Yolk_process75                                                                                                                        Photos by Lara Kastner

Harold McGee, who has helped cooks and chefs understand food and cooking at the molecular level for decades now (his book On Food and Cooking is in my opinion, hands down the most important book about food and cooking ever written), wants people to be more precise when they use the term “molecular gastronomy,” or at least to acknowledge the origins of the term.  In a post early this month, he explains why: These terms, he says, are “hardening into bad pop cultural history that tags very different chefs and their ideas with the impressive but empty terms ‘molecular gastronomy’ and "molecular cuisine.’" He offeres a quote from The New Yorker story on Grant Achatz, chef of Alinea, by way of example.

The term was first used by Oxford physicist, Nicholas Kurti, in 1992 to
describe a workshop in Erice, Sicily; the woman who initiated the
workshop was Elizabeth Cadry Thomas, a cooking instructor in northern California (both, sadly, deceased).  McGee has written the facts here for anyone interested.

By, email, he elaborated: “The term doesn’t have much intrinsic meaning, and should be used in connection with the workshop, not to identify a supposed style or method of cooking in restaurants. It’s my experience that the average restaurant-goer is put off by the term, not attracted by it.”

That’s it.  He’s identified why I’ve never liked the term.  It doesn’t mean anything when applied to restaurant cooking (this is discussed in a post a year ago in a post on Achatz and Alinea).

McGee, by the way, was named by Time magazine as one of the year’s 100 most influential people, with an accompanying description by Alton Brown.
Yolkdrops_plate104

The above photographs are of Achatz’s egg yolk and asparagus dish, taken by Lara Kastner. She’s done all the photography for the Alinea cookbook, to be published this fall.  Alinea’s very cool video introducing the book is worth watching.  The book also includes access to a comprehensive website called Mosaic, with discussion boards and videos of Alinea techniques.  Watch this video of Alinea’s bacon and pineapple dish—and ask yourself, is this an example of molecular gastronomy?  No, it’s an example of the modern cooking that’s going on in a handful or restaurants throughout the country; calling it "molecular" anything clouds the issues.  [Damn, just checked the link and you need a password to see the video–i’ll see if there’s any way to make it temporarily available.]

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78 Wonderful responses to “What Does Molecular Gastronomy Mean?”

  • drago

    For this semantical argument I like to follow the lead of Iron Chef America. When Homaro Cantu was on the show his bio said that his style was “Post-Modern Cuisine”.

    To me “mol gas” is simply an understanding of the fundamentals as to -why- certain things cook the way that they do, following the path laid out for us by McGee and Hervé This.

  • joelfinkle

    Even though I live in the same metropolitan area two of the restaurants that are at the vanguard of this movement, Alinea and Moto (plus a lot more I could list), I haven’t been to either. Cost is, yes, a factor — this kind of cuisine is not coming to a strip mall near you, it requires labor-intensive work, delivering precision and finesse, and more to the point, stuff that no longer looks like food.

    I’m not a fan of po-mo architecture, and I’m not sold on po-mo food either. I’m still at the point in my love of eating where I want to know that an ingredient was lovingly handled and used at its peak for its best purposes, not squished into a gelled ball or frozen on the inside of a balloon.

    But on the question of this topic, Molecular Gastronomy seems less of a cuisine than a tool set — an artist may be a master of oil painting, and be an impressionist. Another oil painter isn’t, and another impressionist is a sculptor. Now, I haven’t seen French Mol-Gas versus Italian Mol-Gas, but that may develop.

  • Natalie Sztern

    “She’s done all the photography for the Alinea cookbook, to be published this fall.”

    Who is ‘she’- u did not mention her name

  • Natalie Sztern

    I have access to Mosaic, and to me it is like visiting a museum: nice to look at but I could and would never attempt one single dish because of the complexity of it. Altho I admire the chefs who attempt and are successful in this area of science I can imagine visiting this kind of ‘restaurant’ maybe once in a lifetime.

    My wonder is do chef’s like Grant Aschatz, when he creates a cookbook like Alinea-Mosaic, think that they are creating a book of art or food? And if the answer is ‘food’ to what extent, if at all, do they hope this kind of food becomes mainstream?

  • Rory

    A tip from the bleachers: If you (and McGee, Achatz, Keller, Blumenthal, et al.) really want this term to die, STOP BRINGING IT UP. As you pointed out, you basically made this exact same point a year ago. There have been countless articles where this chef or that renounces the term. If you don’t want to be associated with the term then stop using it!

    It’s like the old saying, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Posts such as this just keep the term in the public consciousness even more.

  • ruhlman

    i thought about that rory when i looked over the old post. but the fact is, it’s not going away, and the mcgee post put it back on my mind. since it’s not going away i think the more people who know that it refers to a workshop and not restaurant food, the better.

  • NYCook

    Lara Kastner.
    I heard a speech by Jose Andres not to long ago in which he also was arguing against using the term molecular gastronomy. He made an interesting point that up until that time I had failed to see. How is what they doing diffrent then making a wine or a ham. All it is, is a process. You start with one item grapes, or the back leg of a pig and through chemical change you end up with something completly diffrent and amazing, but no one thinks of wine making or Ham making as molecular gastronomy.
    When you think about it is using egg whites to clarify a consome all that diffrent then using sodium alginate to create “caviar”.

  • luis

    Nuevo Cuisine, Molecular Gastronomy, Deconstructive gastronomy…. and so many fancy ideas are simply not comercially viable. Imagine someone delivering you a deconstructed pizza? Or serving you a deconstructed Martini? or a crudo anything…
    joelfinkle has it right in my opinion. Molecular Gastronomy is akin to playing with your food. I see there is a very big divide between the palates and whims of a chef at alinea or el bulli and the common dinner’s in the street. I too saw Cantu in Iron Chef and his dishes were apetizing to me. Xantam Gum?? Oh, yes now that Publix has considerable shelf space alocated to organic foods we are going to be adding Xantam Gum and other chemicals to our dishes. sure thing.

