About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Short & Long History of Molecular Gastronomy
Some things that Heston Blumenthal said about molecular gastronomy, especially the part where he inferred it didn't properly describe his style of cooking, left me thinking about the whole movement. According to Heston, 'It was dreamt up in 1992 by a physicist called Nicholas Kurti who needed a fancy name for the science of cooking so he could get a research institute to pay attention to his work.' Hence the term molecular gastronomy that Heston, Feron Adria and others have had applied to their work as chefs, seemingly against their will.

Now most of us familiar with molecular gastronomy have at least some vague idea about what it actually is - mucking around with food to produce new tastes and textures outside of our everyday notions of what food actually is. To this end, all sorts of kitchen and industrial paraphernalia is employed, as well as a range of chemicals, which have no place in an ordinary household kitchen, and are used to challenge and confront our thoughts about food.

But if you really think about it, 1992 was just the date when the term molecular gastronomy was coined, and describes a style of food that has been the sole province of food technologists for decades. There is really nothing new about the type of work of Blumenthal and Adria, it's just what they are doing is cutting edge. Doubt it? What if Adria took a glass of milk and added a special compound to it and suddenly the milk was transformed into a solid which you then ate. Sound familiar? It ought to, it is how cheese has been made for thousands of years.

In another time, breakfast cereals would have been considered a triumph of molecular gastronomy as well. Someone in 1928, playing around with rice grains in test tubes, caused one of the tubes, which had been heated under vacuum, to implode and when he started to clean up the mess, discovered the very first rice krispies (rice bubbles), which followed up on the heels of the invention of corn flakes and shredded wheat; suddenly all manner of cereals were manufactured in a form completely divorced from their original state, like Fruit Loops and Cocoa Bombs.

Need more evidence? What about chicken flavoured potato chips? Putting chicken flavour on chips is not so far removed from sprinkling cocoa powder over cauliflower risotto, the principle is the same only the ingredients are different. What seems to have happened is that food technologists have merged with chefs to bring about a new movement in cooking, but given all the specialized equipment and materials required, molecular gastronomy seems destined to remain the province of those chefs who like to shock, excite and entertain, who, even if they don't like the name, seemed destined to be always known and remembered by it.
 
  posted at 8:08 am
  12 comments



12 Comments:
At 9:06 pm, Anonymous Duncan | Syrup&Tang said...

Hi Neil. Australia is coming really late to this discussion (with absolutely no disrespect to you meant by this). When you consider how long Robin Wickens and Ray Capaldi have been doing stuff along these lines, it's odd/disappointing that the media is only paying mature attention to it now (the last few months have seen a number of articles in the mainstream press, more than ever before I think... meanwhile [gnashes teeth] a pertinent piece of mine languishes on an editor's desk...].

To be pedantic, 'molecular gastronomy' shouldn't be understood as a style of food, but either an approach or a philosophy. And even then it's a misnomer.

I also feel that, although the technology gets the focus far too often, it's worth acknowledging that *there's a whole pile of stuff using, say, (naturally occurring) gums which doesn't have to use technology, and *the interest in flavours, aromas and textures is a breath of fresh air. Most of these chefs wouldn't claim that they're special, beyond showing a greater open-mindedness about potentials/possibilities than the establishment had been showing for a while.

Cocoa powder on cauliflower risotto fits the movement and uses no technology, but instead an open-mindedness about food that, if successful, is what these chefs are about.

There is something new about what these chefs are doing -- they aren't just transferring food technology apparatus to the restaurant kitchen; in addition to what I mentioned above, they're applying the technology to different contexts or with different intentions (at least some of the time).

I perhaps sound like a fanboy, but in fact have little desire to burn money on the food being served if it's just for the novelty factor, and of course you don't have to look far to see some tag-along chef attempting to apply the technology without understanding that it's about something else.

 
At 12:24 am, Blogger Haalo said...

Dr Peter Barham at the recent event at Fenix told the story of how it all came to be - I much perfer Capaldi's terminology "traderne", a modern approach to traditional food. The "frankenstein" food though is the stuff people always comment on.

