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Posted on 1st March 2009. No Comment

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Molecular gastronomy has entranced and excited for gourmets for years; but is it fated to fail?

Parmesan foam. Nitro noodles. Pistachio sherbet lolly. Each of these bizarre-sounding dishes is the result of the molecular gastronomy wave that has swept the culinary world. Chefs have clamoured to create the most inventive dishes, using techniques and ingredients that had previously been unthinkable. Molecular gastronomy has arguably been the greatest influence on the gastronomic scene for the last fifteen years; but does it have any longevity? Critics would argue that molecular gastronomy is a show-and-tell for the skills of the chef, about trickery with food, and reverence for the chef’s creativity and ingenuity. With such intricate creations involving complex, time-consuming handiwork and obscure ingredients such as liquid nitrogen, is the movement doomed to peter out because the dishes are simply not imitable in the home?

Molecular gastronomy evolved from the research of the French physicist-chemist Hervé This and Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti, who were of the opinion that the rift between cooking and science must be healed. They aimed to explore traditional cooking techniques using scientific method, and in 1988, they named this new discipline ‘molecular and physical gastronomy’. From then on it mushroomed, growing in popularity as more and more chefs began to realize that, as well as being able to experiment more with flavours, scents and especially textures, they could demonstrate skills that had been unseen, enchanting their diners and creating an experience to remember.

This style of cooking has shot many chefs to fame- Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adrià and Marc Lepine, to name but a few. Their food has become synonymous with quirky, innovative dishes that bring together unexpected flavour combinations with a surprising range of textures in an attempt to create unforgettable sensations in the mouth. Think rhubarb and pink peppercorns, chocolate and cumin, freeze-drying and delicate liqueur suspensions. There is no doubt these chefs are creative; Adrià, of the three Michelin-starred restaurant El Bulli, is constantly evolving his menu with cleverly thought out dishes that are almost ornamental, sending diners into raptures, each year triggering 500,000 people rush to bag one of the coveted 8,000 places to eat there. Scientific principles have been rigorously explored, generating new concepts with unusual equipment, such as ‘foams’, jellies, and the most famous example- liquid nitrogen. Molecular gastronomy is exciting, aiming to break well-established conceptions, and playing with the eyes and palate. Typically they deconstruct a classic creation to make a dish that is actually a such as Adrià’s caviar, which looks identical in every way to the real thing, but in fact is made from apple purée painstakingly dropped into hot olive oil using a pipette.

In 2006, Heston Blumenthal’s work was given exposure on television with the programme ‘In Search of Perfection’, where he took food classics like pizza, trifle and black forest gateau. His aim was to concoct something that was undeniably the original dish, but to twist them and make them more exciting and sophisticated. The trifle had layers of black olive purée and coriander hundreds-and-thousands; and the black forest gateau had aerated chocolate made using a vacuum cleaner. Blumenthal still insisted you could make them at home; but it seems a little unlikely to imagine people making chocolate in their Dyson, or using dry ice to make ice-cream, as he recommends

One of the criticisms of molecular gastronomy is that the dishes are inventive, and are clearly impressive, both aesthetically and in terms of technical skill, but they are never going to translate into the domestic kitchen. Aside from the fact that the equipment required would cost thousands, the sheer amount of tinkering and attention to detail demanded would see anybody stuck at the stove for hours; or days, in the case of Blumenthal’s twenty-four-hour steak. Critics say molecular gastronomy is just a showcase for what equipment the chef has access to, the kitchen becoming merely a playground to devise unusual curios. There is a barrier between home cooking and molecular gastronomy; in comparison, it seems elite and ostentatious; even pretentious.

Champions of the style of cuisine will be quick to counter that molecular gastronomy is not about making things to be mimicked by amateur chefs; it’s about having fun with rigid concepts and innovating classic recipes. It’s about exploring how far you can push ingredients, and essentially allowing the diner to have fun. The traditional haute cuisine experience of serious, opulent dining is ignored; dishes often have an underlying sense of humour that allows diners to be delighted and excited with what’s presented to them. The creations are often classics, either recognisably so, resembling the original, but with flavour or texture alterations; or the plates are totally incomprehensible to the eye, but evoke the flavours of the classic perfectly. They are playing on memories which almost every person holds of a certain dish, recapturing and elaborating the experience to formulate new memories. Alternatively, they resemble things not even vaguely similar to food at all; El Bulli’s ‘Earth’ chocolate dessert looks just like its namesake- a pile of earth and rubble. Molecular gastronomy is enjoyment, engaging with the diner and your company, sharing new and unique experiences.

‘“Eating well is something you can do at home. The point about what we offer is that it is more than eating; it is an experience…the trend has to be more and more about the pleasure of eating, the fun, rather than seeing it as simply a way of satisfying our appetites. At El Bulli we try and take this idea to the nth degree.”

However, in this atmosphere of economic crisis, restaurants with molecular gastronomy dishes must be feeling the pinch. The high-tech methods are not cheap- Blumenthal reportedly uses around £15,000 worth of liquid nitrogen annually. More and more people are beginning to move towards more locally sourced products, supporting the cheaper local restaurants, especially with promotion like Gordon Ramsay’s Great British Nightmare. Eating out is a luxury that can easily be avoided when money is tight; but on occasions where a meal is necessary- a promotion, a birthday- people are more likely to go somewhere with simple, well-cooked, reasonably priced food than the more extravagant prices of molecular gastronomy.

It can be argued that food does not even need so much alteration to create a memorable meal. Well-cooked dishes can satisfy just as much, or more so. Fresh ingredients treated with care, their flavours exploited and balanced beautifully, make for a delectable meal. Television programmes like Ramsay’s <em>Kitchen </em>demonstrate how a restaurant can flourish if they simply do the classics correctly, and vice versa- how it can fail if the chef lacks attention to detail or combines bizarre ingredients in an attempt to emulate the trend of unusual combinations in high-end restaurants. Prawn and chocolate, anyone? Food becomes almost fetishised with molecular gastronomy- every ingredient has its properties heightened and exaggerated, manipulated into something that rarely resembles the actual object itself. It’s forced and altered into intricate elements that become almost akin to gimmicks.

Molecular gastronomy has undoubtedly been a considerable influence on cooking since its birth in the 1980s; chefs create fantastical dishes that push boundaries and preconceptions and plays with the diners, letting them enjoy themselves. However, critics would argue that food just doesn’t need tinkering with that much to be delicious, aesthetically pleasing and a delight. The credit crunch has seen us tightening our belts; but Blumenthal’s restaurant remains fully booked for the next couple of months. It seems that molecular gastronomy is enduring; the chefs of this school continue to have high turnover and to develop new methods and conceptions. It may never end up in every home, with people getting out the dry ice to make desserts for a dinner party; but for an unforgettable gastronomic experience, molecular gastronomy has no equal- for the time being.

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