  • luis

    Nuevo Cuisine, Molecular Gastronomy, Deconstructive gastronomy…. and so many fancy ideas are simply not comercially viable. Imagine someone delivering you a deconstructed pizza? Or serving you a deconstructed Martini? or a crudo anything…
    joelfinkle has it right in my opinion. Molecular Gastronomy is akin to playing with your food. I see there is a very big divide between the palates and whims of a chef at alinea or el bulli and the common dinner’s in the street. I too saw Cantu in Iron Chef and his dishes were UN-apetizing to me. Xantam Gum?? Oh, yes now that Publix has considerable shelf space alocated to organic foods we are going to be adding Xantam Gum and other chemicals to our dishes. sure thing.

  • russ parsons

    with all due respect to two of my favorite food writers, isn’t this a bit of picking nits? no one “owns” a phrase. I know perfectly well what I mean when I say “molecular gastronomy” and I can offer a cogent definition (cooking with nontraditional methods and tools). So what’s wrong with that? Where’s the harm?

  • milo

    The best way to make a name go away is to provide an alternative that’s catchy enough to catch on. So have any of these guys provided any?

    Experimental cooking? Avant garde? High tech? Modern?

    Even if these guys feel like they’re doing nothing that’s different than making a meringue or any other transformation, the fact is they ARE doing things that are new inventions and that most cooks still aren’t doing.

    You are getting something different if you go to one of these restaurants, and people want some term to refer to them.

  • Cali

    Excuse for not beating this dead horse for a second, but, isn’t that substance called xantham gum? As opposed to “Xantam Gum.” [sic] Or is that a name brand, in which case the capitals and odd spelling could be correct.

  • milo

    My dictionary lists it as “xanthan” with an N not an M.

    But it is a perfect example of why some people are skeptical of MG or whatever you want to call it. At a time when people are trying to eat more naturally and avoid things with ingredients that don’t seem like food, it’s hard to accept the idea that those things are OK in a fancy restaurant.

    McGee takes offense to the comparison between the MG stuff and Nabisco, but aren’t chefs bringing on such comparisons when they’re using the same ingredients you usually find in Lunchables?

  • Joseph Bayot

    There are so many differences between the styles of Achatz, Adria, Blumenthal, Cantu, and others. It is impossible to categorize all of these chefs under one name, even if there were a name everyone could agree upon. Chef Achatz calls his style “Progressive American” but also is curious as to whether anyone is knowledgeable, experienced, and dedicated enough to actually categorize his cuisine along with his peers’.

    Of course, there maybe be similarities between the cuisines of these chefs. However, lumping them all together just because they use ingredients and techniques that are not common in most restaurants such as transglutimate and sodium alginate, is akin to categorizing two chefs together who both sauté.

    A good thing about the term “Molecular Gastronomy” or “Molecular Cuisine” is that it is a term that the public doesn’t hear very often, and so it may pique the their interest. Even if a misleading term is used by the uniformed, hopefully it may lead more people to learn more about these avant garde chefs.

  • Sam Greenfield

    “Damn, just checked the link and you need a password to see the video”

    Of course, purchasing the book will get you access to the video as well.

  • Shannon

    As a restaurant goer, if a restaurant used the term “molecular gastronomy” to describe their cuisine, it wouldn’t attract me in the least bit. It’s not an “appetizing” term. It has the same appetizing qualities as eating in a sterile cafeteria painted ‘hospital green’.

    I hope the chefs pay as much attention to how good their food tastes than they do coming up with the latest techniques and ingredients. Chefs can experiment and perform all the food stunts they want, but if the food isn’t good, the restaurant ain’t gonna last.

    I’m an adventurous eater, but I will NEVER try foam-anything. It looks like spit IMO. Gag….

  • milo

    “However, lumping them all together just because they use ingredients and techniques that are not common in most restaurants such as transglutimate and sodium alginate, is akin to categorizing two chefs together who both sauté.”

    Probably 99.9% of chefs sauté. So lumping together based on that would be useless. But if only .1% of chefs sautéed, I don’t see why it wouldn’t make sense to refer to that group together.

    Correct me if any of these are wrong…

    1 These chefs use techniques and equipment that are new.

    2 These chefs use techniques that are used by very few chefs at this point.

    3 There is some overlap in the techniques and equipment these chefs are using.

    Don’t most of the chefs and restaurants commonly referred to as MG share a number of common traits? If that is the case, I don’t see the problem in discussing them as a group, regardless of what name is used.

  • Patrick

    I just started watching “Made in Spain” on PBS with Jose Andres, and he making traditional tapas (well, I have only seen two episodes). He did do a segment where he ate at El Buli, but that’s about it. I guess this is a non-sequitur, sorry.

  • milo

    Natalie, the photographer’s name is given in the article:

    “The above photographs are of Achatz’s egg yolk and asparagus dish, taken by Lara Kastner.”

    And at the very top of the article: Photos by Lara Kastner

  • Kate in the NW

    I’m (sort of) with Luis – MG is a fancy name for playing with your (extremely expensive) food. I think playing with food is good. I also like the taco truck. So sue me… but diversity rocks!

  • Joseph Bayot

    to Milo:

    You’re right; it would definitely be useless to categorize chefs who sauté.

    I guess that was the point I was trying to make: that even if these restaurants use 99% of the same ingredients and techniques, they are still 100% different.

