Last month, The West Australian’s West Weekend Magazine food critic, Rob Broadfield (whom I lauded in a previous post), wrote a business-buster of a critique of the Little Cloud restaurant in Peppermint Grove. His review was so withering, I could have felt sorry for the chef were it not for three factors.
The first was this remark of Broadfield’s that so filled me with mirth that I had no room left for other emotions:
The salmon dish was like Tourette syndrome on a plate. Its many flavours and textures, none of them agreeable, were shouting and yelping away at each other in a cacophony of uncontrolled chemistry.
The second was the extreme arrogance of the 22 year old untrained chef (Mummy is backing her boy’s restaurant venture) in responding to Broadfield returning a dish that was cold by sending the waiter back with the message: “The chef is defending his right not to serve his food hot.” That sort of preciousness would be hard to forgive in a Michelin Star chef. In a big-headed junior in his first commercial venture, it is terminal.
And the third? The fact that this stove puppy’s fare is supposedly inspired by the Molecular Gastronomy movement (or ‘cult’, saith Broadfield).
Molecular Gastronomy, as Broadfield described it, is an eccentric fad that draws on chemistry and technology to push food beyond its natural constraints. Meaning?
At its weirdest, gels, foams and thin alginate casings that burst open on your tongue, releasing liquid carriers of flavours you’ve never dreamt of. Or at the less extreme end of the spectrum, bizarre and seemingly incongruent flavour and texture combinations that apparently work: for example, bacon and egg icecream – a signature dish on the menu of the famous Fat Duck restaurant in England, run by Molecular Gastronomy leading light Heston Blumenthal.
I hardly need confide, dear reader, that I reeled back with a sneer to shrivel the souls of infants. So perverse did I find this Molecular Gastronomy concept that I went to the bother of researching it further. And found – to my surprise – that Broadfield had undersold it!
To be fair, his focus was on the restaurant he was reviewing. He didn’t have space to elaborate on Molecular Gastronomy (“MG” from here on). And he did acknowledge that at its best it can be “clever, even life-changing.” But Broadfield’s dismissal of MG as a cult is not factually supportable. It is not even a food movement, as such. And it’s not a fad!
So what the bleedin’ hell is it?
Wikipedia provides as good a definition as any: a scientific discipline involving the study of physical and chemical processes that occur in cooking. The science behind cooking, in other words.
The origins of the term “Molecular Gastronomy” can be traced back to 1980, when it was coined by Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti at a conference that subsequently became known as the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery (now an annual event). Attendees at the inaugural Symposium included the revolutionary food/cookery writer Elizabeth David, whose books and articles acclaiming French and Mediterranean regional fare opened the stuffy kitchen windows of post-war Britain to a continental breeze that flushed out the boiled cabbage and potato blandness that had earned the place – quite rightly – the stamp of culinary philistinism.
Although its conception came long before, MG’s delivery as a discipline emerged out of a series of workshops in Erice, Italy, attended by scientists and professional cooks interested in investigating the science behind traditional cooking preparations and processes. The first of these workshops was in 1992; they were held regularly thereafter. The event was re-named “The International Workshop on Molecular Gastronomy” in 1998 and continued annually until 2004. No fad, then. And certainly no cult. This is serious science – the science of flavour!
Enough theoretical background. Boffins are one thing – but how does the theory translate to the table? At best, astonishly well, apparently.
Have a look at chocolateandzucchini.com, which has pics – copyright protected, unfortunately – of some weirdo MG-driven dishes and a good review of the El Bulli restaurant in Barcelona. The El Bulli’s owner and head chef, Ferran Adria, is legendary for his uncompromising avant garde creations and considered by the global high-end food mafia (ie: esteemed food critics writing for esteemed Euro and American foodie mags) to be “the best chef in the world”. Not sure what “best” is supposed to mean, but there you go.
Look, this high-end restaurant stuff doesn’t interest me much, to be honest. I’m curious, but not about to blow a fortune I don’t have on a plane ticket to sample the bizarro stuff at the Fat Duck or El Bulli. Actually, I’m about to unleash a nasty bitch of a post on high-end foodies and restaurants. My philosophy on food will accompany that little effort. Suffice it to say here that I’m in the Jamie Oliver camp – gimme big peasanty regional flavour over urban finesse every time.
That qualifier aside, why not use science in developing kitchen practices, in seeking out new flavours, flavour combos and textures that “work”, and in adopting new techniques in food preparation? Indeed, “chef scientists” have been active in the R&D departments of commercial food companies for many years. True, they have some abominations to answer for (supermarket “mayonnaise”, egg powder, instant mashed potato and “crab sticks”, for example). But science is not the villain. Shit, isn’t every cook a chemist of sorts?
Venture out of restaurant land a moment. Is there any place for MG in the domestic kitchen? Sure!
I’m not advocating home cooks letting loose their inner maniac. Blow-torched lamb spleen topped with sundried sardine chips, camel milk custard and whipped foam of Vegemite – no!
I’m suggesting that science may have a role in educating us in the kitchen. Cookery is folkloric in part. Ancestral secrets abound, recipes are passed on family to family – and indeed, this is part of the charm and romance of food. Long may its mystique live. But it must also be acknowledged that amongst the magic formulae are myths and old wives tales based on superstition and heresay. MG has busted some of these wide open. Here are some examples from Wikipedia:
And here are some more, based on empirical evidence I’ve accumulated over 35 years as a keen and committed home cook:
I could go on…
Finally, here’s a little sumpin’ to counter the assumption that MG-influenced food is always, inevitably and incontrovertibly weird – a recipe for perfect fried egg and chips from Mr Heston Blumenthal himself: click here. Must say, though, it does seem like a lotta muckin’ around when all you’re after is a good fryup.
For every El Bulli or Fat Duck, there’ll be a hundred Little Clouds. You know what they say about a little knowledge. For me, though, inviting science into the kitchen is no bad thing – as long as it doesn’t bring on an epidemic of fussy arty-farty finessing and food fondling from techno gadget-wielding pretenders masquerading as maestros. Nought kooky or pretentious about fried egg and chips, though, eh guv? Which reminds me, Elizabeth David – don’t say nuthin’ good came out of olde Brit cuisine!
PS: Ferran Adria has a book out that will be fascinating for anyone who wants some insight into molecular gastronomy. It’s a pricey $75 in Australia at the time of writing. Amazon has a much better deal (USD$32.97) – especially if you cut postage costs per item by ordering a few other books or CDs at the same time. Click on the link below to go straight to Amazon (I’ll get a small referral commission, and the price will be the same for you):