Blumenthal, 2009).
Both chefs were inspired by the book On Food and Cooking, in which food science writer Harold McGee says, “Thoughtful cooking means paying attention to what our senses tell us as we prepare it. ... To understand what’s happening within a food as we cook it, we need to be familiar with the world of invisibly small molecules and their reactions with each other” (McGee, 2004). Because of this philosophy, Adriá’s and Blumenthal’s restaurants have won several awards, and both have alternately been named the best restaurant in the world. Customers from around the world travel to Spain and London for the pleasure of this unusual dining experience.
As a result, the molecular cooking movement is thriving: Wait-list-only restaurants catering to well-heeled patrons with a taste for science have emerged in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Helmed by progressive chefs who have become famous for their innovative flavors and culinary creations, restaurants such as WD-50 in New York and Moto in Chicago demonstrate that when it comes to fine dining, the application of science-based techniques to food is distinctively delicious. But how exactly do the chef/owners of these famous restaurants use food science and technology to create their signature dishes and why?
WD-50: Chef Wylie Dufresne
Brimming with high-end designer stores, fashion-magazine headquarters, and stylish consumers, New York City is the perfect place for showcasing the avant-garde. It is the ideal setting for not only cutting-edge fashion but also progressive cuisine. Located on the lower east side of Manhattan, WD-50 is arguably one of the most creative dining destinations in the United States. Chef and proprietor Wylie Dufresne opened WD-50 in 2003 after working as sous chef and chef de cuisine at two of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurants.
Although Chef Dufresne began with a more traditional style of food preparation, he was inspired to tinker with the blueprint for conventional cooking. When asked what prompted him to blend science, technology, and culinary artistry, Chef Dufresne replies, “I think that cultivating a relationship between the science and the cooking is not a new idea, but it sheds light on cooking as a science. Cooking is chemistry, without a doubt; there’s some biology, some physics. So a deeper understanding of those fields would only help to make one a more knowledgeable, more informed cook. And from there you could have a deeper understanding of how food behaves while it’s being cooked. So ultimately I see the relationship as an ongoing education of a curious cook.” It is obvious that his interest in food science grew out of wanting to learn more about food: “For me, it’s about information. What’s happening to a piece of fish when I cook it? Having that information allows me to decide whether I want to roast it, poach it, or boil it. It gives me a body of knowledge that I can use to decide the most desirable way to cook a piece of fish or a meat or an egg. Why would that not be useful information for anybody who cooks?”
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Chef Dufresne and his staff frequently use food science ingredients to create modern cuisine with unique textural properties. For example, he uses hydrocolloids and National Starch products to prepare the most popular item on WD-50’s menu: eggs Benedict. However, his use of unconventional ingredients and techniques is not purely for showmanship. “Cooking trends come and go. These ingredients have found their way into the modern kitchen [because] they have some interesting applications. Cultivating a relationship between science and cooking is not new. A deeper understanding of those fields would only make me a more informed cook. Who says you can’t play with your food? I want diners to have a good time. I want them to say the food was really tasty,” he says.
Indeed, the foie gras and caramelized bread pudding at WD-50 involve some truly unusual techniques. Xanthum gum and agar are mixed with foie gras to give it a manipulatable creamy texture. The foie gras is then placed in a vacuum cooker with a one-way valve, which causes the meat to aerate and develop a honeycomb-like appearance. The unconventional additives render the end product resistant to heat from the chef’s fingers, so it retains its shape—unlike conventionally prepared foie gras. For the caramelized rioche, WD-50’s pastry chef, Alex Stupak, creates a mixture of transglutaminase, gelatin, and milk to which he adds crumbled brioche. He then prepares an apricot puree set with gelatin as filling for the bread pudding. He finishes the brioche with buttercream prepared with gellan gum,which stabilizes the buttercream so that it too can withstand heat. The finished dessert is a delight to behold.
However, Chef Dufresne is not fond of the term “molecular gastronomy”or “molecular cooking”: “What does that term mean? Does it bring anything to mind? You don’t have a reference point for that. It doesn’t sound delicious. We’re a restaurant in America; we’re cooking modern American food—tasty contemporary food.” Besides, the term molecular gastronomy was “coined by scientists to explain the work that scientists were doing. I’m not a scientist,” he says. “This style of cooking is just an ongoing part of my culinary education.”