    If a chef describes his cuisine as “Molecular Gastronomy,” so be it. But, for the many chefs who do not or can not categorize (or compartmentalize) their cuisine, it is best left to someone who knows the cooking in depth as opposed to the media and the public who seek to generalize.

    To categorize each of these chefs and their respective restaurants into one bracket is wrong.

  • ruhlman

    russ (and other defenders of the term), it’s rare that i disagree with you (i almost always see the error of my ways). but MG is hopelessly vague. it has come to denote the use of a dozen or so techniques but when it’s applied to restaurant chefs, it marginalizes them. surely, you, as a world class reporter and writer, are in favor of exactness and precision. MG is anything but that.

    and even if i am nit picking–well, who wants nits?

  • veron

    When I attended Harold Mc Gee’s 3-day seminar last year , I was all set to buy a thermal circulator and meat glue. I was able to get a sample of the meat glue from Ajinomoto but never used it and I nearly bought the circulator from the Polyscience booth this past restaurant show in Chicago. I have a feeling when I get Achatz’s book I’m going to have some new kitchen gadgets to play with. :)

  • Vincent

    I think some of the chefs spoken of in this post needed a bracket. Unfortunately food has gotten to that level in restaurants in America and abroad (I’m a freaking awesome chef – please label me!) – I doubt that Adria and his brother (Adria, the lesser known) had the intent of molecular gastronomy madness. I think it is a key function in chefs of a certain level to create an experience for the customer – all the while trying to feed the creative process and culinary drive they have. Although the term “mol gas” has no place in menu and marketing it definitely has a place in the kitchen.

    My favorite bite of McGee’s article is this:

    “The workshops in Molecular and Physical Gastronomy did not delve into cooking at the molecular level, à la molecular biology. Nor did they primarily emphasize innovation. The focus was on traditional kitchen preparations, how they work and how they might be improved by an understanding of the basic physics and chemistry involved. The idea that the workshops marked the birth of a new scientific discipline was never brought up in general discussion.”

    I have the FOOD ARTS 2006 issue that he speaks of in his blog… it is a great article.

  • Vincent

    I think some of the chefs spoken of in this post needed a bracket. Unfortunately food has gotten to that level in restaurants in America and abroad (I’m a freaking awesome chef – please label me!) – I doubt that Adria and his brother (Adria, the lesser known) had the intent of molecular gastronomy madness. I think it is a key function in chefs of a certain level to create an experience for the customer – all the while trying to feed the creative process and culinary drive they have. Although the term “mol gas” has no place in menu and marketing it definitely has a place in the kitchen.

    My favorite bite of McGee’s article is this:

    “The workshops in Molecular and Physical Gastronomy did not delve into cooking at the molecular level, à la molecular biology. Nor did they primarily emphasize innovation. The focus was on traditional kitchen preparations, how they work and how they might be improved by an understanding of the basic physics and chemistry involved. The idea that the workshops marked the birth of a new scientific discipline was never brought up in general discussion.”

    I have the FOOD ARTS 2006 issue that he speaks of in his blog… it is a great article.

  • luis

    Shannon, you are not alone in this… I think joefinckle and myself if no one else are thinking along the same lines you are. I have three woks and half a dozen roasting pans and broiling pans and bread pans…by now and its all in the pursuit of wholesome stirfrys and roasts, home made doughs and everything tasty and healthy I can manage to make. Rhulman has posted many, many wonderful techniques as well. Some call him inspirational. I think of him as a mentor. But there are so many others to emulate. Folks in the leading edge gastronomies are just shooting paper wads at the walls to see what if anything sticks.
    The most amazing thing to me is the wide range of applications out there to foodstuffs by science. I mean you can succesfully argue that “CHEETOS”, ” PRINGLES”,”Tostitos”, “CHICKEN NUGGETS” are a result of “POPULAR molecular gastronomy” Hey I will take full credit for coining this phrase and I don’t need no symposyum to beat my drum about it. There are a million molecular synthetic foods out there created by science and they all share one thing in common. They are NO GOOD!!!!!! no matter how good they taste.. they are really really crap! There! somebody on this forum had to say it!

  • luis

    Patrick, exactly, and it all seemed pretty molecular to you didn’t it??? It did to me!. Jose Andres kept raving over dishes that seemed so un-apetizing as a bag of cheetos but his excuse was.. they taste soo good!. This is my point!. You want orange juice in the morning OR TANG!!!! whatever the hell TANG! is or was…

  • the Gobbler

    I think this kind of approach is all about pushing boundaries & yes I know its a cliche. However the proponents of this style are vying for the disscretionary dollar of the theatre goer, the art afficianado & the people who have everything etc.
    This molecular gastronomy, like a pace setter has raised the bar considerably in terms of technique & understanding however I dont think its done much to satiate appetites or nurture people.
    Curiously is has blossomed at the same time as many chefs are re-discovering the land & going ‘back to the earth’ for their product & inspiration.
    My own feelings are that it will run out of puff, too many wannabees are watering down its pure essence by just using it as marketing leverage for their places.
    Also their is an element of ‘The emporers new clothes’ syndrome as many push the envelope of what the dining public will find acceptable.
    Smoked air anyone?
    For the record, Harold Magee is a legend! Remember the Terminator film, they go back to assasinate the architect of skynet who is oblivious to the future armageddon he helped create? Well, Harold, I forgive you mate & I WONT BE BACK!

    Cheers!

  • The gobbler

    Oh Micheal, BTW its not called molecular anything anymore, now its ‘Techno-mocionale’ cuisine if you dont mind!

  • Shannon

    Luis,
    Ha! Right. What have these chefs done that Frito-Lay hasn’t already accomplished?

    I believe that these experimental chefs do have a place in the profession. Maybe they can solve a “mechanical” problem that chefs come up against when serving food. For instance, encasing sauces in a shell can keep the food from getting soggy before being served (or something like that). Plus, it’s actually pretty cool to see…as long as it tastes good as well.

