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Trends and Philosophy in Molecular Gastronomy


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So I usually don't post my stuff here unless I find it applicable to any sort of recent discussion. Being that molecular stuff is all the rage these days, here's a piece I recently wrote. It's pretty basic--so for those of you that are interested in but dont know much about a few of the new-ish applications I recommend giving this a read--but I think the insights from from Chefs Dufresne and Goldfarb are particularly interesting.

An excerpt:

Dufresne, who has popularized items like Activa-infused pure-shrimp noodles and pasta sheets, said he sees applications beyond the shocking and readily apparent.

"Things like shrimp sheets and shrimp noodles are obvious because they don't immediately correlate to anything or don't immediately made sense when you think of shrimp," Dufresne said. "[Activa] sees its way all over the menu, from a sausage with no casing or a cake of skate [a type of fish] to short ribs beings sliced and rolled up."

And of course I mention eG:

Online food forums like eGullet.org host discussions where serious cooks share their experiences and experiments when cooking far outside of the box.
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Nice article, Bryan. The only thing I might have added was a mention of the European roots of the movement, but then I have been sensitized by the discussion on food, influences and plagiarism. Nevertheless the discussion from some of my favorites like Wylie and Will was well done with very nice quotes. I especially likeed Wylie's comments about working in the present and not the future - an interesting perspective on what to many appears to be futuristic cuisine. The future is now.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Call me a Luddite if you will, or as I prefer, call me a curmudgeon, but when it comes to "molecular stuff" I can only call to mind the words of Percy Bysshe Shelly:

"I met a traveller from antique land

Who said" Two vast and trukless legs of stone

Stand in the dessert.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

Nothing besides remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away"

Or, perhaps shorter, sweeter and more to the point:"This too shall pass"

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Nice article Brian, I especially like how you got commentary from people in the commercial food industry and from some of the companies that make things like transglutaminase.

If this stuff interests you, you might be interested in some whole boneless fish.. :smile:

"At the gate, I said goodnight to the fortune teller... the carnival sign threw colored shadows on her face... but I could tell she was blushing." - B.McMahan

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Daniel:

I'm not sure it will pass. To be sure it won't be the fad of the moment, but I think the way of expecting leading chefs to deeply understand the physical and chemical basis of what they do is here to stay, a well as some of the techniques that result, such as long time low temperature cooking. We may not have anti-griddles blowing liquid nitrogen, but I suspect sous vide, as a technique, will be with us for a while for some preparations.

In this its no different to any other culinary fad. Escoffier was a giant of his time, and his influence is still felt today; Nouvelle cuisine lightened sauces, and has left a lasting influence. In just the same way the MG movement will leave its influence.

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I did not know about the boneless fish. I surprised the people at Ajinomoto never mentioned it to me. Since I was speaking with their US offices it could be that they only mentioned applications currently being used in this country.

I had wanted to get more technical and give some more history, but it was already quite long. The copy editing process also led to me dumbing it down some since the material is already somewhat abstract for non-foodies.

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I had wanted to get more technical and give some more history, but it was already quite long.  The copy editing process also led to me dumbing it down some since the material is already somewhat abstract for non-foodies.

Great article Bryan. I would be very curious to hear what kind of reaction you are getting from the teacher and student body. It's unfortunate you had to dumb it down especially given the academic environment.

Arley Sasson

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Call me a Luddite if you will, or as I prefer, call me a curmudgeon, but when it comes to "molecular stuff" I can only call to mind the words of Percy Bysshe Shelly:

"I met a traveller from antique land

Who said" Two vast and trukless legs of stone

Stand in the dessert.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

Nothing besides remains.  Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away"

Or, perhaps shorter, sweeter and more to the point:"This too shall pass"

trying to understand basic processes of food has always been, and will continue to always be the center of producing it, and therefore its consumption.

newspaper headlines come and go

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I had wanted to get more technical and give some more history, but it was already quite long.  The copy editing process also led to me dumbing it down some since the material is already somewhat abstract for non-foodies.

Great article Bryan. I would be very curious to hear what kind of reaction you are getting from the teacher and student body. It's unfortunate you had to dumb it down especially given the academic environment.

In general I was pleased that I was allowed to illuminate this topic for people who probably would have remained completely in the dark otherwise. The fact that there is so much to say hurt the flow of the story. I find that it doesn't read as smoothly as I would have liked due in part to the simplifcation that ultimately occured in the copy editing process and because I had to include basic science, applications, philosophy, and a counterpoint within the space allotted. If I did it again I would like to make a multi-part series where I could focus on the distinctive aspects in this sector of culinary devlopment.

