Chefs – Chemists – Molecular Gastronomy

Chefs or Chemists, we take a look at Molecular Gastronomy and some of the rising stars in the field of molecular gastronomy with Wylie Dufresne, Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal and the science of food, with interviews and articles.


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Wylie Dufresne

In September, talking to an audience of chefs from around the world, Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan waxed enthusiastic about a type of ingredient he has been adding to his restaurant’s dishes.

Not organic Waygu beef or newfound exotic spices or eye of newt and toe of frog, but hydrocolloid gums obscure starches and proteins usually relegated to the lower reaches of ingredient labels on products like Twinkies. These substances are helping Mr. Dufresne make eye-opening (and critically acclaimed) creations like fried mayonnaise and a foie gras that can be tied into a knot.

Chefs are using science not only to better understand their cooking, but also to create new ways of cooking. Elsewhere, chefs have played with lasers and liquid nitrogen. Restaurant kitchens are sometimes outfitted with equipment adapted from scientific laboratories. And then there are hydrocolloids that come in white bottles like chemicals.

Xanthan gum, for instance, a slime fermented by the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris and then dried, is used in bottled salad dressing to slow the settling of the spice particles and keep water and oil from separating. Xanthan and other hydrocolloids are now part of the tool kit of high-end chefs.

These ingredients are finding more and more of a footing in the traditional, free-standing restaurant, said Mr. Dufresne (pronounced doo-FRAYN) at the Starchefs International Chefs Congress in New York.

He noted that the hydrocolloids he uses came from natural sources and often had a long history in the cooking of other cultures.

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In our ongoing search of working with hydrocolloids, were always trying to find interesting and new things and new applications, said Mr. Dufresne, who at times sounded as if he were talking to chemists rather than chefs.

And rightly so. Cooking is chemistry, after all, and in recent decades scientists have given much closer scrutiny to the transformations that occur when foodstuffs are heated. That has debunked some longstanding myths. Searing meat does not seal in juices, for example, but high heat does induce chemical reactions among the proteins that make it tastier. The experimentation with hydrocolloids represents a rare crossover between the culinary arts and food science, two fields that at first glance would seem to be closely related but which have been almost separate. Food science arose in the 20th century as food companies looked for ways to make their products survive the trek to the supermarket and remain palatable. The long list of ingredients on a frozen dinner represents the work of food scientists in ensuring shelf life and approximating the taste of fresh-cooked food.

Ten years ago, or maybe a little more than that, no chef in a serious restaurant would be caught dead using these ingredients, said Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking (Scribner, 2004) and the Curious Cook column, which appears in the Dining section of The New York Times. Because they were industrial stabilizers for the most part.

Then a few chefs like Ferran Adria in Spain and Heston Blumenthal in England started experimenting. They asked what can you do with these ingredients that you cant do with other ingredients, Mr. McGee said.

Despite its imposing name, a hydrocolloid is a simple thing. A colloid is a suspension of particles within some substance. A hydrocolloid is a suspension of particles in water where the particles are molecules that bind to water and to one another. The particles slow the flow of the liquid or stop it entirely, solidifying into a gel.

Cornstarch used as a thickener is a hydrocolloid. So is plain flour. But the properties of hydrocolloids differ widely, depending on their molecular structure and affinity for water.

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Today, Grant Achatz, chef of Alinea in Chicago, uses agar-agar, which is a hydrocolloid made from seaweed that is best known for growing bacteria in petri dishes, and gelatin, a more familiar hydrocolloid made from collagen in meat, to make transparent sheets that he drapes over hot foods. For a dish made of a confit of beef short ribs, he wanted to add a taste of beer so he draped a veil flavored with Guinness on top a thin, flavorful glaze that ensured the diner would get some beer flavor in every bit of the dish, Mr. Achatz said. Plain gelatin would simply melt, and ruin the effect


Ferran Adria

It looked, sounded and felt like a high-tech conference for Apple’s latest product, but instead of Steve Jobs it was Ferran Adria on stage, the Michelin-starred guru of Spanish avant-garde cuisine.

Jobs’ signature turtleneck was replaced by Adria’s scientific-looking white smock, his uniform in the Catalan kitchen laboratory that has won him acclaim as one of the best chefs in the western world.

Ferran Adria - Chef


And like Silicon Valley presentations, Adria paced back and forth on the stage, hands gesticulating, mini-microphone to his mouth, as pictures were projected on a vast screen behind him on stage.

The “show” was at Madrid Fusion 2008, the annual international culinary conference focussing on the cutting-edge in haute cuisine, which ran for the sixth year in the Spanish capital this week.

Adria, who was awarded three Michelin stars for his El Bulli restaurant near Barcelona, also named the world’s best restaurant in 2006 and 2007 by Britain’s Restaurant Magazine, showed as one of the guest speakers he is still going strong.

