After my second week at WD-50, Rosio the pastry sous gave me a green light. She encouraged me to ask Alex questions, many of them, telling me that he wants stagiers to really get something out of there time here. Oh, that was music to my ears.
The next afternoon, while we were all sharing space in the downstairs pastry kitchen I began to freely ask the questions rolling around in my head. One question that just sort of came out, was, “Who else is doing this style of cooking?”
Alex furrowed his brow and looked at me, saying, “What, ‘Molecular Gastronomy?’ I don’t think that’s really the right question.”
“Are you asking who else is buying these ingredients? I don’t know, probably hundreds of people by now, that’s really beside the point.”
He then answered a question I hadn’t quite asked yet. “If you are asking who understands what their ingredients are doing, then the numbers are much smaller, maybe only a handful.”
The question he answered would have been, “What does ‘Molecular Gastronomy’ truly mean?”
Its a question that has been posed to me many, many times, and one that I have given a guarded answer to. The media has grasped this term, and used it freely to describe a new style of cooking emerging in restaurants like El Bulli, WD-50, The Fat Duck, and Alinea. A style of cooking that utilizes ingredients developed for industrial food production, molecular gastronomy meshes scientific research with cooking.
What the media has sent in shock waves across the globe is the futuristic, flashy aspect of the cuisine. Photos and descriptions of the most eye catching dishes, most drastic techniques, and most outlandish new textures have spread through industry rags, and eventually into mainstream magazines and television, leaving us with a skewed understanding.
But much like the Titanic, we are barely seeing the tip of the iceberg that the culinary world is crashing into. The “dog and pony” show, as one Seattle chef called it, is a fraction of what molecular gastronomy truly means.
As Alex put it simply, it means understanding what your ingredients are doing. The chefs at the helm of these modern restaurants are putting their efforts, often with dedicated laboratories, into researching and understanding what their ingredients are doing at a molecular level. They then use that information to build their cuisine in a more creative manner.
Heston Blumenthal will tell you his journey all started with a green bean, and the desire to understand how to blanch it better. His 3 michelin stars will tell you that that desire to better know his ingredients is a key to making superlative food. And his book, Family Food, should tell you that this knowledge has as much a place in the humble setting of your own home as it does in world class kitchens.
Molecular gastronomy can be as simple as understanding how gelatin works. How many chefs work with gelatin to make a solid texture out of a liquid? Almost every one. How many Americans are familiar with gelatin desserts? Hello, Jell-o. How many chefs understand how the protein in gelatin gives their liquids texture? Or an even better question, how many that care? To quote Alex again, “probably only a hand full.”
I was delighted to hear Alex use the gelatin metaphor, because gelatin was one of my first challenges. In my quest to create a panna cotta with the right texture, I began reading as much as I could about gelatin, gaining an understanding of how it works. I applied this information to my panna cotta, working over and over until I was satisfied. By definition then, this simple dessert, my panna cotta is a child of molecular gastronomy, born of a desire to understand what my ingredients were doing.
This molecular gastronomy panna cotta made many appearances on the menu at Eva, a restaurant like so many that is firmly opposed to the modern movement. However, I think if these opponents only knew what molecular gastronomy truly meant, understanding and knowledge, their outcries would be silenced.
It is this deep underside of the iceberg, that of knowledge, that is going to take a lasting hold on cuisine. With a growing amount of research and information available chefs can easily gain this knowledge. Thanks to Harold McGee, a “bible” of scientific information can sit in every kitchen. And with a growing number of professional chefs now coming out of learning institutions, schools that are beginning to offer classes on the whys and hows, this next generation of chefs will be asking different questions.