Cooking has come a long way over recent years. No longer satisfied with using the conventional oven, many chefs are raiding the laboratory for new and interesting ways to serve up their gastronomic delights. So is it cuisine, or science, or art? We’ll leave that for you to decide!
So What Does It All Mean?
Essentially, molecular gastronomy explores the science & technology surrounding traditional cooking methods. Coined in the late 80s by two European chemists, the phrase was adopted during the nineties and early noughties to describe the experimental style of cooking favoured by some of the world's most innovative and creative chefs. In more recent years however, many of these chefs have distanced themselves from the movement, even releasing a joint tatement repudiating the term that had begun to define them. So is it allnow just glory from a bygone era? The term 'molecular gastronomy' may be passe, but if some of the braver restaurants are anything to go by, many of its techniques are still as hot as ever.
Bubble bubble, toil & trouble. Sometimes the non-traditional cooking techniques used by modern-day chefs can look more like a science class experiment than haute cuisine. For those who don’t know their sous vide from their spherification, here is a list of must-haves for the modern-day kitchen:
Anti-griddle: a device that quickly freezes sauces and purees, producing interesting solid and semi-solid creations.
Foam: a culinary technique invented by Spanish chef extraordinaire Ferran Adria. It involves mixing natural flavours (such as juice) with a gelling agent and then forcing them out through a whipping cream canister using nitrous oxide, which produces a light, airy substance similar to fairy floss.
Pacojet: a fast, automatated ice cream and sorbet maker from Switzerland that requires far less sugar than its predecessors, if any at all.
Sous vide: a cooking technique where food is sealed in a vacuum bag and then submerged into a water bath, to be slow-cooked at a low temperature. This ensures the food is cooked evenly throughout, as well as retaining its shape and texture. It is especially popular for cooking meat and fish, and puts paid to the old ‘seared on the outside, raw in the middle’ method of cooking a steak.
Spherification: a gelling reaction also coined by Ferran Adria when he first created the olive sphere. It involves dropping a ball of liquid into a chemical bath, creating a jelly-like shell with a liquid centre.
Thermomixer: Now the top ‘must-have’ appliance in domestic and commercial kitchens around the world, the thermomixer is ten kitchen gadgets all rolled into one. Its many talents include mincing, chopping, weighing, heating, kneading, juicing and steaming, and anyone who owns one generally has a lot of good things to say.
In the relatively short time that George Calombaris has been a chef, he has risen through the ranks at a scorching pace to become one of Australia’s most high-profile chefs. Initially working at ‘Fenix’, George branched out with his own experimental restaurant ‘Reserve’ before opening his award-winning Greek restaurant at ‘The Press Club’, which he has written a cookbook about. He has since gone on to open two more restaurants in Melbourne and one in Mykonos, Greece, and is one of the judges on Channel Ten’s soon-to-air MasterChef Australia. As with everything, George comes straight to the point when asked about molecular gastronomy.
“For me personally, molecular gastronomy was so eight years ago. It was an amazing movement that is now unfortunately being bastardized by many chefs. For many, it’s about putting things in a gas bottle or adding chocolate to their chops. It’s not. It’s about modernized modern cuisine. It’s about new techniques. It’s about understanding produce and where it comes from and when it’s at its best. We cook pork loins at 61.5 degrees in a water bath for 14.5 minutes and it’s like eating butter rather than roasting it in a pan then throwing it in a hot oven where it’s going to lose 60% of its goodness. People have been cooking things in bags for centuries. It ain’t new.
“Yes okay, we do spherification and airs, but at the end of the day it is food. I’d prefer people to say ‘Wow that tasted great’ rather than ‘Wow, that was freaky’. I think that’s where you’ve got to balance it. It took some time to understand that”.
George can’t live without…
- Water bath
- Convotherm oven
Shannon Bennett is the chef and maestro behind multi-award winning Melbourne restaurant 'Vue de monde'. He is as renowned for his cutting-edge cuisine as he is for his dedication to classical French cooking, and his latest books is called 'My French Vue'. His new offering is 'Vue by Shannon Bennett', which opened last year in Oman on the Arabian Peninsula in the Middle East.
Shannon's preferred molecular-related cooking techniques are distillation (to concentrate the flavours), slow cooking in oil baths and bain maries, and spherification. But the term does not sit well with him.
"I believe 'molecular' is really the wrong word for this type of cooking," says Shannon.
"It's a term that should be seen, not heard. Working with molecules is the basis of all cooking, so molecular gastronomy will always be around. Some very clever chefs, particularly in Europe, have made great advances in working with molecules to enhance their cuisine, and we will continue to build on that".
Shannon can't live without...
- Good coffee
- French butter
- Goose fat
- Olive oil
- A copy of Le Repertoire
Scottish-born chef Ray Capaldi was the mastermind behind one of Melbourne’s most adventurous restaurants, ‘Fenix’, serving such whimsy as green tea gas and scallops with licorice before it sadly hit the ashes last year. But rest assured, Ray’s latest venture Locarno 150, which opens mid-2009, promises to continue with the showmanship he became so renowned for.
“There will always be people who mock this style of new and creative cooking,” says Ray.
“But chefs are suffering from a shortage of staff and experience at the moment, so why not look to science to cook a perfect steak and understand what part of the animal did it come from, what it ate, and so on? We all want to cook to perfection.
“It has taken many years to understand why we cook the way we do to realise much of it is all wrong. The creation of some of these new dishes sounds a bit like Alice in Wonderland. But to learn new ways you have to have a limit and it takes time for a good chef to set his limit. Like all new techniques, it is the chefs that doubt that will be left behind.
“The phrase ‘molecular gastronomy’ is the science behind why we do what we do, and is nothing to do with a trend. Personally, I prefer to call my style of cooking ‘traderne’: traditional cooking in a modern way”.
Ray can’t live without..
- Tin opener
- Pressure cooker
- Water bath/ sous vide. All kitchens should have one
- The best man in the kitchen, the dishwasher