Edible Paper? Lasers? Carbonated Fruit?
This is the new era of food.
It’s been called “avant-garde,” “postmodern” and sometimes just plain crazy. But for chefs like Ben Roche of Chicago’s Moto, cooking has transformed into a science and an unexpected art form.
“It’s more than just cooking, it’s conceptualizing the food. It’s how you start with an idea and turn it into something totally outside the box that no one has really thought of before,” Roche said.
Regardless of what the food is labeled as, this type of cuisine falls under a broader category called molecular gastronomy, the application of scientific techniques in cooking.
“It is basically using what we know about the science of food to make something new. It doesn’t mean that we are using the chemistry set to come up with a new dish but it’s just that we are thinking differently than people have in the past,” Roche said.
Although this term was first coined in the 1980’s by French scientists Hervé This and Nicholas Kurti, Spain’s Ferran Adrià was the first to serve food driven by the idea of molecular gastronomy at his restaurant El Bulli in Roses, Spain.
Since then, several chefs across America have opened up restaurants serving this type of cuisine. Two restaurants, Moto and Alinea, are leading the molecular gastronomy movement in Chicago. Moto’s executive chef Homaro Cantu and Alinea’s executive chef Grant Achatz are using everything from calcium chloride to methylcellulose to give their diners a unique culinary experience.
“It’s actually a really exciting time to be a cook. There are a lot of new innovations that are being developed all over the world,” Roche said.
Unlike their peers, these chefs often transform their kitchens into laboratories and mix chemicals to give their customers an entirely new way of thinking about food.
At Moto, Cantu and Roche are constantly inventing new texture profiles to challenge common perceptions of food.
“We take foods that people know like peanut butter and jelly or s’mores and serve it in a weird outlandish fashion with the presentation or texture of the dish,” Roche said. “Each dish offers at least one unique idea. You can’t really describe our food by any words that describe other people’s food.”
Using liquid nitrogen, Roche can turn carrot cake batter into hollow ice cream balls. Cantu uses lasers, commonly used by surgeons and welders, to infuse hints of oak and vanilla into wine glasses, enhancing the wine tasting experience.
“It’s a fusion of innovation and technologies to provide a new menu and new cuisine that involves more of the science as well as the creativity,” said Roger Clemens, the spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists [IFT].
Molecular gastronomy places a heavy emphasis on presentation and the dining experience. Chefs use different technologies such as polymer guns and helium to give their customers a multisensory eating adventure.
“We are working on a dish right now where we put helium inside of this edible polymer type shell that will levitate. The idea is that we’ll bring a plate to a table and as it warms up to room temperature, it will start to float and the diner has to catch it quickly or else it will float to the ceiling,” Roche said.
Although Roche has no background in science, he says he has always been interested in it.
“A lot of the things we find out and end up using in the kitchen is trial and error,” Roche said. “Sometimes I just like to throw things in the blender and see what happens.”
As a part of their ten course tasting menu, Cantu serves a bowl of Vietnamese hot and sour soup that turns into a boiling foggy cauldron when liquid nitrogen infused egg drops and field greens are added. Although cold air pours out of the bowl, the soup remains warm.
“This type of food is not just eating; it is an entire night experience. It is a theater for your mouth,” Cynthia Clampitt said. “The presentation, drama and excitement of what is to come lasts the entire night.”
Clampitt, a 56-year-old resident of Arlington Heights, has eaten at both Alinea and Moto. Although Clampitt enjoyed her experience at Moto, she was not completely satisfied by the food.
“Not everything was perfect. It was all clever and innovative but I think some things were too ‘gee whiz’ and the flavor suffered because of it,” Clampitt said. “There is a tricky balance that must be met between science and flavor.”
Neil Coletta, the coordinator for the Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy program at Boston University, has also heard similar complaints.
“I’ve known a lot of people who’ve made special trips to eat at WD-50 in New York and Alinea in Chicago so they can check it out and see what this movement is all about. They came back with mixed reviews but they all had a really good time.” Coletta said.
Molecular gastronomy has caused a particular divide within the professional culinary community. While chefs like Roche, Cantu and Achatz have been praised by many food critics for their innovative techniques and new perspectives on food, some chefs, such as Mike Riley, a teacher at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, are against the molecular gastronomy movement because of the added chemicals.
“I think the interest and appeal [in molecular gastronomy] is temporary. I just don’t think it’s real food for real people. It’s really experimental, and it’s interesting in its approach but it requires no personal skill from a cooking standpoint,” Riley said.
“It’s not really a meal; it doesn’t nourish us in any way. We should be fairly against chemicals in our food.”
Coletta, however, says that this resistance to molecular gastronomy is to be expected.
“If you look at any new type of movement, you’ll find that there will always be certain naysayers and people holding on to traditions for various reasons and downplaying the work of other people,” Coletta said. “The techniques are different, the ingredients are different and you have a very different philosophy and approach to how food is prepared, but it’s all cooking.”
Despite the criticism, molecular gastronomy has become so popular that suppliers such as WillPowder in New York are making many of the chemicals used by Moto and Alinea available to people at home. Ferran Adrià also offers do-it-yourself molecular gastronomy kits under a brand called Texturas.
“There is such an interest in using molecular gastronomy at home because it is a novelty. It’s a way to entertain your friends,” Coletta said.
Riley also attributes the overwhelming interest in molecular gastronomy to the Food Network which he says has made the concept more accessible.
After watching an episode of “Into the Fire” on the Food Network, Shreveport La. resident Michael Oboyle started experimenting with molecular gastronomy in the spring of 2007. His first attempt was a peach caviar that he used to top an oyster dish for Easter.
“The basic framework for all of my recipes are from the Internet and some shows on the Food Network,” Oboyle said.
Oboyle writes about his experiments on his food blog titled “Chicken Fried Gourmet.” Not all of his experiments, however, are successful such as when he attempted to make fizzy cranberry vodka spheres with a reverse spherification kit that he purchased online.
“Trying new recipes opens your mind and gives you a new perspective on food. It makes you really think about food and where it comes from,” Oboyle said. “What you experienced in the past is not necessarily what you are going to experience in the future.”
Ironically, Oboyle said he “hated chemistry in high school.”
According to Clemens of IFT, all of these chemicals that chefs and home cooks are using are safe and FDA approved. He warns, however, that any excessive use of these chemicals is potentially dangerous.
“While I would encourage people to look at new opportunities to transform food into something new and exciting, I would advise that food safety is critical in all aspects of creating food,” Clemens said.
Because molecular gastronomy is a relatively new idea, Coletta says it is too early to predict molecular gastronomy’s place in food history.
“Molecular gastronomy is just the next step in the whole spectrum of food history and culinary trends. Only time will tell whether it’s important or not,” Coletta said.
Regardless of the criticism they have faced, Cantu and Roche continue to amaze their diners, leading a culinary revolution that they hope will influence other chefs and change the way Americans look at food.