  • Frances

    “The best way to make a name go away is to provide an alternative that’s catchy enough to catch on.”

    Hey, I have a pretty big vocabulary…

    I got nothin’.

  • Ben

    >I’m an adventurous eater, but I will NEVER try foam-anything. It looks >like spit IMO. Gag….

    Wow, that’s a swell philosophy.

  • milo

    Luis and Shannon, have you actually tried any of the foods made with these techniques at a good restaurant and didn’t like them? Or are you just assuming they are bad?

    I definitely agree that the name doesn’t sound appetizing and understand why the chefs want to avoid it. I don’t get why they don’t just pick an alternative they like better and use it consistently.

    While it seems weird for high end food to use an ingredient usually found in highly processed junk food, that doesn’t make the two the same.

    A cheeto is crap because ALL the ingredients are crap. It’s vastly different between starting with high quality real ingredients and adding a bit of one of these high tech ingredients to change the food in some way. These chefs aren’t making Tang, that’s something that has zero orange in it at all. These guys use primarily fresh, high quality ingredients.

    Personally, I have only had a few things that would probably fall under MG, and they were absolutely delicious. We are never going to reach the point where people are having this sort of thing for every meal, but that’s not the point, it’s something to have for a change of pace, something to expand your horizons.

    I do think at least some of these techniques will become more common in restaurants, if not at home. We’ll probably see more of them as parts of otherwise traditional meals in addition to the places that are doing something avant garde for many bite sized courses.

    As an example, I recently ate at OTOM in Chicago, a sister restaurant to MOTO, which uses many of the experimental techniques. It was a combination of things prepared more traditionally with a few experimental touches – butter powder, carbonated grape, etc. It was an incredible meal, extremely tasty and satisfying, and not off putting or intimidating at all. It was a great introduction to some of these things and made me much more interested in trying out one of the places that is more experimental. I never was that interested before, I always assumed the stuff was all about presentation and probably didn’t taste that good until I actually had some and discovered how delicious it could be.

    Michael, although the term MG is “hopelessly vague” as a term in and of itself, it has been used enough that people know what it means. You say it, and people picture something…and generally, their picture is probably right.

  • Natalie Sztern

    From what I am reading from the Chefs, I presume from some of these posts, is that there are two kinds of chefs: one who cooks feeding people the traditional way using ingredients to make statements and the other who, like chocolatiers who use chocolate as their medium for art, are now creating art with their food much like the sculpting of chocolates, cakes and fruit into that of artistic pieces…the cook as an artist which I believe was once discussed here as well.

    then is the chef (sic) a cook or an artist…..and in the case at point also a fledgling scientist of sorts? Are they truly Cooks?

    To me, a laywoman, it is art, albeit edible.

  • Shannon

    Milo,

    I’m not assuming the food tastes bad. My point has been that I HOPE that while the chefs are preparing their food, they make sure it tastes good as well. I wouldn’t go to a restaurant to solely pay for a dog and pony show. I’d be disappointed by the quality even if the meal looked spectacular.

  • russ parsons

    Sorry Michael, I’m not buying it. All labels are vague, most of them a lot more hopelessly so than “molecular gastronomy.” Try “Fine Dining” for example. I know what I mean by Molecular Gastronomy and I think most of my readers understand the same meaning. That’s enough for me.

    I think what a lot of these chefs are objecting to is that sometimes this style of cooking is that it has become caricatured by its excesses and they would just as soon not be associated with those negative aspects. Having eaten more than my share of foams, I guess that’s understandable. But the solution I would like to offer is that they should concentrate on producing food that is delicious as well as being challenging and then the labeling issue will go away without any banned words.

  • rockandroller

    “It’s my experience that the average restaurant-goer is put off by the term, not attracted by it.”

    Maybe what both you and McGee refuse to accept is that the majority of people are not flocking to this style of preparation and presentation, and that is what is off-putting to the average restaurant-goer? I remember reading an excerpt of one of your books to a couple of people about a meal you had where at one point you were instructed to squirt some kind of essence or liquid into your mouth, and “spritz-spritz, shrimp cocktail.” To me, this is hilarious. It’s like the opposite of actually eating (this would be a great hit in Los Angeles where women are always watching their weight). Perhaps hilarity is the point, but until the $12-a-meal restaurant near me starts offering these choices, it’s a little too much money to spend on a joke IMO.

    I agree with those who have suggested that the interests of art (perhaps even artifice?) seem to be put ahead of the desire to cook and serve great food – that the latter happens seems 2nd choice to the primary motive, which is the art. Outside of a curiosity, I can’t see the value in this. It feels kind of like people creating something for a science fair – and, bonus! It’s edible! Perhaps I’m just behind the times and can’t move forward and everyone will be doing this one day (possible – I rarely listen to any music recorded after 1980). Perhaps it is the same idea applied to already established methods like curing or pickling or canning or something, but all I can tell you is it doesn’t seem that way to me and I don’t plan to go out of my way to seek out restaurants and chefs who specialize in these techniques. If not “molecular” gastronmy, perhaps it could be called “sci-art gastronomy,” since it seems to be a bleding of science and art. But I think that would be even more off-putting.

  • Natalie Sztern

    One has to wonder if there has ever been studies on the effects of digesting some, long term or otherwise, of these chemicals used to create these “diverse” dishes and of the dangers to the body, if any, …hoping not to offend anyone, Chef Aschatz’s cancer is certainly not indicative of anything he has done to himself, but that kind of cancer is rare especially on the tongue and I have known others who have had mouth cancer who are not Cooks or Chefs…but one has to wonder on the longterm effects that take place in the body when chemically altering our food to look pretty or different. I am not a scientist, medical or otherwise, so I would be interested to read a response based on this even if someone could get Mr. Harold to comment on his thoughts of longterm digestion of the various chemicals used by (ahem) molecular cooks…is the human body made to eat these kinds of chemicals?

