Get ready to change the way you think about food. Whether it’s called “molecular gastronomy” or “avant-garde” cuisine, it is setting the standard for the world’s best restaurants – and setting them apart from everything that preceded them.
Most chefs creating this cuisine despise the term “molecular gastronomy.” I prefer the term “research-driven cuisine” to describe this evolution in cuisine and how we perceive the food on our plates. Wylie Defresne, chef of the famed WD-50 restaurant in New York, came up with this description. In New Products Magazine he stated that he believed in “a collaboration between the food scientist and the culinarian in the restaurant, combining technique with technology.”
This new cuisine presents food in ways that would have been impossible only a few decades ago. The renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adrià says that this cuisine requires a new language of food. Its hallmarks include a deconstructed presentation, unique flavour combinations, extreme textures and astonishing presentation.
Take a deconstructed clam chowder, for example. Gone is the soup bowl with a thick creamy seafood soup. Instead, investigate your plate and you’ll likely find a “chowder” of potato mousse, parsley and bacon purée, topped with a steamed clam, salt water foam and crisp potato cubes. Unique and unexpected flavour combinations like licorice and salmon meet to create an entirely new taste, and liquid nitrogen is used to create extreme textures such as delicate bite-size morsels with a meringue like crust and a centre with the texture of whipped cream.
When these dishes arrive at your table, expect them to be presented on mini grills, pieces of wire, or even wax bowls with the garnish balanced on a small pin. Other items are not as they seem – like an iced tea that has both hot and cold liquids within the same clear glass. It challenges the senses. Think of it as “the science of deliciousness,” as well-known food science cookbook author Harold McGee calls it.
My exposure to “research-driven cuisine” began three years ago when I joined the Campbell Company of Canada as a research chef. Then I had the opportunity to attend the 2006 Worlds of Flavour conference where the headline chef was Ferran Adrià of elbulli restaurant, who Time magazine named one of the world’s most influential people in 2004. His demonstrations of new culinary techniques, textures and flavour combinations were both mind-boggling and inspiring.
To make these incredible creations, top restaurants now have specialized equipment. With tools such as the Pacojet, with a blade that shaves frozen food at 2,000 rpm; the Thermomix that weighs, cooks and blends in the same unit; and the Polyscience immersion circulator that cooks sous-vide products to within 0.05ºC of accuracy. All these kitchen gadgets deliver extraordinary results. I’ll cover more on this in a future article.
The world’s top four restaurants (first published by Restaurant magazine in 2002 and now in its seventh year, The San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants is recognized around the world as the most credible indicator of the best places to eat on Earth), elbulli, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, Pierre Gagnaire and Magaritz, all work closely with food scientists. Last summer I had the opportunity to dine at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck. I had a 12-hour stopover at Heathrow and couldn’t miss the chance to have lunch at this unique restaurant. To date, it has been my best dining experience ever.
The tableside cooking (using liquid nitrogen at -196ºC), presentation, taste combinations and textures, were total culinary euphoria. Blumenthal’s infamous snails with parsley porridge, parsnip cereal and licorice salmon didn’t disappoint, nor did the bacon and egg ice cream made tableside with liquid nitrogen. The carrot and orange lollipop at the end of the meal was another great and whimsical flavour pairing. The Fat Duck creates these dishes in an experimental kitchen where a separate team works through the year developing dishes.
Before my visit, I questioned Heston’s ingredient pairings, but when I finally had an opportunity to experience them firsthand, they shed new light on the combinations that are possible. If you’re looking to experiment yourself with some of these seemingly contradictory pairings, you may wish to visit a website I recently discovered, www.foodpairing.be, that features the major flavour components that numerous different food items have in common, and possible pairings. Imagine my surprise to learn that the “carpetbag steak” with its beef fillet stuffed with oysters from my homeland of Australia actually appears on the list as a good food pairing.
Research driven cuisine has many forms and flavours, but the one thing that unites all the great restaurants that specialize in this form of cuisine is “the collaboration between the food scientist and the culinarian.” The quest to learn, taste and experience is part of the chef’s DNA and one I look forward to addressing in future articles.