Register Tuesday | December 7 | 2021

Kitchen Scientists

Molecular gastronomists are creating the uncreatable

Hervé This digs eggs. “Zee transformation of zee egg yellow eez a miracle,” he announced during his keynote address at this year’s conference for the International Association of Culinary Professionals. “Better zan zee miracle of changing zee body of Christ.”

Accustomed to being on stage, This (pronounced “teess”) is prone to hyperbole. A scientist at the Insitut National de la Recherche Agronomique in Paris, he hosts his own television program in France, and is a founder and lead researcher of the scientific discipline called “Molecular Gastronomy.” He is also best known as the creator of the perfectly boiled egg.
Today’s demonstration, however, is of another yolk entirely. Turning from a slide projection of dispersed oil molecules, This cracks an egg and separates the whites into a beaker. Adding oil, he stirs briskly, creating an emulsion—a mixture of two liquids that repel each other. In this case, it’s oil and water (which  makes up 80 percent of the egg white). This then microwaves the emulsion, which expands the water and gelatinizes the outer shell to create a liquid centre. Called the “Gibbs,” after the physicist who discovered the equation for a trapped, suspended system, it resembles a greasy gob of white goo—or “awful pancake” in This-speak. “Of course,” This later assures, “at Pierre Gagnaire’s the appearance is much improved!”

Infused with vanilla and sugar, and made with the finest olive oil, the “awful pancake” is presumably also much tastier at the Paris restaurant where, for the past eight years, executive chef Gagnaire has been collaborating with This.  Every month Gagnaire receives a new equation from This, fills in the variables with ingredients, and posts the recipe on his website. Often, he serves it in his restaurant.

Gagnaire isn’t the only chef This has inspired. Creators of eats even more futuristic than the “awful pancake” are cropping up everywhere, from Bombay to Toronto. Some have become the most respected and mythologized chefs in the world, their restaurants the sites of pilgrimages and Gourmet magazine photo shoots.

The most famous (“The Salvador Dali of the kitchen,” according to Gourmet) is Spain’s Ferran Adrià, one of the first chefs, in the mid 1990s, to base an entire restaurant around the idea of scientific food. Adrià is best known for creating a flavoured aerosol froth  (you squirt it onto your food) called culinary foam, a much-imitated hallmark of the cuisine.

His restaurant, El Bulli—open only six months of the year so he can spend the other six months tinkering in his test kitchen—has inspired a new generation of molecular chefs: classically trained, raised-in-a-restaurant whiz kids like Grant Achatz, who launched Chicago’s Alinea restaurant, and Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 in New York City; self-taught former repo man and famed creator of snail porridge and bacon-and-eggs ice cream, Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck in Berkshire, England; and, also from Chicago, juvenile-delinquent-turned-space-food-virtuoso Homaro Cantu of Moto Restaurant.
From this initial core, disciples abound. In Spain, which attributes much of its culinary revival to Adria’s fame, the national restaurant association estimates that 40 percent of new restaurants include some sort of sci-fi dish on their menus. No similar figure exists for the rest of the world, but evidence suggests that the trend is growing.

The annual Madrid Fusión conference, an event that takes place over four days in mid-January, has become, in its sixth year, an international circus of molecular gastronomy celebs, wannabes, and hangers-on (Adria is a regular presenter; This, Blumenthal and Gagnaire have all made appearances). Science-friendly food blogs like Khymos and Foodhacking help disseminate research and insider info. In the United States, PBS offers a kid’s show called Kitchen Chemistry. Candy makers have started using the term “molecular gastronomy” to apply to processes for making unique blends of chocolate, and there’s even a new breed of bartenders who use liquid nitrogen and call themselves “molecular mixologists.”

So who are the egghead chefs responsible for this buzz? For the most part, they’re gluttons who love to go tech. Part inventor, part sculptor, part Danny Zuko, they keep a close eye on scientific breakthroughs, and every discovery, no matter how esoteric, is a new dish for the taking. A research paper on human neuro-receptors for taste and smell, for example, leads to orange duck served atop a linen pillow inflated with juniper scent (the pillow is punctured and the aroma thus released).

Usually, the concept for a dish will start with a vision for something “impossible.” In the months before Achatz opened Alinea, today one of the most developed venues for molecular cooking in the world, he and his sous chefs locked themselves in a “food lab” outfitted with standard kitchen appliances, as well as a paint-stripping gun, a Cryovac machine, and random odds and ends they thought they might find useful along the way. One of their projects—which is documented on the restaurant industry online forum eGullet—was to realize a “dried crème brûlée.”