    I apologize if I seem out of line talking about cancer in this venue, but it is a topic I have thought about. Again I use cancer just as an example; it could easily be any other sickness…

    Even though I ask from ignorance because i am limited in my knowledge of the chemicals used in creating some or all of El Bulli or Alinea’s dishes as ex.

  • milo

    You’d probably have to check the individual ingredients. Many of them are commonly used in processed food, so studies have probably been done.

    Cooking with chemicals or chemically altering our food is nothing new. You use baking soda, don’t you? And do you worry about the safety of consuming it just because it is a chemical?

    On the other hand, just because something is “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthy either.

  • ntsc

    Salt, sugar, vinegar and any number of other substances are chemicals.

    So are the trace amounts you need such as iron and calcium.

    And a lot of what they are using are derived from food substnces.

  • Joan Pan

    I just wrote this short report on Molecular Gastronomy. Per This, molecular gastronomy is the scientific study of food, and chefs are not scientists. Molecular cuisine is what chefs do, which involves a better understanding of why you cook products a certain way, and also includes the artistic, social, and traditions of cuisine. Anyway, I thought it was pretty interesting that you wrote about this right now. Isn’t wikipedia awesome?

    hehe

  • Kate in the NW

    I find it interesting that (some) folks seem to make an immediate assumption that the feasability of generalizing these techniques is the basis on which to judge them. Maybe they ARE just a novelty, but what’s wrong with that? I don’t know about all of you, but I like to be surprised now and then. Quibbling over whether Burger King will be selling potato foam instead of fries in 20 years is not really the point, I think. Experiments are worth doing, and I admire the people who are willing to come up with them, as well as the people who comsume (literally, in this case…) that “art”. Even if it’s just once or twice in a lifetime – what the hell – why not try it?

    And of course it can be done well, or done badly – as with everything. The food can make you happy, or make you sick with chemical compounds, as with most things (wine and good Scotch come to mind…). Again, beside the point. But interesting to think about. Even beyond “what is food”, what is “eating”?

  • luis

    Milo, I love your astronaut enthusiasm. You are the stock of which struck out over the plains in covered wagons and made the United States the nation it is today. A true Pioneer spirit. I take your point, Bravo!. Also I must tell you that I will never in what is left of my lifetime see your prediction come true, short of some real cathastrophe type event which pushes society into chemically synthesized foods. Now ” Popular molecular Gastronomy is here and we all agree… on what it is!. I still recall buying some turkey like Ham at the mega market enhanced with water… cheap…fit my budget. I recall bringing it home and I recall it tasted like synthetic meat rubber stuff… SPAM would have been a better choice. But since you understand my point and I understand your spirit.. we have no issue. The stuff I have seen is not comercial but that is not to say something might evolve from it that we won’t mainstream in the future.

  • chadzilla

    Like a LOT of other chefs, I hate the term molecular gastronomy for the negative connotations it has with a LOT of people (hence the quick run of comments on this post). Unfortunately, others and myself have had to revert to using it occasionally to achieve clarification for others… because they will not understand it any other way.
    There are some amazing new techniques and ingredients abound in the food world. To ignore them, or remain ingnorant to them, or dismiss them as unworthy, or to hate everything associated with them is counter-progressive. After at least a century and a half of crude cooking methods, we are becoming more accurate at producing great flavors and textures by finally understanding the delicious things here on planet Earth. The ‘movement’ is not about destroying great ingredients… it is actually a step closer to nature. We are finally learning to truly ‘respect’ the ingredients sitting in our walk-in coolers.
    Perhaps the day we can stop using the term molecular gastronomy is the day when people stop quipping the usual meaningless and unanswerable question everytime they see someone in chef whites… “so,… what’s yer specialty?”
    My specialty is making stuff taste good… what am I supposed to answer, “ma special-tee is creamed spinach with nacho chips!”
    A vague question deserves a vague answer.

  • milo

    “Also I must tell you that I will never in what is left of my lifetime see your prediction come true, short of some real cathastrophe type event which pushes society into chemically synthesized foods.”

    I believe I only made two predictions.

    First, I said I thought it would become more common, which I think is inevitable considering how few places do it now.

    If there are 20 restaurants in the world doing it today, you really don’t think in our lifetimes we’ll see 21?

    Second I said that while now we mainly see these things being used at places where they do it in every bite sized course, in the future it’s likely that we’ll see more places use a little bit here and there, as an ingredient or side to an otherwise traditional dish. I’ve had things like that at OTOM, and it seems much more accessible to the average diner. Really, that’s the way many unusual things work their way into the mainstream – a cutting edge place makes something new an entire course, then later on a more mainstream restaurant serves you something similar as a small side portion next to your meat and potatoes. Is it really such an outlandish notion that experimental ideas will trickle down little by little instead of whole courses of the stuff at once?

    And I don’t get why you keep bringing up things like SPAM, it seems like you’re just trying to use a common ingredient or something for guilt by association. What food have you actually eaten that would fall under MG? You give the impression that you have never tried any, but you’re convinced it must be bad anyway. It’s like saying “Well, I’ve never heard any opera, but I’m sure it MUST be…”

    Chadzilla, I completely understand why chefs hate any classifications and questions like “what’s your specialty”. But what they are really asking is why should I eat at your restaurant and not the one next door? I would hope any chef would have a good answer to that (and I doubt “our stuff tastes good” would bring many in). Sure, it’s a vague question, but still a valid one…or at least you should know what they mean.