The ambassador of “molecular gastronomy” who invented such fare as liquid ravioli and his signature “foam” sauces offered a dozen new ideas to an audience of many “starred” chefs and international food specialists.

His blackberry risotto recipe began by plunging the berries into liquid nitrogen. A parmesan pancake was brought to crisp perfection in a microwave a tool otherwise banned by great chefs before Adria explained the secret of constructing a chocolate bonzai tree, with icy water.

Ferran Adria - Chemist


Noted for technical perfection, he showed reconstructed strawberries that looked like the real thing but were shaped with ice cream made with strawberry juice and agar-agar, a natural gelling agent.

The 45-year-old master chef ran through each recipe quickly, with a mini-film as back-up, eliciting “ahs” and applause from the audience.

To his critics, and there were a few in the crowd, who accuse him of practicing chemistry and complex artistry rather than cooking, he cried out, “Freedom, freedom, freedom…Let’s not argue. Cooking is a pleasure!”

“Everytime you see him, it’s like getting smacked in the face,” said Parisian pastry chef Sebastien Gaudard. “He has such a different perspective on cuisine; he is generous, curious and takes inspiration from everywhere.”

Another big name in Spanish cooking, Basque chef Karlos Arguinano whose cooking show has run on public television for 15 years, was no less effusive.

“In 200 years, no one will talk about us, but Ferran Adria, yes,” he said, after himself receiving mention at Madrid Fusion along with six other well known chefs including Frenchman Joel Robuchon.

Ferran Adria - Molecular Gastronomy


“He is one of those people who becomes a legend. Ferran Adria revolutionised the world of cooking and today everyone listens to him, in awe,” said the show’s organiser and founder, Esmeralda Capel.

When Adria himself is asked what he thinks about Ferran Adria, he looks down and puffs up his cheeks. “I don’t know, you have to ask others.”


Heston Blumenthal and Magic Water

He’s made bacon and egg ice cream and flaming sorbet that does not melt, now British chef Heston Blumenthal is looking at making magic water.

The 41-year old, known for his scientific approach to cooking and advancing techniques to develop unusual taste combinations, told chefs in Milan he was looking at serving a bottle from which diners can choose still or sparkling water.

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His dishes such as snail porridge, parsnip cereal and carpaccio of cauliflower and chocolate jelly have made his restaurant, The Fat Duck in the British town of Bray, a magnet for food enthusiasts.

The self-taught chef learned the rudiments of French cuisine from books, working in various jobs to fun trips to France, where he visited restaurants, vineyards, cheese makers, butchers and artisan producers.

The Fat Duck was awarded its third Michelin star in January 2004 and topped an annual list of world’s best restaurants in 2005, marking a new gastronomic triumph for a country once known for other reasons besides its food.

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Blumenthal spoke to Reuters on the sidelines of the Identita Golose food forum in Milan last month.

Q: Who or what sparked your interest in cooking?

HB: “When I was 15 or 16, we went to France and my parents took myself and my sister to a three Michelin-starred restaurant in Provence. You ate outside under olive trees, and there was the noise of running water.

I can just remember the feet of the waiting staff crunching the gravel, the smell of the starch and the big aprons … the cheese trolley was a chariot. The key thing was that I had never been in a restaurant like this … I’m pretty sure I never had an oyster before, or knew what one looked like.

It was the contrast between having absolutely nothing and this impact was humungous and I sat there and said: ‘This is it. This is what I want to do.’ Funnily enough, I didn’t know what it was, I assumed it was the cooking bit but I look back on that quite a lot.”


Q: And it was from French cooking books that you learnt how to cook?

HB: “Yes. I learnt my French from translating word for word … very sad, dodgy determination, I think.

What I learnt from there, taking vanilla ice cream, somebody uses cream, somebody uses milk and I just didn’t like that not knowing exactly why you use the ingredients that you do.”


Q: Your fame has been fuelled by your scientific approach to cooking with your name linked with ‘culinary alchemy’ or ‘molecular gastronomy’. How do you view your culinary style?

HB: “It’s just cooking. It’s just that. With the equipment and the ingredients, there are so many more things for the chef to use, but we’re still chefs. It’s just there’s more stuff available.

Like with anything the technology moves on, knowledge gets richer, and it’s translating that into food. It’s just that people like pigeon-holing things.

Now this whole perception that molecular gastronomy means foams and test tubes and things like that, it’s cooking. And where does science stop and cooking start? I mean science is involved in everything we do.”


Q: Tell me more about the magic water.

HB: “I can’t say anything!”


Q: What other projects are you working on now?

HB: “We’re working with lighting designers on how lighting can affect mood, obviously perfumiers, sound designers, hologram technology, all this kind of stuff.

But also at the same time, we’re working on looking at compounds in tomatoes that can really give a meaty characteristic.”


Q: What is your favorite ingredient at the moment?