Traditional crème brûlée basically consists of a boiled, whisked and refrigerated custard base topped with a blowtorch-caramelized layer of brown sugar. Achatz and his crew wanted to reconceive the dessert as a caramel bubble shell filled with dried ingredients that could “cream” in one’s mouth. The powdered filling was easily mastered, but the caramel bubble was another matter. The chefs tried using a sugar pump, then a straw, to no avail. At the suggestion of one of the chefs’ wives, they finally tried dipping an inflated balloon in hot, liquefied caramel, letting it cool, and then popping the balloon, leaving a spherical vessel.

“I have trained with the best chefs alive,” Achatz said at the time, referring to his work with Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter. “I have a good grasp of known technique. The lab’s purpose is to create technique based on our vision, to create the un-creatable. Sometimes we will succeed, and sometimes we will fail, but trying is what make us who we are.”  
Cooking has always had a scientific core. Adding and removing heat, measuring out and combining ingredients: these are all activities that evoke lab work. Cooking’s resemblance to science, however, does not mean that its underlying techniques—which This calls “precisions”—are fully understood, much less tested and documented with systematic rigor. As This sees it, calling the lore and legends we follow in our kitchens “chemistry” is like calling the use of leeches to suck out bad blood “medicine”—the intent might be there, the efficacy not so much. Enter molecular gastronomy.

In mid-March 1980, This, a young chemistry graduate student, was preparing a soufflé for dinner guests and decided to deviate from the recipe. “It was a cheese soufflé from Elle magazine,” he recalls. “The recipe said to add the eggs two by two and I thought, why two by two?” This threw in all the eggs at once and the result was disastrous. The next day, he skipped work and tried adding eggs one by one. Then two by two. Each time, the soufflé turned out better. He decided to investigate further.
That year, he finished his master’s degree in physical chemistry and became an editor at Pour la Science, the French edition of Scientific American. Inspired by his experience with the soufflé, he began poring through cookbooks, categorizing and recording the directions and sayings associated with certain ingredients and techniques. Later, he would begin systematically testing each one of these “precisions” to see which yielded the desired result and which were mere folklore.
In 1986, This met then-78-year-old Hungarian-born physicist Nicholas Kurti, whose career included work on the atom bomb and, while a professor at Oxford, creating “the coldest spot on earth”—1 microkelvin, about a hundred thousandth of a degree kelvin (absolute zero).

At Oxford, Kurti—known for his “scabrous” humor and his bow-ties—also promoted a back-to-basics philosophy that embraced new technologies while insisting on a firm understanding of fundamentals. While working on a classified government project involving diffusion of a uranium compound, Kurti solved the problem of the molecules passing at different rates by virtue of their different sizes. He did it with a kitchen strainer.

Kurti was also a cook and an epicure, sometimes requiring the use of an Oxford hall and professional chef for his dinner parties. In retirement, he turned his nuclear and low-temperature knowledge to food preparation, discovering, amongst many eurekas, a safe way of soft-boiling a salmonella-infected egg (59 degrees C for fifteen minutes is enough to kill the virus, without solidifying the yolk and whites).

Then, in 1968, invited to give a talk at the Royal Society, Kurti wowed fellow physicists with a lecture titled “The Physicist in the Kitchen.” During the lecture he tenderized pork loin with a syringe of pineapple juice (which contains bromelain, an enzyme that breaks down protein), used a vacuum pump to puff meringues, and debuted “inverted baked Alaska” (hot on the inside, frozen on the outside) made inside a primitive microwave oven.

It was here that he delivered the sentence he’s most quoted for, and that serves as a rallying cry for molecular gastronomists: “I think it’s a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus, we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.”

In 1986, This had been investigating precisions for six years and was gearing up to publish his first book, Les secrets de la casserole, when Pour la Science hired a new communications officer. She knew Nicholas Kurti and recognized immediately that the two scientists would benefit from an introduction. When she suggested that This call Kurti, he did so the same day. “I remember very well this call,” says This. “Nicholas was excited, in his particular way of doing, and told me that he would come next week to Paris.” The two met for lunch at Maître Paul, and dined on chicken cooked in cream with vin jaune du Jura and morellas. “It was the beginning of a real ‘love affair’,” recalls This.  “We called twice and even three times per day, and each experiment that I did he did in Oxford, and vice versa.”

Agreeing that their explorations constituted a new discipline of science, they named their field “Molecular and physical gastronomy,” the goals of which are outlined in This’ Ph.D. dissertation, the first ever in the field. The science, the two decided, would focus on collecting and defining existing “culinary precisions,” exploring the physiology of what happens when people eat, and using that knowledge to test and create new processes.

