Molecular evolution

Ferran Adria of El Bulli has been credited with revolutionising fine dining.

Ferran Adria of El Bulli has been credited with revolutionising fine dining.

Forget the new stove—buy a waterbath instead. Matt Preston talks to some of the world’s top chefs about what it really means to be molecular.

Welcome to the scary, crazy world of fine dining, 21st Century-style. What was once dismissed as a fad has now become a bona fide phenomenon. It’s a world where three-star Michelin restaurants present their signature seafood dish with an iPod full of seagull cries instead of an ice-bucket full of champagne.

Glance at SanPellegrino’s recently published list of the world’s 50 best restaurants and the majority of names in the top ten belong to a school of thought once called molecular gastronomy.

And at the head of that list is the man credited with revolutionising fine dining—Ferran Adria of El Bulli.

It’s hard to understand how influential he has been, but considering that two of his fellow chefs are in the top ten—Rene Redzepi from Copenhagen’s Noma and Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz—is a sound starting point. Both chefs also credit their awakening to time spent in the kitchens of El Bulli.

Strip away the sensational headlines and there stands an impressively prolific chef with a dizzying intellect for creating new ideas and techniques. Trouble is, Adria is a bit like a culinary Jesus—an awful lot of foodie crimes have been committed in his name—oysters dabbed with menthol, ice-cream with every course except dessert, foam made of foam made of foam… you know the stuff.

Talking at the Madrid Fusion culinary congress earlier this year, Adria likened his desire to find new ways to achieve culinary outcomes like savoury chocolate or a feather-light sponge as “a dream to create our own alphabet with which to write our own language of food”.

He likened each new technique or idea as adding another letter to the alphabet. “We started with a very limited alphabet so we were condemned to repeat ourselves, but now it’s bigger. Some old techniques like foams, gels, coals and lathers have been important enough to be seen as whole sentences, rather than just a single new letter.”

The criticism levelled at Adria is that he’s solely technique-driven, even though he’s the first to claim that techniques should never monopolise a menu.

Behind all this high-falutin’ intellectual chatter is a set of principles underpinning techno-emotional cuisine—as molecular gastronomy has now been renamed—and includes the need for every dish to engage with diners emotionally or intellectually.

Much more has been made, however, of another principle in this manifesto—that chefs need to interact with other disciplines to fully progress their cuisines. A perceived reliance on blokes in white coats and laboratories had led to claims that this is “mad scientist” cookery. It’s a concern that Adria bats away: “Science is part of cooking as it is part of everything.”

And it’s certainly nothing new. Back in 1825, French foodie Anselme Brillat-Savarin wrote that “the future of gastronomy belongs to chemistry”, and in her 1900 cookbook, Mrs Marshall advised Victorian women to have their cook pack a flask of liquid nitrogen for picnics so they could make ice-cream “in the field”!

While some of the ideas expressed in the manifesto are truisms, others are even more challenging and some even confronting—such as the idea that all products have the same gastronomic value whether it’s lobster, foie gras, potatoes or Pepsi. Remember, here, that truffles were once a poor man’s meal.

Equally challenging is the notion of engaging all the senses—including touch—which has led Mugartiz’s Aduriz to experiment with such concepts as lowering salt content, serving food lukewarm or taking flavour to a point where even he describes it as “insipid”.

The cynic might suggest that if you put these together, you’ll end up with fifties hospital food, but these experiments in brinksmanship are about finding ways to explore areas like the subtlies of flavour and texture.

The area of engaging all the senses explains the thinking behind one dish on the menu at The Fat Duck. As part of his ‘Sounds of the Sea’ dish, chef Heston Blumenthal serves seaweed, shavings of sea creature, briny oyster foam and tapioca “sand” set on glass above a box of real sand, as well as an Apple iPod hidden in a seashell.

It was inspired by Oxford University research exploring the notion that sound can enhance taste. “Sixty-two per cent of people who listened to the sound of the sea while eating an oyster found it more salty, while 87 per cent found it more pleasurable,” Blumenthal says.

“In addition, 63 per cent found the same oysters less pleasurable when listening to barnyard sounds. We did the same test with our bacon and egg ice-cream. We found that with the sound of sizzling bacon it tasted more bacon-y to people; and eggier with the sound of clucking!”

For two-star chef at London’s Pied a Terre, Shane Osborne, it’s this concept of “opening up new paths” that makes the techno-emotional movement so appealing. “It’s amazing how chefs like Adria are willing to share their discoveries so freely,” he says.

In fact, Adria spent his whole keynote presentation at MadridFusion discussing the 33 new techniques he’d developed at El Bulli, with detailed recipes, ingredient lists, quantities, cooking and cooling times. By passing on his ideas, he hopes others will adopt them and move them forward, so he can in return benefit from their innovation. But not everyone has skipped happily down the same path.

This school of food has been called everything from pretentious to dangerous; most notably by Adria’s fellow countryman Santi Santamaria.

Alex Atala, chef of Brazil’s top restaurant DOM, takes a similarly cerebral approach to cooking and sees this type of critisicm as merely part of being a true pioneer.

“When you go down a path that no-one has gone down before, you will find thorns,” he says—although that last word he used could also be taken to mean “pricks”.

Talk to Adria’s culinary co-conspirator and fellow three-star chef Juan Mari Arzak and he’ll boil the manifesto down to one core principle: a desire “to do new things”.

“We must forget what we knew before because it has been done,” he says, explaining he sees new ideas coming from the filter of knowledge and through evolution.

Those early ideas will perhaps only achieve validly and longevity when they themselves evolve, Arzak says. ”Our food is only important when it becomes part of our traditional cuisine.”

But Adria’s not so sure: “I can’t see my mother doing spherification,” he laughs.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that new cuisine is allowed to be provocative or humourous. While Aduriz may the master of high-concept cookery, he also loves cracking a culinary gag.

One dessert at Mugaritz, for instance, looks like a used cake of soap complete with bubbles. The soap—edible of course—is made of rice, oats, milk and alginate (kapa), while its bubbles taste of honey. Preposterous, maybe, but it was Andoni’s reaction to how the world of cosmetics has adopted gastronomy.

“They make fruit soup, basil and tomato shampoo. So we prepared an edible soap,” he says with a smile, as if his soapy meal was a perfectly obvious point to make.

It’s an attitude that obviously appeals to Arzak.

“Look,” he says, “I want to work some amusement—miracles you get from Lourdes and Fatima”.

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