Would you eat cockles coated with white chocolate? Or garlic and coffee creme brulée? Or dark chocolate petit fours infused with pipe tobacco? These are among the odd-sounding food combinations that have been tried by chefs experimenting with a scientific approach to cooking and food preparation called molecular gastronomy, a half-hearted coinage that encompasses, most famously, the cooking of Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck and Ferran Adria at El Bulli, in which the ancient truisms of the kitchen are overturned and replaced by scientific principles, flavours are abstracted, rules broken, bacon and eggs turned into ice-cream, chocolates flavoured with tobacco and fillets of beef steamed for 48 hours in the armpits of retired sumo champions.
Molecular gastronomy is also called “deconstruction food” and whether fad or food genius, it’s based on the notion of fooling around with the elements of a traditional dish, challenging palates with altered textures, structures and taste combinations. Soups become sorbets, solids become foam, lollies can be savoury and vegetables desserts.
The term "molecular gastronomy" was coined in 1992 by Nicholas Kurti, an Oxford physicist and gourmet who discovered how to make meringue in a vacuum pump. He founded the biannual cooking conferences at the Ettore Majorana in Sicily, where elite chefs and scientists meet to discuss the physics and chemistry of cooking.
From this comes the interest in applying the techniques of food scientists to fine dining - drying, liquefying, gassing, freezing and generally transforming ingredients into surprising new forms and textures while maintaining the flavours. Early converts include French three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire, who added scallops with liquorice milk to his menu in 1991.
During the mid-1990s, at El Bulli in Spain, chef Ferran Adria started introducing foams and apple caviars and hot jellied strips of "pasta" made from agar-agar. The cult of El Bulli began, and foams started to appear on menus all over the world.
Fat Duck chef Heston Blumenthal works with specialists such as the physicist Peter Barham to test various factors in food preparation, for example, how changes in technique alter the texture of a food or what happens when you cook meat at a much lower temperature than usual. The term, for which a more appetising alternative could surely have been found, actually goes back to the 1980s, having been coined by the French scientist Hervé This.
Molecular gastronomy applies the principles of chemistry and physics to cooking - by examining how foods react to different cooking methods and which foods combine well on a chemical level chefs are able to experiment with new food combinations and methods to create unusual menus with stunning results.
The 3 world-renowned molecular gastronomy chefs are:
- Ferran Adria, chef at El Bulli near Barcelona, Spain. Any self-respecting foodie would dream of making the pilgrimage to his altar, until early 2010 when Ferran announced he was closing the restaurant in 2012 and turning it into a cooking school and think-tank. The cult restaurant just seats 50 people and is only open from 1st April to 30th September. The phone-lines open for bookings on 20th January and by the end of the day every seat in the house is booked up for the full 6 months. The 32-course, 250E tasting menu may have included some of these fascinating dishes:
- Codfish foam with sea-urchin mousse
- Monkfish liver with tomato seeds
- Warm chocolate fondant with peanut ice-cream and artichoke caramel
- Parmesan ice-cream sandwich
- Heston Blumenthal, chef at Fat Duck in Berkshire, UK, is a self-taught chef who picked up his professional chef's hat only 9 years ago. Since then he has received his 3 Michelin stars in record time making the Fat Duck one of only 3 restaurants in the UK to have 3 Michelin stars. In 1986 he picked up a book called On Food and Cooking by the American writer Harold McGee which took a scientific look at cooking - why meat browns, why you get jelly if you boil bones in stock etc. Blumenthal loved this approach to cooking and began to use the scientific reason behind the results to feed his creation of new dishes. Amongst other experiments he now has a lab with a 'multi-sensory tasting room' to investigate the effect sound has on our ability to eat - eating a banana whilst hearing a crunching sound is tricky as our mind tells us that there's likely to be something hard in the banana and makes it difficult to bite together.
- Snail porridge
- Yeast soup with cinnamon and lemon ice-cream
- Salmon poached with liquorice
- Smoked bacon and egg ice-cream
- Sardine on toast sorbet
- Anthony Flinn, chef at Anthony's in Leeds, UK, fell under the culinary spell after a cookery lesson in Primary School School and having won every prize going at catering school he followed his girlfriend to Spain where he became the first salaried British chef to be taken on by Adria at El Bulli. He worked at El Bulli for 2 years before returning to the UK and setting up Anthony's in Leeds with his father as Business Director, his sister as Front of House Manager, his girlfriend as Restaurant Director and himself as the chef extraordinaire. At the tender age of 24 he now commands the utmost respect from the world's greatest chefs and critics for his imaginative, experimental and delectable menu. Book immediately and prepare your tastebuds for the roller-coaster ride of their lives.
- Langoustine with fennel tea poured from a pot
- Risotto of White Onion
- Espresso with Parmesan Air
- Duck breast with olive oil chocolate bonbon
- Fig and black olive tatin with brie ice-cream