In 1992, the two held their first international workshop, inviting scientists, chefs and food industry professionals. Among them was chef Adria. Heston Blumenthal would later scan the guest list to find scientists to collaborate with in England. The conference became an annual event. Since Kurti died in 1998, at the age of 90, This has kept up the field himself, dropping the “physical,” which he never liked, in favour of the shortened “Molecular Gastronomy.” To date, he has explored 20,000 precisions—2,500 for meat stock alone.

“Culinary constructivism” is other term This uses to describe his, and his acolytes’, methodical  pursuit of food knowledge. “For in seeking to understand the reasons for what we do in the kitchen,” This writes, “we seek not to poison ourselves but rather to enjoy flavors that until now we have only dreamed of.”

Syringes, liquid nitrogen and Class 4 lasers are some of the tools you’ll find in the kitchens of these dreamers. Those tools are also the reason for whatever doubts exist about their work.   It’s not hard to imagine why most of us lack knowledge about the inner workings of the dishes we make, and why obscurely understood precisions are rarely challenged. If This had left his soufflé experiments after three tries, he would have come away thinking that indeed, adding eggs two at a time was the reason for his success. “In fact,” he says, “it was only because my skills improved.” This found that the real trick with the eggs was to fold vigorously beaten egg whites into the batter carefully. The reason is that evenly distributed whites provides water for steam, and the beaten whites—stiff, as the protein’s bonds have been broken and reformed—are stronger and help trap the steam within the soufflé, allowing it to puff up.

When we cook at home, success rules. If something works, we repeat each step exactly the next time we make the dish. Time-tested, the recipe is thus passed down by word of mouth or recorded. But if there’s something nostalgic about following favourite recipes, it’s also because our palates react viscerally to familiarity—nostalgia is what makes food fully nourishing, uplifting. You might dread the day someone compares you to your mother, but damned if you don’t follow her recipe for pork chops word for word.

It’s also why, when you go to a restaurant, you might not be entirely excited about popping a dolled up “awful pancake” into your mouth and calling it a night out. With the growing politicization of food, and with organic and local revolutions in full swing, the timing seems particularly bad for a fine dining movement that specializes in chemistry-based concoctions—“gourmet” food re-worked so far from its natural state it appears machine-made. Aerosol cans, plastic bags and dehydrated ingredients are not the kind of thing you’d expect to find, at two hundred dollars a head, in a high-end restaurant.

Quality, authenticity and process are synonymous in many professional kitchens. Colleges like the Culinary Institute of America teach a rigid brand of traditional French cooking whose authority is not easily shaken. In high-end cuisine, top North American chefs make the pilgrimage to Italy, France and Spain to work in mom-and-pop joints, steeping themselves in the convenances of Old World cuisine. For these chefs, culinary dicta—whether stirring polenta counter-clockwise or tenderizing octopus by boiling it with a wine cork—is inseparable from the food’s tradition, and tradition is what they want to serve their customers. Needless to say, no traditional chef believes these age-old tricks of the trade are beyond improvement. “If you find a more efficient process,” This writes, “it should be used.” But when that “efficient process” involves liquid nitrogen to make ice cream, or puffs of chemical to set off a diner’s taste receptors, suspicions set in.

“Xanthan gum, syringes, they’re just tools like baking soda,” argues Achatz when he’s faced, as he often is, with skepticism. “I use the same purveyors as Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller. You can’t make good food out of crap ingredients, no matter what you do to them.”

TV chef Gordon Ramsay is not convinced: “A chef should use his fingers and his tongue, not a test-tube.” Marco Pierre White agrees. One of Britain’s most revered chefs, White recently told that he didn’t think much of the food one finds in places like The Fat Duck and Alinea. “I don’t see the point of it,” he said. “It’s a stamp, it’s a label—let’s get a few column inches, let’s make it interesting. My wife’s mother, without a doubt, is one of the great chefs. She has no training. She just had a childhood in ‘30s Spain. But when I sit and eat her food—delicious. Fabulously seasoned. Great textures. What I love is it gives me an insight into the world that she came from. She’s eating today what she did as a little girl being brought up by the nuns. This molecular gastronomy, it’s soulless.”

Simple recipes guilelessly passed down through repetition: this is the essence of any great culinary tradition. Molecular gastronomists agree. Playing Frankenstein with that essence, and thus severing food from its connotations of place and history, is, they argue, precisely what they don’t do. Indeed, the eagerness to correct the caricature of themselves as mad scientists is  probably why Blumenthal and Adria, along with chef Thomas Keller and food science writer Harold McGee, put their names to a piece called “Statement on the New Cookery” in the UK’s Observer late last year.