 
At 8:43 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi duncan, I guess our far flung colony will always be destined to be a little late with things, in my own case, I wasn't really aware of much until the Robin Wickens controversy erupted, which I wrote a piece about, until then I was only vaguely aware of Adria & co and the work they were doing. I understand what you say about the simpler aspects of molecular gastronomy, such as using naturally occuring gums and combining unusual flavours such as cocoa with cauliflower risotto, but the fact remains that Heston gets on the tube and pulls out a lot of stuff that will never be found in an ordinary kitchen, including things with chemical names, so one really has to look at the package as a whole; a significant part of that is theatre, food as entertainment, that thrills and excites. As to tag along chefs who don't quite grasp the concept or have great palates, every new movement has those, there were quite a lot of ordinary examples of nouvelle cuisine, that in the end tainted the whole name, I fully expect that to happen with molecular gastronomy too. I'm very with you on that editor's desk thing.

Hi haalo, I like that, traderne, a combination of traditional and modern. It really is all in a name too. Blumenthal relates a story of his crab ice cream that didn't sell well until he renamed it frozen crab bisque, guess the jokes on us!

 
At 9:51 am, Blogger MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

That would be Mildred Day working for Kellogg Cereals! Would that be the ruin of us all.

I can't understand cocoa powder over cauliflower risotto . . . if it's not, it should be chemistry not food. . . wait, maybe I shouldn't say that when I haven't tried it. I have found that the mind can't really taste, it really does have to be in the nose and on the tongue.

Very interesting comments you got.

 
At 12:10 pm, Blogger thanh7580 said...

Neil, I think you're right in the sense that "molecular gastronomy" has been around for ages. I guess the modern difference is that chefs are actively trying to find different textures and tastes through chemistry rather than discovering upon it by accident.

The first I heard about molecular gastronomy was the Robin Wickens case as well. It does look like an exciting brand of food and has that wow factor, but if it doesn't taste good, no one will keep doing it. I haven't really tasted any molecular gastronomy dishes so don't know whether it's good or not. Have you had any dishes which you have thought, "Wow, this is better than a traditional roast beef?".

I think when it comes down to it, a friend once said that cooking is just chemistry. It's all about chemical reactions. Molecular gastronomy is just taking it a step further and experimenting with things that you wouldn't normally associate with each other.

Some things out of molecular gastronomy might become norm and all chefs will be doing it in future. Other things will just be forgotten.

Great post, very interesting topic.

 
At 6:48 pm, Anonymous Duncan | Syrup&Tang said...

@neil: I think a disappointing thing about the press coverage is that prior to and then despite the Robin Wickens controversy, the enlightenment didn't happen. We've been fed a 'weird science' view of this all the way along with revisions of this attitude only happening lately really. And yes, Heston and a few others are somewhat hypocritical for the complaints about test-tube clichées when they did so much to use the gizmo-food as a marketing tool. The food bites back :P

 
At 9:07 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi tanna, I know what you mean with all the fat in her snack! Cauliflower risotto is modern but not the only dish where chocolate appears. Chicken with mole sauce is very traditional and contains chocolate and quite a few chefs put a little bit of bitter chocolate in sauces, particularly game sauces, kind of a secret ingredient.

Hi thanh, you've summed that up pretty well, but as Duncan says, it's not all chemistry, some of it is unusual flavour combos. I've had the option to try it, but there is a part of me that likes food the way its always been. In my callow youth I liked to try complicated dishes, but as I've gotten older I prefer to keep things somewhat simpler so that an ingredient tastes of itself. Having said that, I do admire the pure theatre of it and the way it can shock and excite. I'm sure you're right about the best parts of molecular gastronomy being assimilated into mainstream cooking, sous vide, which was first developed in 1974, but is now considered a vital part of molecular gastronomy, is pretty much there now.

Hi duncan, you're dead right, it was only the outright weird things that came to notice and it's taken a while for the background to seep through.

 
At 10:32 am, Blogger Truffle said...

Very interesting discussion you've got going here Neil. I've never thought of it that way but I think you're quite correct. Now it will be interesting to see how long what we currently consider to be the molecular gastronomy trend will be sustained or if it will stop being a trend and become an integral part of food culture.

 
At 9:39 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi truffle, I think it will last so long as it produces the goods, when that stops happening, we'll all move on to something else.

 
At 8:36 pm, Blogger Nitheesh said...

Excellent article - thanks! It seems that you have answered the best related to the Topic with all best example as well... Thanks again for spreading the good work in the Society ...


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