Over the past two decades, the number of chefs adopting “modernist” cooking techniques has skyrocketed, creating a global community that includes a great number of noted chefs. Within the food world, the movement began as a way to push the boundaries of traditional cooking; while most modernist techniques are based off of classical French techniques, new culinary advances have allowed chefs to ameliorate the dining experience. Working parallel to these forward-thinking chefs is a handful of scientists who practice what is known as molecular gastronomy. By offering a better understanding as to how food and cooking function, molecular gastronomy is changing how we eat and what we eat—and in doing so, it presents innovative and more beneficial ways to consume food.
Before delving into the specifics of molecular gastronomy, it is important to understand the basics of taste and flavor. First of all, taste and flavor are not the same sensations. Taste is restricted to the mouth. Receptors on our tongue detect five distinct tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.1 It is also thought that there may be other tastes that our tongue can detect— fat may be the sixth taste. And to be clear, there is no such thing as a tongue map in which certain regions of the tongue detect certain tastes; all tastes are perceived all over, not just in isolated areas.5
Flavor, on the other hand, is what we really think of when we eat. Flavor includes aromas and oral sensations, in addition to the different tastes. Our nose can detect thousands of aromas, while our tongue can only detect a handful of tastes.1 The perception of flavor can also be influenced by sight and sounds—which has caused many top chefs to consult with psychologists so that they can maximize the pleasure diners receive from eating. With this new knowledge on flavor perception, chefs have begun to apply it to their cooking. But this is only a recent development.
Almost four decades ago, Nicholas Kurti, a low-temperature physicist at Oxford University, was conducting groundbreaking work on what would come to be known as molecular gastronomy. He, along with Hervé This—a French physical chemist—became the fathers of molecular gastronomy.3 However, the application of science to cooking dates back centuries. Even Lavoisier studied the process of stock preparation by measuring density to evaluate the quality of a stock.4 However, Kurti and This were more interested in the science of the processes of cooking. Cooking is an incredibly traditional practice: some techniques date back centuries. Unsurprisingly, not all of these techniques are scientifically accurate. Perhaps even more interesting are those that do, in fact, improve cooking processes. Some years ago, Hervé This was preparing a cheese soufflé, and the recipe called for adding the egg yolks two at a time. Being the rational, albeit somewhat impatient scientist that he was, he added all of them at once; the soufflé collapsed. Thus began the quest for an explanation, and in the process, a new branch of science was born.4
Currently, there are a wide variety of chefs who use techniques based on the concepts of molecular gastronomy. However, these chefs are not molecular gastronomists. In fact, calling any of these progressive chefs—Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal or Thomas Keller, to name a few—molecular gastronomists would be insulting. They are chefs, not scientists, and, in their own words, “the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ does not describe our cooking, or indeed any style of cooking.”2 These new chefs, “do not pursue novelty for its own sake. We may use…nontraditional means, but these do not define our cooking.”2 Chefs are motivated to achieve excellence, and in this pursuit, adopting new cooking styles is necessary for the progression of culinary arts. The nineteenth century French food philosopher Jean Brillat-Savarin captured this sentiment perfectly, writing that, “the discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.”2
The resulting new dishes have garnered much praise, thanks to the creativity of these chefs that are always looking for new flavor and texture combinations—pork confit with cotton candy, coffee, and lime cream comes to mind. It is becoming increasingly more common to find restaurants that use foams, gels, spheres, or liquid nitrogen with dishes on their menu. New textures and techniques allow for greater surprises and flavors, which in the end opens the eyes of diners and aspiring chefs alike.
Not surprisingly, there has been some criticism of this progressive style of cooking. Much of it stems from the premise that modernist cooking is synonymous with molecular gastronomy. This notion, however, is incorrect. Molecular gastronomy is a science, while cooking is simply the application of this science. More accurately put, molecular gastronomy seeks to merely explain cooking techniques—not dictate the cooking style of chefs.
Innovation in the culinary world is an exciting frontier—in the words of Ferran Adria, “Could you imagine people eating a painting — if they could introduce a painting into their bodies? It’s probably the artist’s dream, and we have the opportunity to do so.”6 This sums up what this progressive style of cooking seeks to accomplish: to make cooking an art in its very form. It seeks to make a dish not only visually stunning and sublimely delicious, but also to evoke emotions and change the diner’s perspective.
Looking at the big picture, there are many more applications of molecular gastronomy than just cooking. For one, it can be used to create better diets for people with certain dietary needs. For example, a person with celiac can enjoy a béchamel sauce by substituting xantham gum for the roux. Furthermore, it opens new avenues for sustainability. Shark fin soup, for instance, is fairly common in the Pacific and on the west coast. It consists of cooking shark fins in a dashi broth, and when it is finished, the fins break down into gelatinous strands. However, the strands are relatively flavorless. Imagine, instead, making a gel with Agar and slicing it into thin strips, and then putting them in a dashi broth. The integrity of the soup would still hold, and fewer sharks would be killed.
Many organizations, such as The Alicia Foundation and World Central kitchen, promote a greater understanding the integration of science and cooking with the objectives of making food more enjoyable, teaching sustainable habits, and working around special dietary needs. These forward thinking groups are revolutionizing the way we eat and what we eat.
The science of molecular gastronomy is changing the way we see food. While no chef will claim to be a scientist, chefs around the world are utilizing nontraditional techniques to make dining more enjoyable and more exciting. With an increased knowledge of cooking techniques, chefs can more readily accommodate restrictive diets and make them more enjoyable. Furthermore, when applied to environmental practices, it is becoming evident that these new techniques can revolutionize the sustainability aspect of our food culture. Already, many top chefs are beginning to utilize their natural surroundings in their cooking; René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen and Magnus Nilsson of Faviken in Sweden get most of their food from their surroundings. Chefs in top restaurants are prophesizing that vegetables will become more central to cooking as chefs begin to apply their innovative techniques to them. With these new advances, expect chefs to lead the way not only in the kitchen, but also in the world around them.
- Culinary Institute of America. “The Mechanics of Taste.” CIA Prochef. Culinary Institute of America, Web. 8 Dec. 2012.
- Adria, Ferran, et al. “Statement on the ‘New Cookery’.” The Observer. Guardian, 9 Dec. 2006. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.
- Gadsby, Patricia. “Cooking for Eggheads.” Discover. Discover Magazine, 20 Feb. 2006. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.
- This, Hervé. “Food for Tomorrow?: How the Scientific Discipline of Molecular Gastronomy Could Change the Way We Eat.” EMBO Reports. Nature, 2006. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.
- Dowdey, Sarah. “How Taste Works.” How Stuff Works. How Stuff Works, Web. 8 Dec. 2012.
- Adria, Ferran. “Ferran Adrià: What I’ve Learned.” Interview by Cal Fussman. Esquire. Esquire, 16 Dec. 2010. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.
- Image Credit: Charles Haynes. “Mango and Douglas Fir Puree.” Wikimedia Commons. Last Modified August 2008
- Image Credit: Cyclonebill. “A dish from the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen ~”White asparagus with poached egg yolk and sauce of woodruff.” Wikimedia Commons. Last Modified June 2009