A gastromolecular chef practices the art (some would say dark art) of molecular gastronomy by focusing on how culinary ingredients are physically and chemically transformed during the cooking process and incorporating that information into his or her culinary creations. Many deconstruct the components of a dish and put them back together in interesting and exotic ways using technology-based techniques such as spherification, emulsification, and jellification. It's almost like modern-day alchemy.
Culinary creations such as balsamic vinegar pearls, "beer caviar," chocolate wind or lemon clouds, beet foam, arugula spaghetti, or coke pearls in a shot of rum have brought a riot of fun and odd adventure to food and drink. Gastromolecular chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli fame deconstructs a classic martini into a thin-skinned gel capsule filled with olive juice followed by a spray of gin and vermouth on the tongue.
What is molecular gastronomy?
French physical chemist Hervé This (pronounced "tees") and his friend and colleague, Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti, are widely accepted as the fathers of molecular gastronomy, although other scientists, academics and chefs were instrumental in contributing to the body of knowledge on the subject.
In the late 1980s, This and Kurti were looking for a catchphrase for a new scientific discipline encompassing the chemical and physical aspects of cooking. Gastronomy, "the intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns man's nourishment," fit the bill for This; "molecular," a word growing in popularity in the 1980s, also seemed appropriate and "molecular gastronomy" was born, according to This' seminal book, "Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor." So, is molecular gastronomy just another name for food science? "No," says This, food science "deals with the composition and structure of food" while "molecular gastronomy deals with culinary transformations and the sensory phenomena associated with eating."
Molecular gastronomy: Even at Harvard
Even Harvard acknowledges the symbiosis between food, physics and science. In the fall of 2012, its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences offered a general education science course, "Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter," that explains fundamental principles of applied physics and engineering through food and cooking. Noted food magazine editors and writers, along with famous chefs, shared the podium with Michael Brenner, Glover Professor of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics, in this highly popular class.
What's all the fuss?
But, as with anything different, naysayers and detractors abound. Alton Brown, whose Food Network TV show "Good Eats" focuses on understanding basic cooking processes and techniques, waxed prolific on molecular gastronomy. Although he acknowledges that culinary artists should be able to express themselves in amazing ways by blazing new frontiers in taste and flavor, he added, "Please remember food fans ... all food is molecular and there is as much magic (and science) in a properly poached egg as there is in an edible paper pouch full of lavender smoke, powdered goat butter, and licorice caviar."
Molecular gastronomy is dead, according to Heston Blumenthal, chef and owner of three-star UK restaurant The Fat Duck, saying "molecular" sounds complicated and "gastronomy" sounds pretentious. Along with fellow chefs Thomas Keller and Ferran Adrià, as well as New York Times columnist Harold McGee, Blumenthal has written a "statement" that argues that certain aspects of molecular gastronomy have been overemphasized and sensationalized while others have been ignored entirely.
Molecular gastronomy: In the final analysis
Brown mellowed somewhat in a subsequent blog post, writing, "Just to set the record straight: molecular gastronomy is not bad. ... but without sound, basic culinary technique, it is useless." Atlanta chef/restaurateur Richard Blais may have said it best in an interview with Food & Wine magazine: "Hopefully, molecular gastronomy is an extension of great simple ingredients, not a replacement for them."
Gastromolecular chefs employ spherification, emulsification, jellification, liquid nitrogen, enzymes, foaming agents, and much more to enhance their culinary creations. They also target other senses à la chef Grant Achatz's restaurant Alinea, where pheasant is tempura fried with apple cider and served with a flaming oak leaf, and where firewood ash, grass, or leather "sachets" are put on the table to pair smells with edible ingredients. An excellent chef, whether a "regular" chef or a "gastromolelcular" chef, has the opportunity and perhaps even the need to innovate to bring the best possible culinary experience to the table -- it's just a matter of how they choose to do it.