Response has generally been positive. People are fascinated by this stuff, especially down here in North Carolina, since no one is cooking in this fashion. People wonder I hear about this kind of cooking. On a related note, my interactions with most chefs in this area have repeatedly unearthed a unmistkable skepticism. Even basic processes like sous vide are not practiced in this area at all. They tend to align themselves with the SLOW food movement and are reluctant to truly push the envelope. In my opinion, however, the principles of the SLOW food movement aren't mutually exclusive from forward-thinking cooking. As akwa states, molecular gastronomy is only one more way to better understand the fundamental processes we use in culinary arts.

Edited by BryanZ (log)
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On a related note, my interactions with most chefs in this area have repeatedly unearthed a unmistkable skepticism.  Even basic processes like sous vide are not practiced in this area at all.  They tend to align themselves with the SLOW food movement and are reluctant to truly push the envelope.  In my opinion, however, the principles of the SLOW food movement aren't mutually exclusive from forward-thinking cooking.  As akwa states, molecular gastronomy is only one more way to better understand the fundamental processes we use in culinary arts.

I completely agree with your and akwa's points. I don't think you need to create "thought-provoking" food that might shock some, to apply some principles that are being brought out by the molecular gastronomy movement. It is almost inevitable for people to associate molecular gastronomy with the more modern, innovative cuisine of elBulli, Fat Duck and WD50.

I am pretty sure that you are not surprised by this skepticism from local chefs. How do you think a more avant-guarde restaurant would do locally? I would be surprised if it would generate enough interest. I think it has a difficult enough time generating interest in a place like NY. Recall our discussions about the restaurant "Venue" and its location in NJ. How do you think Venue would do over where you are?

Arley Sasson

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I am pretty sure that you are not surprised by this skepticism from local chefs. How do you think a more avant-guarde restaurant would do locally? I would be surprised if it would generate enough interest. I think it has a difficult enough time generating interest in a place like NY. Recall our discussions about the restaurant "Venue" and its location in NJ. How do you think Venue would do over where you are?

A place like Venue would likely not survive down here. Still, I would like to see compromise between modern techniques and more traditional approaches or flavors. It's not so much that I think there should be restaurants in the vein of wd~50 across the nation, but I would like to see more open-mindedness from local, talented chefs.

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  • 8 months later...

Although some may not think that MG will last, I prefer to use it in as a showcase on my menu. I am planning to use it in a tapas style application with the rollout of my new menu in January. Although you may think MG may not last, why can't we flex our culinary muscle and represent with a fusion of science and food? It's exciting to see something new on the forefront of culunary advancement. Embrace it! (Although Hervé This and Nicholas Kurti have known since 1969)

Executive Chef

The Villa

Alpharetta, Georgia

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Call me a Luddite if you will, or as I prefer, call me a curmudgeon, but when it comes to "molecular stuff" I can only call to mind the words of Percy Bysshe Shelly:

"I met a traveller from antique land

Who said" Two vast and trukless legs of stone

Stand in the dessert.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

Nothing besides remains.  Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away"

Or, perhaps shorter, sweeter and more to the point:"This too shall pass"

Agreed. I'd rather be eating 'real' food than a bunch of liquids gelled with chemicals usually reserved for the science lab...

The most satisfying dishes I've had in my life were the simplest - lamb saddle cooked in butter with thyme and bay leaf, basted with the cooking fat the entire time, or a simple pomme purée.

I've cooked alot of molecular gastronomy type dishes in restaurants, and while it's great fun, it really isn't cooking. And unfortunately, I don't find those dishes nearly as satisfying as more 'traditional'-type dishes.

Seems most restaurants these days go for smoke and mirrors, and forget about taste and pleasure.

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Isn't it inevitable that progess, and innovation will continue? At some point in history, there was the first person who looked at a lobster, and said "let's eat it". Now I'm sure there were a lot of people then with similar "let's just stick to the fish" attitudes. Haven't we all benefited from these "space age" techniques? Personally the SUPRÊME DE PIGEON CUIT SOUS VIDE at Per Se was worth allowing the stretching of boundaries to include sous vide cooking.

If we didn't have culinary exploration we'd still be cooking over campfires with sharp sticks

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If we didn't have culinary exploration we'd still be cooking over campfires with sharp sticks

Or eating raw food... wait, wasn't that a big thing a few years ago?

I agree, Adria once said that there IS room for innovation in the kitchen, otherwise, there would be no classical dishes. Somebody had to make the first tortilla, and it remained as such until he "deconstructed" it.

And Bryan, that was a really good article. Would you mind me trying to translate it and posting it on my blog? (With due credits, of course)

Follow me @chefcgarcia

Fábula, my restaurant in Santiago, Chile

My Blog, en Español

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Isn't it inevitable that progess, and innovation will continue? At some point in history, there was the first person who looked at a lobster, and said "let's eat it". Now I'm sure there were a lot of people then with similar "let's just stick to the fish" attitudes. Haven't we all benefited from these "space age" techniques? Personally the SUPRÊME DE PIGEON CUIT SOUS VIDE at Per Se was worth allowing the stretching of boundaries to include sous vide cooking.