  • luis

    chadzilla, you said “”After at least a century and a half of crude cooking methods, we are becoming more accurate at producing great flavors and textures by finally understanding the delicious things here on planet Earth.””

    Allright, Do you know of any method or formula that I can look up or you can just type for me that would enable me/anyone to combine vegetables? So far other than chef’s taste or experience and tradition all I have been able to come up with is BY COLOR. How does molecular or modern gastronomy or whatever term you choose to use can help me design a vegetable combination based in taste in the right proportions to make a sublime stir fry that holds together without the ying and yang flavor averaging thing? Is this a fair enough question?

  • mirinblue

    Molecular Gastronomy = MC Escher
    Molecular Gastronomy = Salvadore Dali
    Molecular Gastronomy = Picasso

    All pushed the known and accepted boundaries of art, created a “movement” most people were slow to embrace or even accept, yet all are considered masters of the chosen craft today.

    I think this is the same type of thing. I, for one, embrace it! Who would not like food that evokes the smells and feelings of childhood, smokey fall days, love? The desire to experiment and push boundaries have led to most of the great discoveries/inventions of the modern world as we know it.

    I say let’s keep (and embrace) those that think “outside the box”…who knows what discoveries lie ahead?

  • Natalie Sztern

    “We are finally learning to truly ‘respect’ the ingredients sitting in our walk-in coolers”

    chadzilla, how is taking a cup of English peas and then making that cup of peas into a thin sheet of ‘paper’ using acetate as a form, ‘respecting’ the ingredient? Wouldn’t leaving the English peas still looking like English peas, after the preparation, respecting the ingredient?
    this is part of a video example on the Alinea-Mosaic website

  • Messy

    Disclaimer: I come at this from the perspective of a Clay Person. I don’t make dishes, though, I buy them.

    What I’m reading here seems to fall into the same category that someone more expert than me said about clay once, it’s all about chemistry and physics.

    It’s all well and good to talk about something called “traditional” cooking, whatever that is, but it’s traditional for a reason – we know how things are going to behave. At base, cooking is about applying heat to a substance that’s either animal or vegetable and making it edible. The learning curve is a steep one to be sure, but but the reason traditions become traditions is that they work.

    We know, for example, how long one must knead dough for gluten to form, or what happens when you add vinegar and salt to vegetables to make pickles. We know what baking powder does when we’re making biscuits, even though we may not be able to describe the actual chemical reaction. We learn early what “rare” looks like compared to “medium rare”, and it’s all about experience and training.

    Why bother with the labels? It seems to me that molecular gastronomy is merely furthering the process of learning the “why” and the “how” of how food works, but with tools other than intuition and tradition. Using technology to measure, describe and replicate a reaction among ingredients is just another step forward.

    The creativity that makes a truly great chef (or artist) is something priceless. I’m sure there are literally thousands of examples of recipes or dishes that could only have come into being because someone had a seemingly crazy idea. That’s what we have here. It’s the start of something different. It hasn’t come to it’s final form yet, and I don’t think there should ever be a final form to such things anyway.

    Go ahead and tell me I’m talking through my hat. I freely admit to being a rank amateur in the kitchen. It seems that experimentation is all part of the fun though, and who knows where it’s going to lead?

  • milo

    Messy, good post.

    Why bother with labels? It’s just shorthand for talking about the stuff, same as labeling a group of restaurants as “italian” or “BBQ” or “buffet”.

    If you go to one of these restaurants and like it, then you ask “That was good, tell me another restaurant that does ______?

    It’s just a question of what goes in that blank?

  • Messy

    LOL!

    If I worked in a restaurant and someone asked me for the name of a competitor, I would very politely refuse to fill in the blank, particularly if the manager or owner was around.

    That said, when we were last in San Francisco, we asked our waiter what HER favorite restaurants were. She told us to hang on a minute, disappeared and came back with a full page of recommendations from virtually everyone in the place, from the chef to the dishwasher. Alas that we were only there for four days! We still have the list, though.

    I don’t think that a label applied to an existing tradition is an issue. An Italian restaurant is just that, after all. It serves food based in the Italian tradition, which is never a bad thing. (Ok, it can be a bad thing…..)

    However, I frequently see reviews posted where the writer is desperately hunting for a label for a new place and comes up with something utterly absurd, like “Korean-inspired Nouveau-American with a French influence.”

    What in blazes are we supposed to make of that? I think it’s nonsense. Tell me what you ate, tell me if you liked it or not, describe the menu and leave it at that. I think the majority of the dining public is bright enough to make a decision based on that, don’t you?

  • luis

    Messy!.”I don’t think that a label applied to an existing tradition is an issue. An Italian restaurant is just that, after all. It serves food based in the Italian tradition, which is never a bad thing. (Ok, it can be a bad thing…..) ”

    Italian food is a “Cuisine”. YOu open an Italian restaurant and you need to adhere to the cuisine and the ingredients. Tradition is a part of it. But the label MEANS SOMETHING. Words mean something.
    Molecular gastronomy has no tradition and it’s not a cuisine. Unless you consider the cheap substitute comercial synthetics out there as developing into some sort of cuisine. Hot dogs, spam, turkey everything from ham to bacon. And the potato chips and cheetos empire… This is the crap that brings American food down. Honestly I think Michael should do a blog about American food someday so that we can try and figure out what it is and what it is NOT! We need labels. Good labels so that language means something and we understand each other and get along a little bit better.

  • Messy

    Um….all cuisines started somewhere.

    All traditions become traditions through time, experimentation and very gradual acceptance. Do keep in mind that to most Europeans, tomatoes were once considered deadly poison. Now they form the base of so many different dishes that it would be the work of at least a decade to name them all.