“The world’s culinary traditions,” the declaration runs, “are collective, cumulative inventions, a heritage created by hundreds of generations of cooks. Tradition is the base which all cooks who aspire to excellence must know and master. Our open approach builds on the best that tradition has to offer. As with everything in life, our craft evolves, and has done so from the moment when man first realized the powers of fire. We embrace this natural process of evolution and aspire to influence it. We respect our rich history and at the same time attempt to play a small part in the history of tomorrow.”   In a way, tomorrow is already imploding on itself. “We’re running out of fossil fuels,” says Homaro Cantu, executive chef of Moto Restaurant and owner of the Class 4 laser, and the only chef who openly refers to himself as a science geek. (Before entering his kitchen, outsiders must don protective glasses and sign a non-disclosure agreement. A red siren light flashes in the basement kitchen, alerting the staff to the presence of visitors.)

“The restaurant industry is the world’s third largest consumer of energy; in the US adults dine out four to five nights a week,” he says. Some of the staples that industry depends on, like the copper pans so vital to French cooking and found in every restaurant kitchen in the Western world, won’t be viable in the near future—at present, 26 percent of the world’s finite supply of copper is lost in non-recyclable waste. Says Cantu, “If we’re going to continue cooking with copper pans, we better plan for some sort of innovation.”

In conjunction with his chef gig, Cantu formed Cantu Designs, a company dedicated to state-of-the-art utensils and plates that improve kitchen efficiency. His other projects include a “food replicator” (yes, named for the chow source on the starship U.S.S. Enterprise). The replicator is a tricked-out laser printer that inscribes words and flavours onto edible paper. At present, diners at Moto signal to their “gastronomers” (servers) that they’re ready to order one of three multi-course options by eating their menus. In the near future, a reader might flip through a copy of Vanity Fair to find a pineapple-flavored ad for Caribbean vacation packages.

Edible paper, again, might come off as soulless, overly scientific, but for Cantu, it’s the opposite. “The population analysts all say we’re going to be a world of 10 billion people in the next ten to twelve years and it doesn’t look like it’s going to slow,” he says. “NASA talks about using the moon as a springboard for going to another planet. How will we feed all these people? The next logical step is to have the ingredients that can be shelf-stable over long periods of time. Well, we can take a natural, organic substance like an apple, picked in Washington at dusk, and dissect that apple into its fundamental ingredients—cellulose, pectin, different types of water, amulose, amulose pectin. Then you create the building block and reformulate it using a piezo electric print head technology and now you can multiply that apple, or three-dimensionally replicate its taste as it would be picked in the orchard.”

For Cantu, who is hoping for a collaboration with the international space station, the survival of tradition is more pressing than other chefs might imagine—a challenge that counterintuitive cooking processes might solve rather than exacerbate. “We’re not going to make space food, where you eat a pill and it fills you up,” he says, “we’re making something that reminds you of mom’s home-cooked meal. Maybe an exact replication of that. Tradition carries with it a psychological aspect that is essential to humanity. If you don’t have anything in tradition, and you don’t really have anything to base yourself on, who are you?”
The necessary, even desirable infringement of technology on the food we eat doesn’t escape Hervé This either. “I am not immune to nostalgia for the good old days,” he writes. “I, too, miss the chickens running freely about the courtyard; the asparagus picked just before the meal, with its delicate milky juice running from the stalk…But let us compare…Mediocre homemade yogurt has been supplanted by commercial brands in various flavors that have a perfectly regular flavor. Should we reproach them for having a strawberry flavor too unlike the flavor of strawberries? Or should we reproach ourselves instead for wanting to eat strawberries in winter?”

Cantu is designing food for a time when we’re floating amongst the stars, with taste as one of few connections to the earth we’ve left behind. A bit eccentric maybe, but only if you ignore how much of the food we eat is processed far from its original state. Says This, “We would do better to accept products for what they are and recognize that the possibility of improving them lies first and foremost in submitting them to the transformations of the culinary art.”

French epicure Brillat-Savarin noted almost 200 years ago that “the  discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.” At a time when both discoveries—dish and star—are possible using the same methods, if not the same technology, molecular gastronomists have their work cut out for them. For now, chefs like Cantu are the rock stars of food--young, slightly crazy, and dangerous to the old guard. Their discoveries might seem too esoteric to the rest of us who, without needing to know why, will continue to salt our steak before grilling it and cook gnocchi until they float. But how this new era of chefs walk the balance between soul and technology, comfort and surprise, convincing us to love their food viscerally as well as intellectually, will ultimately determine whether they are seen as icons of culinary progress or practitioners of a fleeting fad.