When I bagged a free seat at Gourmet Abu Dhabi’s culinary masterclass with chef Sang-Hoon Degeimbre, chef-owner of a two-Michelin star restaurant called L'Air du Temp in Belgium, I felt conflicted…should I drive all the way over to Abu Dhabi to see a chef that I'd really never heard of before, or should I stay parked in my comfy computer chair and surf the latest foodie news? I clicked through the Gourmet Abu Dhabi site to read through the chef’s bio and figure out whether this separation from my beloved chair would be worthwhile. One line into his bio, a decision had been made: “Chef Sang-Hoon Degeimbre is one of the top exponents of molecular gastronomy in Belgium.” Even the snuggest couch in the world couldn’t keep me from a class showcasing works of molecular gastronomy, especially not if that work took on the shape of an egg recreated entirely of blended squid.
Molecular gastronomy hadn’t slipped into my vocabulary until maybe three years ago, when a colleague started describing a local Michelin-starred restaurant called WD-50, co-owned and run by chef Wylie Dufresne. A few months later, I reserved a table for two at WD-50, and took one of my most discerning foodie compadres, my sister, for their dinner tasting menu. The dish that best captured the essence of this sort of experimental, scientific cuisine for me personally was a simple New York classic, the ‘everything bagel’ with lox (salmon and cream cheese). The chef took all the familiar flavors and textures of the breakfast dish, and deconstructed it into completely unfamiliar forms – smoked salmon threads, bagel ice cream, and a crispy sheet of cream cheese (the restaurant has a photograph of this famed dish on its website). The sum of all the components, texturally and flavor-wise, created the same experience that a New Yorker would be totally familiar with if they ordered salmon with lox from their local deli, though each individual component looked and felt like nothing remotely suggestive of this deli staple1. Eleven courses later, I came away realizing that there was a whole new sphere of culinary creativity that I hadn’t even begun to explore – a world of chefs that was focused on understanding the anatomy of food at its most fundamental physical and chemical state, and then adapting, deconstructing and reconstructing it in ways that were totally confounding, even shocking at best.
In my untrained eyes2, molecular gastronomy when used for discovery and creation by chefs like Wylie Dufresne, or the famous Ferran Adrià3 at his (now sadly closed) restaurant El Bulli, represents the culinary realization of that artistic movement which had most fascinated me as a student of art many years ago – Surrealism. Artists like Dali or Magritte created works that had the ability to provoke a series of reactions – where you first think that you’ve seen the light, and then clouds as you realize that you’ve been visually duped, and then you see another light, but a new and different and more piercing light, that makes you walk away with a feeling that’s hard to explain other than the fact that it totally transcends the mere aesthetic representation of the artwork itself.4 In the case of molecular gastronomy, the series of reactions lingers not just on your palate, but often more so in your thoughts as you try to make sense of an experience that challenges your assumptions about how food should look, feel and taste. Like popcorn sprinkled as microscopic powder under a serving of silky sheets of duck leg at WD-50, or Chef Degeimbre’s stark black and white volcanic plate using an egg moulded from squid and water, dried rice chips colored with black squid ink, and frozen black salt as remnants of a recent volcanic eruption.
My fascination with molecular gastronomy stems not just from the fact that it can blend food and art in the most incredibly unimaginable of ways - in fact, many would argue that this is but a mere application of the discipline - but because it possesses the highest degree of scientific geekdom that is just, for lack of better words, SO RIDICULOUSLY COOL. Anything that uses liquid nitrogen or dehydration techniques can’t be anything but cool. (At precisely this point, my superficial appreciation for the discipline would have incurred the wrath of many a chef knowledgeable about molecular gastronomy. I can see them cringe when at my fad-like assessments of their works – after all, the wise ones would concur that squealing about how cool something is should be reserved for nothing more monumental than a cupcake.)
