Published in: October 2006 Features > Molecular Movement (Page 2 / 4)

The Dawn Of A New Age

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While it was only in the past decade that superstar chefs like Adria and Blumenthal elevated molecular cuisine to cult status, its roots trace back to the 1960s. The person most widely acknowledged as the father of molecular gastronomy, Oxford University professor Nicholas Kurti (1908 – 1998), was a physicist who saw cookery as an overlooked science. In his words, "I think it is a sad reflection on our civilisation that while we can ad do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus, we do not know what goes on inside our souffles." (1969) He wanted to exact the science of cooking, to give an explanation to the many wonderous transformations performed by the chef: the miracle of the souffle, the magic of the meringue, the changing character of chocolate, the temperaments of water and fire... the ways of kitchen.

The passionate professor was later joined by French chemist Herve This and American food writer Harold McGee. Together, the trio started the International Workshop on Molecular Gastronomy in 1992—a biennial symposium which acts as the meeting grounds for Michelin-starred chefs and scientists. While the symposium was an effective vehicle for promoting the development of molecular cooking within the trade, This took to collaborating with chefs such as Michelin three-star chef Pierre Gagnier to bring the fruits of the chefs and scientists' labour to the dining table.

Soon, surprised diners, too long jaded by conventional cooking, were asking for more. This spurred chefs and scientists already excited by the discovery of a new realm, to delve deeper into the world of molecular cooking. Before we knew it, what was a minority movement soon became a revolution.

Armed with new-found knowledge about cooking techniques and ingredients, molecular-enthusiasts begin progress from uncovering the reasons behind old truths to forge new grounds. Using existing scientific techniques for research chefs now understand how the physical and physio-chemical properties of water can alter the taste and texture of foods—leading to the discovery of new food preservation methods. They are exacting temperature control and finding the impact of heat on water absorption, fats oxidisation, the binding of cells... all leading to new ways of treating ingredients.

Research on a molecular level also allow chefs to look at the "organoleptic" qualities of plants—the vitamin and mineral components that allow our senses to recognise aromas and flavours as we do, and define and dissect "taste" as we know it. This in turn accelerates the understanding of the science behind flavour pairings—and thus chefs can now go on to explore novel flavour combinations. The result: unlikely, but surprisingly successful couplings such as white chocolate and caviar (at Fat Duck).

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Using existing scientific techniques for research chefs now understand how the physical and physio-chemical properties of water can alter the taste and texture of foods—leading to the discovery of new food preservation methods. They are exacting temperature control and finding the impact of heat on water absorption, fats oxidisation, the binding of cells... all leading to new ways of treating ingredients. Research on a molecular level also allow chefs to look at the "organoleptic" qualities of plants—the vitamin and mineral components that allow our senses to recognise aromas and flavours as we do, and define and dissect "taste" as we know it. This in turn accelerates the understanding of the science behind flavour pairings—and thus chefs can now go on to explore novel flavour combinations. The result: unlikely, but surprisingly successful couplings such as white chocolate and caviar (at Fat Duck) and the perennial favourite of salted butter caramel seen in just about any self-respecting Michelin three star restaurant today.

Using existing tools that were used in other industries, new textures are also created. Using laboratory standard water purification systems to generate de-ionised water for retaining the colour and texture of fresh greens and creating gels with a liquid-like consistency. With the help of cutting edge technology, they are extracting gelling agents from seaweeds and bacteria, creating "clouds" of flavour, leather sheets of milk, savoury sweets, non-sweet sugars... As Chef de Cuisine Paul Pairet of the avant-garde Jade on 36 Restaurant and Bar in Pudong Shangri-La, Shanghai, observes, "one big thing about this movement is that we now have a whole new spectrum of textures, broader than ever before."

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Emmanuel Strobant Of Saint Pierre

For chef-owner Emmanuel Stroobant of Saint Pierre The Restaurant in Singapore, looking at food from a scientific point of view not only inspired him to explore new techniques, but to also look at a forgotten aspect of food: the psychological perception of food. The 38 year-old chef who designed a degustation dinner named "Molecular Cuisine" at the 2006 World Gourmet Summit held in Singapore in May 2006 explains, "We are looking at colour-food recognition link: how the brain determines the taste of food first with you eyes. For example, if you tint a glass of a pineapple juice, your brain will prep the palate for the taste of a range of red fruit juices—you might thus not be able to determine that it is a pineapple juice. That was what happened two years ago in Burgundy, when a panel of specialists rated a chardonnay (coloured red) as a pinot noir!"

With this in mind, chefs are now injecting a new kind of enjoyment into eating—the enjoyment of being surprised. Thus you have playful dishes of ice creams that taste like tobacco; herb and salt-scented quail eggs wrapped in a caramel shell. Even Chef Pairet, who states decidedly that he is not part of the big molecular cuisine movement—but simply avant garde cuisine crusader—has a range of "look alike"s playing on the same colour-food recognition principle: a "breakfast" of duck a l'orange sunny side-up where the egg yolk is really a orange alginate. "There are many verbs one can use to describe a good dish—and 'surprising' is one of them."

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