HB: “I don’t have one. It just depends on what you’re cooking.”


Q: And do you have a favorite dish?

HB: “No. I know it’s a really boring answer but it just depends on what I want, if I’m going out to eat with the family or cooking something at home, or it’s breakfast time. It just depends.”


Q: What is the most essential piece of equipment in your kitchen?

HB: “A knife.”


Science in Food, Molecular Gastronomy

While in training to become a cooking teacher a few decades ago, the first thing our group of 12 did each morning before class was prepare a large pot of stock to be used in recipes throughout the day.

Working in four small groups, we had all the ingredients in the stock pot within minutes: chicken, vegetables, herbs, and seasonings, covered with water.

By the time the morning class started, the soup pot was gently bubbling away, perfuming the air. We could have used canned broth or powdered soup base, but the flavor would be compromised.

Chefs learn early in their training the many steps that intensify flavors; some by producing chemical reactions during cooking, some by adding the right flavoring ingredients, and, almost always, using fresh and high-quality ingredients in the correct proportions. Good chefs never take shortcuts and neither should good home cooks. Here are a few basic principles that will add an abundance of flavor to your dishes with just a little bit of extra effort:

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The browning reaction

In 1912, French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard conducted a simple experiment in his lab. He heated sugar (in the form of glucose) and glycerin (a sweet syrupy alcohol). Instantly his lab smelled like a kitchen with a faint but distinct aroma of roasting meat – with no meat present. This process became known as the Maillard reaction, or simply the browning reaction, perhaps the most powerful flavor-inducing chemical reaction in your kitchen.

In virtually all recipes that use some kind of meat, poultry, and sometimes fish, the first step is to induce this browning reaction, thus creating flavor. When you place a piece of meat on a hot grill, the browning of the surface changes the taste from bland to a wonderful roasted flavor.

Before browning, pat the meat with a paper towel to make sure it is very dry. Excess moisture will cool the pan, release meat juices, and result in steaming instead of browning the meat. Never overcrowd the pan as this also draws off too much heat. Over high heat with oil, brown the pieces a handful at a time, stirring all the time.

When all the meat or poultry is browned, you are still not done with this step. On the bottom of the pan, there is a layer of stuck browned particles that you don’t want to discard with the dishwater. This layer has plentiful flavor that needs to be added to your dish. Deglaze the pan with a small amount of water or wine over low heat. Scrape to speed the process and within a minute the valuable zest is in the liquid. You can use this in a sauce or gravy or simply add it to the liquid if called for in the recipe.


Herbs and spices

The next tool in your bag of flavoring kitchen tricks is the judicious use of herbs and spices. To make dishes really zing using herbs and spices, here are three rules from good chefs:

1. Use them generously.

2. Use them only if reasonably fresh (even dried herbs).

3. Grind them or crush them just before using.

Many recipes are much too shy when using herbs and spices. Usually you can easily double the suggested amount but use your taste to adjust.

Herbs and spices have powerful flavors from a tiny amount of highly aromatic essential oil they contain. But those oils slowly escape over long storage periods, eventually leaving the herbs and spices flavorless. To avoid that, buy them in small quantities that you use up in a year or two. Anything older, do not hesitate to throw away.

According to the McCormick spice company, unground spices keep for about four years, whole dried herbs one to three years, ground herbs one to two years, ground spices and spice mixes one to three years. Assuming, of course, that they are stored in closed containers in a cool place (definitely not near the stove).

Once ground, spices and herbs lose their oils faster and experienced chefs and cooks always buy them whole, then grind or chop fresh herbs, or crush dry ones with their hands just before adding them to the pot.

It’s a good idea to label newly bought spices and herbs with a date. It’s a waste to throw out a nearly full jar of spices, but it’s just as much of a waste to use ancient ones in your dish. In a serious cook’s kitchen, an electric or manual spice grinder is an essential tool.


Flavoring ingredients

Food enhancers are standard in the processed food industry in tiny amounts owing to their strong flavors. These are organic substances, mostly natural.

The one every cook knows is MSG or monosodium glutamate. It’s a totally natural substance, and virtually all foods contain it in varying amounts. Particularly rich in MSG are cheeses, soy sauce, nuts, tomatoes, mushrooms, and virtually all vegetables contain some. Sprinkling a tiny amount recommended by the manufacturer very much sharpens and enhances flavors.

It may be unfashionable to use additional chemicals in our foods, but I have nothing against adding a naturally occurring one like MSG. Make a chicken soup and add a little to one half. Taste the difference between the two soups. Decide for yourself.

Caramelized onion

Courtesy of Chef Mike Sodaro in Downers Grove, Ill., here is a recipe that utilizes the flavor-inducing browning reaction to the extreme. It is easy but takes time while the onion slowly develops flavor and color. Best to use red onion, but common yellow cooking onion works also.