BUT, I’ve alluded to my ignorance on the topic earlier, and I’ll do so again. The description I’ve offered above is merely my personal reaction to the artistic culinary side of molecular gastronomy, and doesn’t even begin to dissect the definition, study and application of this discipline from that scientific standpoint. I realized just how little I know about this subject when I read an article called Food for Tomorrow by Hervé This, the French physical chemist who coined the term “Molecular and Physical Gastronomy” along with Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti in 1988, and then later shortened the term to Molecular Gastronomy after Kurti passed away a decade later. Since then, the term has become somewhat controversial – both in its definition, as well as in its application and subsequent appreciation. Even after reading This’ introductory article on molecular gastronomy and a bunch of others5, I still feel confused and ignorant on many points – and am hungry to learn more about the subject, because it represents such an in-depth scientific understanding of how food can be created that it allows you, as the chef, to completely redefine the traditional culinary experience in new and unexpected ways…or as Ferran Adrià says in this video, “if you are able to create a new alphabet, that’s the tops, because as a result you will be creating a new language.”
I have often heard the argument that this “new language” – or crudely put, chemically/physically modified food – doesn’t necessarily lend itself to better tasting food. And I agree. The resulting taste profile of the dish can be somewhat mixed. Not every dish on the WD-50 menu was earth-shattering, or even memorable. In fact, I have no recollection of whether that bagel with lox tasted any better than the real deli deal – though I do remember that WD-50’s cold buttermilk fried chicken, which probably relied far less on hi-tech molecular gadgetry, really hit a homerun with my sister and me. On the other hand, even though I’ve never been there and will now never have a chance to eat there after its recent closure [lone tear trickling down my cheek], there is enough second-hand evidence to show that Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli in Spain must have affected taste buds in wonderfully profound ways, given how often it is lauded as one of the world’s best restaurants and its reservation-requests-to-actual-seats ratio of 250:1 when they were open to diners.
Not one of Chef Degeimbre's dishes dishes moved me from a taste standpoint, even though they were technically flawless. When I think back to Chef Sang-Hoon’s volcanic egg, I remember the taste far less than the shock I had experienced when my fork hit the wobbly surface of an egg fashioned out of blended squid and water – OMG. This feels just like a boiled egg…O-M-G, it’s oozing out pureed ravioli with the perfect consistency of semi-solid yolk. The accuracy and level of thought that had gone into recreating the textures of a soft-boiled egg were nothing short of incredible. This was magic, or for the less ignorant, this was science. And it was only a spoon later that I realized that the magic wasn’t particularly memorable in taste…but the artistry of the dish didn’t let me dwell on that topic for too long before I was distracted by its sheer ingenuity again.
So am I trying to suggest that ingenious food – food which pushes the boundaries of science and art - gets a special waiver exempting it from tasting good? Maybe I am. Maybe I am because it elevates the dining experience to a level where there are other sensations and thoughts, beyond just taste and basic aesthetics, which are called out to play far more actively than in most other meals, even in gourmet ones. Maybe I am because such creations would be a once-in-a-year, or in two years, experience, and I wouldn’t eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day – thankfully so, because I’d get daily migraines with all the assumption-challenging and post-meal-reflecting I’d end up doing were I to be plated such food at the cafeteria at work every afternoon. Maybe I am suggesting that ingenious food à la molecular gastronomy gets a special taste waiver on my plate, because I’m a sucker for all things geeky and so I’d be willing to give this manifestation of culinary geekdom a free pass too. Don’t hate me oh taste purists, but just maybe, I am.
1 Check outthis article for a detailed deconstruction of WD-50's bagel with lox creation
2 I have interacted with the products of molecular gastronomy at a grand total of two occasions – WD-50 and at Abu Dhabi Gourmet. If you count watching Wylie Dufresne on Food Network’s Iron Chef, I’d increase the count to three.
3 Ferran Adria, and another great ‘nouvelle cuisine’ pioneer of our time, Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck, would probably both cringe at the words “molecular gastronomy.” Blumenthal elaborates on his reservations around the usage of that term in an article written for The Observer.
4 This obvious connection between molecular gastronomy (when represented through certain kinds of food preparation) and surrealism dawned on me today while writing this post, when I came across a video by Jay Rayner on Ferran Adria which mentioned that El Bulli was situated close to where Dali created his artistic juxtapositions on canvas.
5 A relatively easy to understand write-up on molecular gastronomy can be found at http://science.howstuffworks.com/molecular-gastronomy.htm
Also, in case you're hoping to whip some of these dishes up at home yourself, you can find some of the ingredients (with the directions cleverly left out) right here. As a bare minimum, you'd need one of these whipping, foam-creating gadgets, precise measuring scales, and a ton of textural ingredients that rest assured, are not available at your local grocery store.