Rethinking molecular gastronomy

by Sarah on March 26, 2011

This post first appeared in Jerusalem Post online
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What in the world are they doing?
That was my first thought when I saw a documentary about molecular gastronomy. These new trend setters of the culinary world appeared to me like a bunch of school kids let loose in an adult world. Instead of a kitchen set, they had scientific equipment; centrifuges, liquid nitrogen, pipettes and mysterious powders from chemical supply warehouses.  Novelty has taken a giant leap in the kitchen from fandangled avocado slicers to weird food inventions out of sci-fi movies. Molecular gastronomists have been at the forefront of this revolution.
I was not a bit impressed. After years working in a science lab, these are the things that I have always associated with large signs saying “Eating and Drinking is Prohibited!” It was the antithesis of what I wanted my kitchen to be. In my mind cooking was about comfort, family and keeping traditions and centrifuges certainly did not belong.
This initial reaction was short lived. I learned that molecular gastronomy does not replace home cooking but is used as a tool to study the chemical and physical process behind it. It is food science for the culinary arts, whether it is fusion cuisine or heirloom recipes.
Molecular gastronomy was started by two physicists, Nicolas Kurti and Hervé This who used scientific methodology where only tradition and old wives tales used to rule, in the home kitchen. It wasn’t long before chefs wanted in on the action. They began using cutting-edge techniques to create novel food sensations that have become synonymous with exclusivity and high end restaurants. It is easy to forget that molecular gastronomy started as a field of scientific exploration, one that strives to surprise and entice the palette as much gain insight on food preparation.
Of course, learning to use molecular gastronomy in cooking is as much a science as an art, one that is of the moment. Like fashion trends (baggy pants and shoulder pads come to mind), some food ideas are best forgotten. Take foam, for example, which is made with chemicals usually associated with junk food ingredient lists; soy lecithin, xanthum gum, methyl cellulose. So much trouble to make something that looks… well, all too much like spit. This, however, is not what molecular gastronomy is about, but one that uses science and innovation “to create exciting new dishes and inventions“, in the words of Hervé This.
I think that molecular gastronomy has a place in the modern kitchen, especially in commercial enterprises but I also believe that the greatest use is in conjunction with traditional food. Eaten alone, molecular gastronomy might have all the elements of a gourmet meal but still lacks the roots and comfort of home-cooking. The essence of terroir and local food traditions is as important to a memorable eating experience as culinary innovation. I believe it is possible to combine them to create the very best of haute cuisine.
Recommended:
In my opinion, Catit restaurant in Tel Aviv/Jaffa does a good job at combining traditional dishes with elements of molecular gastronomy, adding surprise without overwhelming.
Catit: 4 Hichal Hatalmud St. (near corner of Yehuda Halevy St.), Tel Aviv. Open daily 12 P.M.-3 P.M. and 7 P.M.-11 P.M. Tel: (03) 510-7001. Not kosher

Disclosure: I have never eaten in a restaurant which specializes exclusively in molecular gastronomy.

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