An application of chemistry to the culinary arts, molecular gastronomy gas gained new attention and devotees in these first years of the 21st century. Some of the world’s most renowned chefs today, such as Ferran Adria from El Bulli Spain, Pierre Gagnaire from his eponymous restaurant in Paris and Heston Blumenthal from The Fat Duck in England employ molecular gastronomy to the delight of their guests.
In France, molecular gastronomy has gained such prominence that the Fondation Science & Culture Alimentaire (Foundation ‘Food Science & Culture’) was recently created by the French Academy of Sciences in order to promote and refine the practice. However, the practice is so unconventional that it has raised controversy in culinary circles as to whether it should join the pantheon of accepted gourmet techniques or if it’s simply another passing fad.
The term “molecular gastronomy” was coined in 1988 by two European scientists who sought to solve the mysteries of the physical and chemical processes that transpire during cooking, such as why a soufflé rises or what exactly does blanching do to vegetables. To prepare dishes using molecular gastronomy, a chef must truly understand how cooking works on a molecular level. This understanding is used to either present conventional dishes in unconventional ways (e.g. meat and potatoes, where the meat and potatoes are in foam form and are respectively shaped like a cow and a fresh potato still buried in a truffle and black pepper “dirt”) or to create new concoctions altogether (e.g. unagi cotton candy). It’s the unexpected, often radical presentation of food that both endears the movement to its followers and causes its critics to heap scorn upon it.
With deeper understanding of the molecular processes that underlie the cooking process comes a desire in many adherent chefs for experimentation and the need for new equipment to help actualize their ideas. As such, liquid nitrogen, immersion circulators, flame scales, C02 chargers, rotary evaporators, and many other intriguing gadgets and elements all constitute tools of the trade for molecular gastronomists. All of these toys lead critics to contend that molecular gastronomists are simply “playing with food,” and often produce dishes that may be interesting looking but are inferior in flavor and character to more traditional preparations. In fact, both chefs Adria and Blumenthal have shied away from being labeled molecular gastronomists, stating that, “The term 'molecular gastronomy' doesn't describe our cooking, or indeed any style of cooking."
Whether or not molecular gastronomy is here to stay remains to be seen. However, critics and supporters alike would be wise to follow Chef Adria’s belief that, "If you don't like a certain type of cuisine, then pursue your own . . .at the end of the day, a restaurant is a democratic place. If you don't like the food they serve, then don't go there."