If we didn't have culinary exploration we'd still be cooking over campfires with sharp sticks

Space age techniques? Sous vide is nothing more than braising in a small, enclosed vessel... Yes it's a handy cooking technique, but it is nothing more than the evolution of old techniques, made more convenient.

Cooking over a campfire with sharp sticks? We still do that, it's called grilling or roasting. Cooking in a pan isn't much different than cooking on a hot rock over a fire... Ovens? They've been around for thousands of years... Bread, wine, sauce - all these concepts have been around for thousands of years...

I'm definitely not against using new techniques - I use sous-vide cooking often, I make crème chantilly-type stuff without actually using any cream, I've made foams, I'm familiar with the whole range of stabilisers, emulsifiers, gels, etc... and I'm much more familiar with molecular gastronomy than most other professionals, let alone amateurs... (BTW, I'm a professional myself)

But I don't make food to shock people, I just make the absolute best food I can. I don't use a technique for the sake of it, I use the technique I think best suits the ingredient. I've known cooks who have worked at places like WD-50, and walked away very unimpressed... Using a technique just for the sake of it, or creativity for it's own sake, is absolutely worthless...

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Space age techniques?  Sous vide is nothing more than braising in a small, enclosed vessel...  Yes it's a handy cooking technique, but it is nothing more than the evolution of old techniques, made more convenient. 

No, sous vide is not just braising in a small pot. Sous vide is poaching something at sub-boiling temperatures in a fully airtight vessel which does not allow for the escape of aromatic gasses which produces a chemically and physically different product.

PS: I am a guy.

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actually the advent of sousvide cooking closely mirrors the timeline of space exploration

i dont think space age connotes anything other than timing

but these are hairsplitting

there is one good reason to support "advanced" techniques with bad results,

it can contribute to the learning curve

THERE Is NO REASON TO SUPPORT "traditional" cooking with bad results

Isn't it inevitable that progess, and innovation will continue? At some point in history, there was the first person who looked at a lobster, and said "let's eat it". Now I'm sure there were a lot of people then with similar "let's just stick to the fish" attitudes. Haven't we all benefited from these "space age" techniques? Personally the SUPRÊME DE PIGEON CUIT SOUS VIDE at Per Se was worth allowing the stretching of boundaries to include sous vide cooking.

If we didn't have culinary exploration we'd still be cooking over campfires with sharp sticks

Space age techniques? Sous vide is nothing more than braising in a small, enclosed vessel... Yes it's a handy cooking technique, but it is nothing more than the evolution of old techniques, made more convenient.

Cooking over a campfire with sharp sticks? We still do that, it's called grilling or roasting. Cooking in a pan isn't much different than cooking on a hot rock over a fire... Ovens? They've been around for thousands of years... Bread, wine, sauce - all these concepts have been around for thousands of years...

I'm definitely not against using new techniques - I use sous-vide cooking often, I make crème chantilly-type stuff without actually using any cream, I've made foams, I'm familiar with the whole range of stabilisers, emulsifiers, gels, etc... and I'm much more familiar with molecular gastronomy than most other professionals, let alone amateurs... (BTW, I'm a professional myself)

But I don't make food to shock people, I just make the absolute best food I can. I don't use a technique for the sake of it, I use the technique I think best suits the ingredient. I've known cooks who have worked at places like WD-50, and walked away very unimpressed... Using a technique just for the sake of it, or creativity for it's own sake, is absolutely worthless...

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Space age techniques?  Sous vide is nothing more than braising in a small, enclosed vessel...  Yes it's a handy cooking technique, but it is nothing more than the evolution of old techniques, made more convenient. 

No, sous vide is not just braising in a small pot. Sous vide is poaching something at sub-boiling temperatures in a fully airtight vessel which does not allow for the escape of aromatic gasses which produces a chemically and physically different product.

Chemically and physically different? Yes, and a cut carrot is physically different from a whole carrot. A medium rare roast is chemically and physically different from a well-done roast. Anytime you alter food in any way you're changing it's physical or chemical make-up. This is a moot point...

And yes, sous-vide is the same idea as braising. In both cases the product is being cooked in hot water for an extended period of time. Sous-vide's advantage is that air does not take any space in the cooking vessel, and you can mold your cooking vessel around the product. Sous-vide is to braising, as copper pans and gas burners are to sautéeing...

I love sous-vide cooking, use it all the time at work, but it's really nothing revolutionary.

