Call it molecular gastronomy, call it modernist cuisine, call it multi-sensory cooking, experimental cuisine, avant-garde cuisine, nueva cocina, or culinary physics. Call it whatever you like, really, but there’s a school of cooking out there that uses science and chemistry to turn cuisine as we know it on its head.
When we apply heat to food, certain physical and chemical transformations occur, and chefs have made a study of these for centuries. Marie-Antoine Carême, for example, one of the greatest French chefs, noted in the early 1800s that when making stock “the broth must come to a boil very slowly,” or else the gelatin won’t have time to melt away from the meat. Food science has been in practice for many decades for packaged foods, but it wasn’t until the 1980s when chefs started thinking about how they could change the status quo by thinking more about the scientific process of cooking.
In 1988, Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti and French physical chemist Hervé This first coined the term “molecular gastronomy,” and in 1992 they held the first of many workshops in Erice, Italy, in which both scientists and professional cooks came together to discuss the science behind traditionally accepted cooking methods. Among the questions posed were: What happens when you cook meat very slowly over low heat, instead of quickly over high heat? How do the other senses, like smell and touch, affect how we perceive food? How does the addition of chemicals or gasses change the properties of a food or liquid? (Kurti once famously remarked, "Is it not quite amazing that today we know more about the temperature distribution in the atmosphere of the planet Venus than that in the center of our soufflé?")
The snowball effect that the advent of molecular gastronomy had on the cooking world at large is too long and complex to go into here, but today chefs from every culinary background are practicing this technique of turning traditional cooking methods on their heads, at some of the best restaurants in the world. While the best chefs once only had knives and stoves at their disposal, today leading modernist innovators like Ferran Adrià, José Andrés, Grant Achatz, Wylie Dufresne, Homaro Cantu, and Richard Blais are wielding anti-griddles, liquid nitrogen, centrifuges, transglutaminase, immersion circulators, and maltodextrin as deftly as they wield their knives and salt shakers.
While a whole lot of science (not to mention thought) goes into the creation of every single “molecular gastronomy” dish, at the end of the day, it’s just a plate of food (albeit one that can change everything you thought you knew about food), and, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. Getting it right takes a lot of hard work, and when a dish really hits the nail on the head, it can become the stuff of legend. Read on for eight dishes that are among the most iconic in the modernist pantheon.
Spherified Olive: elBulli
The adaptation and elaboration of the industrial food technique of spherification at chef Ferran Adrià’s (now-closed) elBulli in 2003 was a turning point in molecular gastronomy. By immersing a liquid combined with sodium alginate in a water bath containing calcium, a perfect sphere was formed that burst with flavor when eaten, and this spherification process is a staple of modernist menus today. By reversing the process (inserting a liquid that already contains calcium into an alginate bath) Adria was able to solve the problem of working with products that already contained calcium (like olives), and the Spherified Olive was born. The sphere closely resembles an olive and tastes exactly like one, yet only contains liquid, so eating one of these is a paradigm-shifting experience for modernist newbies. While elBulli is no longer in operation as a restaurant, this dish is still available at all locations of Jaleo and Bazaar, run by Adria’s protégé, José Andrés (though Andrés doubles the fun by serving his versions alongside conventional Spanish olives).
Eggs Benedict: wd~50
Wylie Dufresne’s (now sadly closed) wd~50 introduced New Yorkers to the playful side of molecular gastronomy, and the most groundbreaking dish he served there was his play on eggs Benedict, which he introduced in 2005. By partnering cubes of English muffin-breaded fried hollandaise with streaks of seasoned egg yolk cooked to a fudgy consistency in an immersion circulator and crispy wisps of Canadian bacon, he completely reinvented a popular dish while maintaining all off its flavors, which is the height of the “deconstruction” school of molecular gastronomy.