Where high science and fine cuisine collide
Ross Lewis, chef patron of Chapter One restaurant in Dublin, has used molecular gastronomy techniques in his kitchen. Photograph: Alan Betson
Molecular gastronomy was developed to modernise how we eat, not as a showpiece for chefs. Now one of its founders wants to take it back, writes DICK AHLSTROM
Forget that box of chocolates, if you really want to impress your Valentine today then take her for a meal prepared through the appliance of science: molecular gastronomy
“It is the interface between the laboratory and the kitchen, the application of real science to the experience of food preparation in the kitchen and the experience of eating it,” says Prof Alan Kelly when explaining exactly what molecular gastronomy means.
Based in University College Cork’s school of food and nutritional science, he has organised a one-day workshop on molecular gastronomy for next week. He will bring together food scientists, manufacturers, people from the catering industries and chefs who will hear about what happens when high science and the high art of fine cooking collide.
The ideas behind the subject are not new. Scientists such as Prof Hervé This of Agro ParisTech in France have been studying what happens to food during the cooking process since the early 1990s.
Known as the “scientific godfather” of molecular gastronomy, This will speak to the UCC conference via a video link .
“It is a scientific discipline like physics or chemistry,” he says. This is a physical chemist and he coined the term molecular gastronomy with Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti back in 1992.
“The big idea behind molecular cuisine was we wanted to modernise the way people cook. My goal is to make major changes in the way of cooking, to change the way people eat and cook.”
This and Kurti began detailed research into what happens when food cooks, how its physical properties change, and how its taste, texture and smell are modified by different cooking methods. Researchers also studied our sensory response to foods, the degree of crunch, how it feels on the palate, and its bite.
Ironically, the ideas that developed as a result of the research drew extensively on techniques and approaches used in industrial-food preparation, says Ross Lewis, chef patron of the Michelin-starred Chapter One restaurant in Dublin. Thickeners, binding agents and stabilisers had been used for years, he says. Chefs who began to adopt molecular gastronomy “used the technology to produce something very different”.
Juices, for example, could be made to form tiny globules that could then be eaten as a solid. The emerging techniques were used to produce radical new flavours in infusions and reductions, and liquids could be changed into powders.
Equipment typically found in a chemistry or biology laboratory began providing a service to chefs, says Lewis, who is also a dairy-science graduate from UCC. Centrifuges and distillation units were brought in to make essences. New methods emerged and were popularised on television by leading chefs such as Heston Blumenthal. For instance, low-pressure chambers were used to produce lighter souffles or to impose flavours on roasting meats.
“Molecular gastronomy is really about celebrating the science of cooking,” says Lewis. However, the riot of flavours that emerged from molecular gastronomy could also get out of hand, leading, for example, to an ice cream that tasted like Fisherman’s Friend throat lozenges. The technology could also produce “food you hardly recognised”, and far removed from its natural state, says Lewis.
So while he has embraced some of the techniques, such as very low temperature cooking and the use of emulsifiers, he does not apply them wholesale. “I use it to make my food cleaner and better. I don’t get obsessed with it,” he says.
The application of science has delivered optimised cooking methods that tell chefs that slow-cooked fish is best done at 49 degrees or rabbit at 62 degrees. It is real information that can help chefs improve what they produce for their clientele, Lewis adds.
“The top-rated restaurants in the world would be applying these principles,” Prof Alan Kelly says. “It is a scientific underpinning of the art that has always existed in cooking.”
Other universities and institutes of technology are involved in food research and Kelly hopes the workshop will bring these together with industry and encourage collaborative research. “UCC wants to connect with groups in Ireland and abroad to ensure our [food science] graduates are exposed to this,” he says.
Find out more about the UCC workshop at moleculargastronomyucc.com
Saving the planet with molecular cooking
Molecular gastronomy focuses on novel foods and flavours, but it might also save the planet. One of its founders believes the techniques it gave rise to could be used to help feed the world while saving energy.
Prof Hervé This has been central to the development of molecular gastronomy. “Molecular cooking is very old now, more than 20 years old. Let’s move to the next idea in cuisine,” he says. “The goal of science is not to cook, science only wants to make discoveries. It can’t be at the same time the science and the technique. Molecular cuisine is over. Now I am moving to application, not science.”
Application of these techniques could reduce energy usage and help to feed more people, he says. You put a pan on the cooker but this wastes 80 per cent of the energy used.
“Billions of people on the Earth are doing the same,” he says. Slow-cooking methods he developed could greatly reduce energy demand.
The loss of food through spoilage as it moves from farm to plate is another problem. “We waste 45 per cent of all the food produced through spoilage.” Then there are transport issues. Carrots are 95 per cent water, so when shipped to market we are transporting mostly water.
“Instead of the farmer selling carrots, you take the water out of the carrots and fractionate it,” he says. This stops spoilage and reduces energy demands during transport. “Molecular cooking can provide an answer for all of these,” he says.