If you fancy yourself a bit of a foodie, or if you love to watch the Food Network, chances are you’re familiar with molecular gastronomy.
If not, maybe you know about experimental (modern, avant-garde, techno-emotional) cuisine. If none of this rings a bell, I bet you’ve heard of Heston Blumenthal, the man who made edible fairy lights and brought the term molecular gastronomy into the mainstream through our TV screens.
The term molecular gastronomy became a regular part of our vocabulary in the early 2000s when experimental cooking really took off. The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, since its start in 2002, has consistently featured restaurants that specialize in experimental cuisine. These restaurants utilize techniques in their kitchens that wouldn’t have been possible if molecular gastronomy hadn’t become a discipline in the late 1980s. To this day, molecular gastronomy – the science of cooking – continues to influence the direction that the culinary arts are headed in.
The impact of molecular gastronomy on cooking has resulted in the creation of the most impressive meals – aesthetically breathtaking, surprising, innovative and exciting. The experimental chef is not just preparing a meal – they are creating a work of art and an unforgettable, multi-sensory experience for the lucky person who gets to enjoy it.
What is Molecular Gastronomy?
The term ‘molecular gastronomy’ was coined in 1988 by physicist Nicholas Kurti and chemist Herve This. Molecular gastronomy is not a style of cooking, it is the study of cooking – the science behind it.
The knowledge that was attained through this study gave rise to the modern or experimental style of cooking we know today – you know, the kitchens that use equipment you’d generally expect to find in a lab and come up with all sorts of new ways to manipulate ingredients. Experimental cooking is an evolving style that is continually built upon by the knowledge that is gleaned from molecular gastronomy.
Kurti and This decided to study the science of cooking after coming to the realization that we were still cooking in much the same ways as our ancestors way back when. All of our various technological and scientific advances hadn’t had any significant impact on the way we prepare food. So Kurti and This set about discovering how the many processes of cooking change the structure of food, how ingredients react to different things, and what the best ways of preparing certain things are – according to science. Chefs can now use all of this knowledge to improve and diversify their cooking.
What’s the Deal with Experimental Cuisine?
Herve This had a passion for cooking and wanted the research he was undertaking to change the way food is perceived – to be regarded as pleasure rather than a necessity. He remarked that “this is simple physics but it can help us to make better food.”
Ferran Adria, the mastermind behind the now closed experimental restaurant elBulli, remarked that transforming foods into something new allows us to assign value to foods we would normally underrate: “a pear is the same as a lobster.”
Grant Achatz, of experimental restaurant Alinea, explained the vision behind his cooking as: “our mantra is that we’re gonna do things no one has ever done before.”
The knowledge that has been gained through molecular gastronomy has given chefs the ability to transform the tastes and textures of foods in revolutionary ways – something that would not be possible without knowing why ingredients behave in certain ways.
Much of the focus of modern cuisine is on extracting flavors from ingredients and presenting them in new and surprising textures. Achatz explained it as – “we lean towards science to figure out ways to extract flavor and aroma.” Experimental cuisine goes beyond simple cooking, to performance. The chef creates a multi-sensory experience for the diner. The tastes and textures are playful and surprising, they evoke memories, and more than likely have never been experienced before – each meal is an exploration of culinary possibilities.
The equipment used and the methods undertaken from this newfound knowledge may seem more fitting in a laboratory than a kitchen. This includes sous vide, freezing, dehydration, and the creation of foams and gels.
Experimental cuisine relies on extremely precise cooking but also on curiosity and experimentation. It is at once scientific and artistic. It is not much help to the chef to know the science and have the equipment available if there is no creative flair to dream up the possibilities and plate them beautifully. The food must be good above all else. These new methods are just tools that help chefs in their quest to perfect their craft and push its boundaries. Heston Blumenthal remarked that “it’s all just cooking” – we just now have completely revolutionary ways of doing it!
Is Experimental Cooking Here to Stay?
Experimental cooking has become so widespread that it’s increasingly becoming synonymous with fine dining. It takes incredible precision and complex methods to pull off these meals, along with hours of preparation, the need for all sorts of special equipment and most importantly – the creativity to conjure up these ideas! It is a style of cooking that requires a mastery of the craft – and this of course requires knowing and perfecting tradition first.
Blumenthal, Adria and Thomas Keller of the French Laundry released a statement together about experimental cuisine. They warned against what they perceived to be a misunderstanding of this approach to cooking, stating that certain aspects of it had become sensationalized while other aspects had been ignored. They cautioned against undertaking experimental cooking for the sake of novelty – the new methods and modern ingredients should not define cooking, they should be used as tools to create more stimulating and innovative dishes. Molecular gastronomy helps to remove constraints previously faced by cooks. It gives us information that helps us realize the complex potential of ingredients – “it is not a new idea, but a new opportunity” they stated.
Experimental cooking is the natural progression of the culinary arts. With more information and better tools available than ever before, it follows that chefs are going to create groundbreaking meals that challenge our notions of how certain ingredients work, how tastes and textures are experienced, and what the dining experience itself is.
Experimental cuisine is turning dining into a multi-sensory, emotional experience and more and more restaurants are taking this approach on board – it appears that the avant-garde kitchen is here to stay! The challenge is to ensure that this style of cooking isn’t undertaken for the sake of the trend, but that it is utilized as a means of creating better, more interesting meals.
If that inspired you to get more innovative in your restaurant, we're talking all things innovation in Sydney on October 5th! Watch the event trailer below and learn more on the Typsy Live page.