No, I am not hinting at an underground rave. I’m talking food, of course. According to Grant Achatz and Nathan Myhrvold, if you don’t like the direction of the modern food movement, you’re stuck in the past. Now, they don’t say that so directly, but that was my interpretation of it: if you’re not moving forward, you’re not progressing. Food has been evolving over the centuries, and this molecular gastronomy movement, or whatever else you may like to call it, is no more forward thinking than that of Escoffier, Brillat-Savarin, or even the Nouvelle Cuisine of the 1970s.
Food is constantly changing, undergoing facelifts in its presentation, manipulated by various techniques of cooking style and ultimately surprising and hopefully delighting the diner with the end result. Chefs today are hoping to provide delicious food, yet do it in a way that doesn’t rely solely on the classic approach. History of course provides the fundamentals in the kitchen. As a cook, you have to understand such things as the Maillard reaction, or the reaction between an amino acid and reducing sugars. You’ve eaten results of this reaction when you toss a handful of roasted peanuts in your mouth while you’re talking politics at the bar, or wolfed down a stack of flap jacks soaked in warm maple syrup on a chilly fall morning. So this reaction is important to understand not because it’s going to make you appreciate those pancakes any more than you already do, but it will let you understand the process and then go on to manipulate it in new ways. Let’s take for instance an example given last night: parsley purée. It used to be that you’d have to add products, such as gelatin soaked in water, that would dilute the purée, leaving an end result that didn’t pack the desired leafy punch. Now with the wide range of hydrocolloids (or gums), you can add a chemical that won’t dilute the purée, but instead thicken the purée with an end result of pure parsley flavor!
I personally get pretty excited over hydrocolloids. I’m still learning how to use most of them, but they allow you to play with food much like a mad scientist. In the kitchen, I’m normally guestimating percentages based on how the product is supposed to be used. To make a perfect port gel, you are supposed to use 1.4% agar-agar/1000 mL of liquid…approximately. These gums allow you to take a product and then twist it into a new textural experience. And though I only have my dinky kitchen to experiment in, you can look to other sources for references, such as www.ideasinfood.com or http://forums.egullet.org.
Nathan made the point that people sometimes protest to the use of these chemicals in their food. But truth be told, these chemicals are pure forms of natural projects. Agar-agar and carrageenan are both substances derived from seaweed, minus the look and smell of course. “But they’re chemicals!” you might say. And chemicals, my friends, are made up of elements….and so is everything else in this world.
Mr. Myhrvold is also a sous-vide provocateur. He is currently writing a book on the science behind cooking meat and veg in vacuum sealed bags at low temperatures. Many cooks are opposed to the idea of dropping a bag in water and letting a thermometer do the work. A piece of meat cooked medium-rare sous-vide attains a uniform pink blush, as opposed to varying degrees of pinkness that radiate out of the center towards grayish-brown edges from a sautéed and oven cooked piece. I think a lot of cooks find this technique sub-standard since the machine is doing the work…but it is hard to argue with the perfection that results from this method. Not to mention that the cook is no longer a human thermometer (though I still think it’s desirable to know how to cook just using a stove and oven). Sous-vide, according to the self-proclaimed über nerd, is the microwave of the future.
So this modern revolution, or molecular gastronomy phenomenon, that we have been experiencing for years, and will for years to come, has rules. The most important rule is that you must break rules! The whole purpose of the revolution is to inspire and provoke diners through new ingredients and the use of science. You must embrace past revolutions to develop fresh dialogue between the diner and the kitchen.
Chefs like Grant Achatz are part of this modern movement, pushing forward with a bit of irreverence. New flavor combinations are dreamt up, such as his Willy Wonkish idea to combine white chocolate and lavender, black olive and strawberry into an orb that melts into each subsequent flavor, much like a never ending gobstopper. But though this trend of cooking is thriving in Chicago (the mid-west people!!), it has not fully taken hold here in New York. Yes, there are chefs who proceed in this direction, such as Wylie Dufresne, Sam Mason, Paul Liebrandt and even pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, but most chefs only dabble in liqui gels or sodium alginate spheres. Achatz expressed a desire to one day open a restaurant in the city, but doesn’t feel he has an audience who is willing to upgrade to his style of food. I’d like to object whole-heartedly here and say he does have customers who would eat it up, every last lick of his nitrogen dipped wagyu, ravioli of back truffle explosion, or his hot and cold potato soup. Bring on the modernist/molecular gastronomy/techno-emotional cooking we’re inevitably all moving towards…please!