    If you start out with the premise that some ingredient or technique is inherently “evil” in some way, the only one that’s going to be missing out in the end is you. MG is in its infancy. Why not watch and see where it’s going before you condemn it out of hand?

  • luis

    Sadly folks, the more I ponder this issue the more I become aware of the miles of megamart shelf space dedicated to scientifically engineered food substitutes. From Soya burgers and cheese in the veggie section to the turkey bacon,ham and everyother meat including hot dogs which are not really meat… but turkey shelfs in the meat sections to the entire isles dedicated to synthetic potatoe and corn products and so many more. I’d say 30-40% of shelf space in megamarts is dedicated faux molecular/chemically engineered foods and flavors. Make turkey taste like bacon. Oh chadzilla this is a real freaking break through!!!!!!!!! A real TRIUMPH of forward thinking folks, and milo 30% today and maybe 60% in your lifetime… I guess this is all going into a soylent green type conversion.
    Folks all this means is that living in your time and passing on is a very very good thing.
    Wherever mankind is headed and gastronomy is taking it is nothing I/we need to predict. My job is to make the best of the moment I am in and honor the good things I learned along the way.

  • milo

    “If I worked in a restaurant and someone asked me for the name of a competitor, I would very politely refuse to fill in the blank, particularly if the manager or owner was around.”

    Of course you wouldn’t ask the chef for a competitor, I’m talking about if you were going to ask a friend or a restaurant critic. You don’t think it’s useful to be able to describe different kinds of restaurants?

    “However, I frequently see reviews posted where the writer is desperately hunting for a label for a new place and comes up with something utterly absurd, like “Korean-inspired Nouveau-American with a French influence.”

    What’s the alternative? Just say “I can’t describe it, but trust me, it’s really good…”? Useless.

    “What in blazes are we supposed to make of that?”

    That is combines elements of the things listed? Sure, it’s awkward, but it’s more useful than nothing.

    “I think it’s nonsense. Tell me what you ate, tell me if you liked it or not, describe the menu and leave it at that. I think the majority of the dining public is bright enough to make a decision based on that, don’t you?”

    Sure, that will work. But if the menu is made up of Korean and French elements, isn’t that just going to be what you’re going to end up describing?

  • milo

    “I don’t think that a label applied to an existing tradition is an issue.”

    So things that are too new to be “traditions” shouldn’t get labeled? Why make that distinction?

    Cuisine is defined as “a style or method of cooking, esp. as characteristic of a particular country, region, or establishment”. If these places share a style or method of cooking (and they do to at least some degree), they DO have a cuisine.

    Luis, you seem so fixated on spam and cheetos that you’re not even capable of keeping your mind open enough to even think about what these restaurants are doing. Let us know when you’re done with the knee jerk reactions and actually willing to participate in a discussion.

  • luis

    Milo, I understand. The high end kitchens are out of reach to many folks and something may be happening there that we just don’t understand. We see the Cantu’s of the world on TV and the el bulli tapas Jose Andres raved about and we hear snippets here and there and we form an opinion. It’s human. But you really can’t discount your intuition and what your brain is capable of picturing from a few factual bits of information. I am confortable in what I posted so far until I have information to the contrary.
    Whatever you want to elevate as a cuisine without a tradition can make a turkey taste like pig’s belly and so on and on and on… but It can not unlock and rigorously write down a set of rules you and I can verify on how to combine assorted vegetables properly.
    Hint!…maybe because they are working on making vegetable flavored turkeys?

  • luis

    oh boy, I forgot to add in the ENTIRE BREAKFAST CEREAL AISLE at your megamart… just what sort of crap is rice crispy’s…man while I wasn’t looking the shit already hit tha FAN!!!!!! just today at work there was a guy eating cheeto’s and some sort faux chocolate cream thing sandwidch… The guy knew it was all synthetic crap but … he was eating it. Such is the economic toll we place on the common man. Who am I to complain ..? As long as the megamart is able to get away this this crap….is how long your bad stomach day will last.

  • Messy

    Milo, the example I posted was an example of bad food writing. It tells you nothing about what the restaurant is actually like, and really doesn’t pin down what it serves.

    There are several places that I don’t think you can easily label. For example, Schwa (Yes, it’s all tasting menu all the time, but that isn’t very useful, is it?), Sook Harbour House (Well, we can list ingredients, but that doesn’t tell the story, now, does it?) and no doubt a whole bunch of others.

    Unless you can definitively state that a place is, for example, a French bistro or a Northern Italian place, labels only serve to limit expectations.

  • luis

    Messy , you are right.. what is “Molecular Gastronomy” NOT!..?
    It is NOT!! food steeped in TRADITION.

    What is “Molecular Gastronomy?”
    Food modified/synthesized/ and conceived in Science including all the artificial flavoring I have ranted about to some’s dismay.

  • George Kaplan

    I think a distinction needs to be made in the use of these ingredients and techniques. The way I see it, the chefs mentioned use them to draw attention to an aspect of a more traditional food, or at least to view it in a new way. This is, I think, the opposite of processed food, where the ingredients and techniques are used to cover up the fact that a more traditional ingredient is inconvenient or missing for whatever reason.

    I think the former is born out curiosity and innovation while the latter is born out of a comfort with the familiar, easy, and predictable. Everybody’s got some of both, just the mixes are different.

    It doesn’t always work, but I’d rather see somebody swing for the fence now and then.

  • Messy

    Thank you, George. I think Luis missed my last point.

    When tradition becomes the rule, the atmosphere becomes stifling and creativity suffers. Sometimes, “traditionalist” and “reactionary” become interchangeable, and that is always a bad thing.

    Whether an experiment works or not, the fact that it happened is valid, and even if it fails, there’s always another step to take. Plus, if you don’t like it, don’t eat it!