Moto: Chef Homaro Cantu
While WD-50 relies more on food science ingredients, another well-known molecular cooking establishment focuses almost exclusively on technology. Nestled in the trendy meat-packing district of Chicago, Ill., is Moto, a restaurant offering a truly futuristic dining experience. Chef/owner Homaro Cantu is a trailblazer, pushing the boundaries of modern cuisine by cooking with high-tech apparatuses. Renowned for its edible menus, Moto is the laboratory where Chef Cantu explores new technologies that radically transform food into multisensory cuisine.
The food at Moto may seem ostentatious, but ostentation is not Chef Cantu’s purpose for experimenting with unconventional food preparation. His interest in science began in high school; more specifically, science is what kept him out of the principal’s office. His love of science combined with his love for the planet inspired him to use technology in the kitchen. “We generally stay away from industrial chemicals. We like to keep things natural and use technology to its fullest to alter the way things look or taste. I always opt to go with a natural organic ingredient and just make it look different,” he says. His personal experience with a scarcity of food informs his rationale: “What are we using today that, if we just didn’t have [it], would prohibit us from having a meal tonight?” Chef Cantu believes that conventional agricultural practices are simply not sustainable. Of the primary nutrients necessary to sustain plant life—phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium—one is at serious risk of depletion. “There are five mines around the world where we can extract phosphorus. And we have roughly about 73 to 80 years worth left. The sad reality is that not even companies like Monsanto have one single genetic patent on any plant life that can exist without phosphorus.”
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In addition, conventional agriculture and traditional cooking rely on confined animal feeding operations, heavy industrial equipment, fossil fuels, and gas burners—all of which contribute to global warming. To preserve the planet and increase sustainability, Chef Cantu has acquired an impressive array of technology in Moto’s kitchen: a sonifier, a large-capacity centrifuge, two vacuum ovens, a modified inkjet printer, liquid nitrogen, and so on. “In order to really be creative with food, you have to have creative equipment,” he says, yet Moto’s undeniably hi-tech kitchen is also green. “This restaurant is a great way to get people’s attention. The only true sustainable way of eating is through permaculture, and we’re working on some projects that will hit the mainstream really soon here that will be a disruptive food technology. We have to start thinking radically outside the box as to what a cheeseburger is and how we go about getting it. If I give you a cheeseburger that’s made from the stuff that cows eat rather than using a cow ... why not eliminate the cow from the equation?” he wonders. Consequently, the sonifier at Moto is used to split food cells so that they can be manipulated and reformed into something else. “[These] technologies are above and beyond what we can do with a conventional stove. I want a type of cuisine that’s going to be around for the next 300 or 400 years,” he says.
Certainly, Moto’s signature course—an edible menu—is about as green as it gets. “We’ve been serving edible menus here for five years,” says Chef Cantu. “If you think about it, an edible menu is probably the greenest menu on the planet: There’s no paper; you eat it; it’s digestible.” Another visually interesting course on Moto’s menu is the Cuban cigar. Through the wonders of the technology in Moto’s kitchen, a Cuban pork sandwich is shaped to resemble a cigar and then covered with collard greens to form the cigar wrapper. Chef Cantu and his staff then utilize a proprietary technique to grind spices that flavor the pork until they look like cigar ashes. The entrée is served in an ashtray, and even though it looks like a Cuban cigar, it tastes like a Cuban pork sandwich.
Chef Cantu is not solely concerned with dazzling the patrons of his restaurant with visually unique food; he has also been working on projects to address food shortages. “For five years I’ve been working on something to stamp out world hunger. The problem with starvation is not that there isn’t enough food; it’s that we haven’t defined what food is,” he says. Chef Cantu plans to use miracle fruit, a berry indigenous to West Africa, to expand the definition of what constitutes food. “And that’s the whole point of what we do here. A lot of people think that this whole molecular gastronomy thing is a gimmick, and in most places it is. But here we have a purpose, and that purpose is longevity and sustainability.”
The Food Science Paradox
So perhaps blending science and technology with food is not as problematic as critics of processed food suggest. Maybe the problem lies not in the combination but in the application. As Dufresne, Cantu, Adriá, and Blumenthal demonstrate, the pre-packaged food on supermarket shelves is not the only manifestation of food science and technology. Molecular cooking may well be the solution to science, technology, and food co-existing happily ever after—just not in mass-produced quantity.
by Toni Tarver is Senior Writer/Editor for Food Technology magazine ([email protected]).
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