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actually the advent of sousvide cooking closely mirrors the timeline of space exploration

i dont think space age connotes anything other than timing

but these are hairsplitting

there is one good reason to support "advanced" techniques with bad results,

it can contribute to the learning curve

THERE Is NO REASON TO SUPPORT "traditional" cooking with bad results

If something produces a bad result, how can it be a good technique? As my first Chef said, "Shit makes shit." I'll use any technique that will give me a good result, regardless of whether it's traditional or new.

BTW, theres nothing I see in molecular gastronomy that hasn't already been done in commercial applications... The only difference is the aesthetics of the end result.

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BTW, theres nothing I see in molecular gastronomy that hasn't already been done in commercial applications...  The only difference is the aesthetics of the end result.

Unfortunately, many people can't see this fact. And are put off irrationally because of this.

I know all of this has been said before, so I've been reluctant to add to this thread since its rekindling, but I would like to add the following in the spirit of the "philosophy" aspect of its title.

While I agree with you fundamentally, Mikeb19, I think that you're not adequately acknowledging that aesthetic facet. The compounds and techniques popularly ascribed to MG do not define MG. This too is a common misconception. MG is more a way of thinking about food than the realization of said techniques. MG is about changing/challenging perceptions and understanding food on a more complete level, and in this way cannot be so simply reduced to a "haute application of industrio-commercial compounds and techniques."

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BTW, theres nothing I see in molecular gastronomy that hasn't already been done in commercial applications...  The only difference is the aesthetics of the end result.

Unfortunately, many people can't see this fact. And are put off irrationally because of this.

I know all of this has been said before, so I've been reluctant to add to this thread since its rekindling, but I would like to add the following in the spirit of the "philosophy" aspect of its title.

While I agree with you fundamentally, Mikeb19, I think that you're not adequately acknowledging that aesthetic facet. The compounds and techniques popularly ascribed to MG do not define MG. This too is a common misconception. MG is more a way of thinking about food than the realization of said techniques. MG is about changing/challenging perceptions and understanding food on a more complete level, and in this way cannot be so simply reduced to a "haute application of industrio-commercial compounds and techniques."

It's not irrational. People eat, and pay for, what they want to eat. So if molecular gastronomy goes out of fashion - hardly difficult to conceive - it will simply shrivel up and disappear; to put it crudely, because there's no longer money in it. The main thing going for it at the moment, speaking from the customer's end of things, is image. At a guess, I'd say it will not be terribly long before the phrase "molecular gastronomy" becomes commercial poison, and it will be interesting then to see how many chefs still want to be associated with the name.

Edited by Ohba (log)
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Chemically and physically different?  Yes, and a cut carrot is physically different from a whole carrot.  A medium rare roast is chemically and physically different from a well-done roast.  Anytime you alter food in any way you're changing it's physical or chemical make-up.  This is a moot point...

And yes, sous-vide is the same idea as braising.  In both cases the product is being cooked in hot water for an extended period of time.  Sous-vide's advantage is that air does not take any space in the cooking vessel, and you can mold your cooking vessel around the product.  Sous-vide is to braising, as copper pans and gas burners are to sautéeing... 

I love sous-vide cooking, use it all the time at work, but it's really nothing revolutionary.

You seem to be misunderstanding one of the main benifits of sous vide cooking which is that it allows you to cook things for extended periods of time at sub-boiling temperatures. If you're doing sous vide solely at boiling temps, then it's exactly the same as airless braising but thats not the point of sous vide.

PS: I am a guy.

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You seem to be misunderstanding one of the main benifits of sous vide cooking which is that it allows you to cook things for extended periods of time at sub-boiling temperatures. If you're doing sous vide solely at boiling temps, then it's exactly the same as airless braising but thats not the point of sous vide.

I don't know about you, but when I make a braise, stew, etc..., I don't cook it at 100 degrees Celcius... Heck, I don't even cook carrots in 100 degree water. Obviously you don't understand the technique.

Also, I know all the benefits of sous-vide cooking. I only use a cryovac machine every single day of my life, and I've only cooked food sous-vide many hundred times in a professional kitchen environment.... We've cooked meats, fish, poultry, sauces (very cool way to make sauces BTW, no need to reduce it as much, since you use less liquid initially), vegetables, fruits, etc... sous-vide. The chefs I trained under, themselves trained in 2 and 3 Michelin star restaurants across Europe, they were using sous-vide cooking before most had ever even heard the word used in North America.

You'll always hear that cooking is about knowing the fundamentals. Can't stress that enough. Whether you're roasting a filet in a pan, braising, cooking sous-vide, barbequeing, etc..., you always want to know what the water in your food is doing. Memorizing a dozen or more techniques is useless, categorizing them is equally useless, all you need to know is the basics, what the molecules in your food are doing. And yes, sous-vide is the same fundamental principle as braising, just a different cooking vessel.

Edited by Mikeb19 (log)
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