  • luis

    No, he didn’t… Messy let me let you in on a little secret. Luis understands high tech. Luis understands what it means to be there and have a new thing come on … Folks a new thing coming on is like you having to RE-TOOL your kitchen every six months. RE-TRAIN your entire staff and RE-SELL your menu.
    You think that is a good thing???????? and WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY???????? label me reactionary? I don’t care. Are you ready for a new cellphone every six months and a new cuisine in as much time?????
    Are you willing to forgo traditional wholesome cooking for new fangled gangsta rap crap cuisine????

  • Messy

    Oh c’mon, dude! Don’t be obtuse. You know darn well that the place where the menu never changes is the one that closes within a year. (Unless the grandmas like it. Then you get 18 months) If you go through your entire life and never try anything new or different, then it’s a pretty boring life, don’t you think?

  • luis

    Messy I can not argue with your logic there. Specially since I came back to this town after being gone for over twenty years.
    Restaurants that deliver value and stick to the general public tastes are still around. Forty years later these entities are still here. But lots others are not. you want to spend three hundred dollars on a science experiment? …and how often do you do this.
    It is pathetic enough to spend two fifty large for a family meal that we all agree anyone of us can do it 100 times better. But this time you didn’t project far enough into the future of molecular gastronomy and what I posted about it. Once you are into that high tech box of chocolates they pretty much got you on the roller coaster. retool, spend, and spend…to do the same thing you are doing now. I have a cellphone and digital phone or two and a rotary phone. Guess what? Essentially they all do tha same damm thing. Biggest thing in my lifetime is the development of the internet. Guess what? molecular gastronomy is NO internet.

  • Darth Ritis

    Grant Achatz – Chef of the Year

    All of this talk and look who wins the James Beard Award for Top Chef.

  • luis

    >>Grant Achatz could sauté shrimp, but he’d much rather atomize it. Pete Wells visits him in Chicago to preview what may be America’s best new restaurant, Alinea.
    By Pete Wells
    PB&J

    Your waiter will appear bearing a small steel contraption. Wires radiate up and out, like the skeleton of an upside-down umbrella. Snuggled into those spokes will be a small bunch of grapes, but the grapes are gone—all but two, which still cling to their denuded branch, partly visible through a lacy, paper-thin wrapping of toast. It won’t look like food, exactly, but you’re in a restaurant and this seems to be your first course and you’re hungry, so you will pick up the whole weird mess by the stem, dangle it over your mouth, Roman emperor-style, and bite. The outside will be crisp; inside will be something juicy. A grape, of course. But there will be something else, something sticky and totally, utterly familiar. You’ve known this taste since before you could tie your own shoes. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich! And you will wonder: Just what kind of restaurant is this, anyway?

    It’s called Alinea, and when it opens in Chicago this month, I predict that it will quickly prove itself one of America’s most unusual, provocative, challenging and entertaining restaurants. Also, I’ll bet, one of its best. <<< enough said... google more if you will

  • luis

    Top Chef finale… The guy was using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream but couldn’t figure out how to prepare bacon without ruining the meat. Rhulman said it best about molecular gastronomy. Not ready for the early bird crowd. The mol gas chef lost the lady chef that cooks basic simple meals like soup.

  • marie portman

    As I’ve read from an encyclopedia, the term, Molecular gastronomy is a scientific discipline involving the study of physical and chemical processes that occur in cooking. Thus, chefs can apply this to improve their cooking, as it explains various reasons why things happen when cooking – for instance, why a soufflé rises. On the other hand, upon applying this technique to make their menu, they should still make sure of not compromising the taste as well as the health benefits and other benefits of those foods.
    ________________________
    marie portman
    Compare Prices & Save on Kitchenware http://kitchennecessities.zlio.net/

  • Jennie/Tikka

    Chiming in very very late on this one (I’ve been busy, mea culpa)

    Molecular Gastronomy?

    Its when you view food as science. I’ve gone back to college to study Physics and Chemistry and M.G. cooking could very well be a classroom experiment to prove some law of ionization or imcomplete combustion, etc.

    Its the science of food as a molecular compound, and how those compounds can be manipulated (but still remain edible food).

  • jwu student

    Dear Ruhlman,
    All the terminology aside, what does this stuff taste like. Is it all worth it?

  • Mike

    For a little more on molecular gastronomy and the study of food as science and to add to what the term means, the New York Academy of Sciences just posted a podcast on the Experimental Cuisine Collective (http://experimentalcuisine.googlepages.com) in New York, which is an outreach program to make polymer science accessible through the use of food. In the Podcast, Kent Kirschenbaum, one of the founders of the group and a biochemist at NYU, talks about some of the group’s ideas, goals, and processes.

    You can check it out here.

  • Chef Louis Pang

    What is low temperature cooking. If the salmon is cooked at 56C, then it should be cooked at how many hour in order to cook safe? Thanks

  • Dave in Denver

    I can empathize with these brilliant chef’s desire to not need a label on their cuisine. I don’t think Charlie Parker or Miles Davis needed a specific title for Bebop or the first musicians to swing some notes instead of paying them straight needed a name for it… Baby – It’s just Jazz…

    That said, I do understand the consumers’ hesitance to accept something with a daunting title of “molecular gastronomy.” It sounds cold, scientific, laborious… pardon the pun. It’s not molecular at all – In fact, it’s just as scientific as applying heat to seer a piece of meat to reach a specific level of doneness. I suspect most people have grilled a burger, steak, veggie, something. What Achatz, Adia, Blumenthal are trying to do is make sense of what it means to do so and discover, if there is, a better way to do things.

    For me, I don’t need a name for it but if I did, perhaps “gastronomic jazz” would be an appropriate fit.