Cut an unpeeled onion into two halves lengthwise, cutting through stem and root ends. Peel, then slice crosswise into thin slices.

For one large onion, heat 1 tablespoon butter (vegetable oil or olive oil is also good but gives less flavor) in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter sizzles, add the onion, stir well, and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Saute uncovered until the onion just begins to brown, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Turn the heat to low, cover the skillet and continue cooking, stirring, and scraping the bottom from time to time until the onion develops a uniform caramel-brown color, 15 to 20 minutes. Season with freshly ground pepper or any spice of your choice.

Caramelized onion loses a lot of moisture in this process. One large onion shrinks to less than a cup. But the resultant concentrate is heavenly and sweet as honey. Mix it in hamburgers, meatloaf, or scrambled eggs. Use it to top soups, pizza, and mashed potatoes. Pureed and mixed with sour cream, it makes for an unusual dip. Caramelized onion will keep for 6 to 8 days when stored in a closed container in the refrigerator.


Molecular School

Student chefs will be encouraged to master the craft of molecular gastronomy under the tuition of Spain’s most celebrated restaurateur Ferran Adria, who owns El Bulli, and encouraged to use scientific innovation to design the recipes of the future. Britain’s own Heston Blumenthal, the self-taught chef at the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, has also been tipped for a guest lectureship.

Construction began last month on the Basque Culinary Centre in San Sebastian and it will be ready to accept its first intake of students in September 2011 in a building designed to resemble a pile of stacked plates.

The university will be the first of its kind to offer a four year undergraduate degree course in culinary arts taught in both English and Spanish and one year masters degrees as well as shorter courses for cooking enthusiasts.

Authorities in Spain’s northern Basque country hope the university will establish the region as the new “mecca of the world haute cuisine”, said Joxe Mari Aizega, the project director.

The private university is located in the seaside resort of San Sebastian, which already holds a reputation for some of the best gastronomical expertise in Spain. The town is home to nine restaurants who together boast a total of 16 Michelin stars.

Many of the local chefs have pledged their support to the new university and will participate in the tuition on degree courses.
But it is perhaps the promise of guest lecturers such as the top chef Ferran Adria that will have aspiring chefs applying in droves.

Mr Adria who owns the famed El Bulli restaurant on Spain’s Costa Brava is considered the father of molecular gastronomy and has treated those few diners lucky enough to secure a reservation at one of his tables to such rare delights as Parmesan snow and pine cone mouse.
Despite hostility from Spain’s more traditional chefs and accusations that he is “poisoning” diners with his persistent use of emulsifiers and foams, his restaurant has been voted the best in the world for the fourth consecutive year.

Blumenthal, who famously followed in his footsteps, has won three Michelin stars and is consistently voted the best restaurant in Britain, even kicking El Bulli off the top spot in 2005.

Hailed as a culinary alchemist for his innovative style of cooking, it is Blumenthal who came up with such deliciously whimsical inventions as egg and bacon ice-cream and chocolate wine.

Spain’s minister of Science and Innovation said the time had come for gastronomy to be treated with the same seriousness as other academic subjects and given its own university degree.

“Not only is gastronomy an art, culture and an industry,” said Cristina Garmendia at the ceremony to lay the foundation stone of the new university. “It is also a technology and a science.”

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Spanish Food Science

A panel discussion Friday at the Biltmore started traditionally enough, with about 50 guests nibbling Spanish cheese and almonds and sipping cava. Then someone rolled in a tank of liquid nitrogen, sending a plume of white mist rolling across the conference room’s carpet.

Chef Dani Garcia shot a mixture of tomato water and olive oil into the bowl of minus-321-degree liquid. Seconds later, he scooped out crunchy yellow spheres and passed them around.

”It looks like popcorn, but it tastes like tomato, with all the acidity and flavor you expect. That’s the playfulness,” Garcia said in Spanish.

The event was a conversation between Garcia, several other Spanish chefs who cooked for their country’s king and queen the night before, and American food-science writer Harold McGee. Lourdes Castro, director of the new Biltmore Culinary Academy, and food writer Josh Ozersky moderated.

Spain is considered to be the birthplace of molecular gastronomy, the catch-all phrase for a scientific style of cooking like using alginate to make edible jellies and liquid nitrogen to make tomato popcorn.

But panelist Pedro Subijana, chef of the three-Michelin-star Akelarre in San Sebastian, said he rejects the label.

”Chefs don’t work with molecules, they work with ingredients,” he said. “We only use the techniques if they make flavors better, not just for the sake of using the techniques.”

Ozersky asked whether this type of precision cooking, where elements are measured to the microgram, creates food that lacks passion and comfort.

McGee, author of the seminal book On Food and Cooking, said modern cooking allows chefs to experiment with ingredients and leave their marks on new dishes.

‘Given the fact that you can now get any ingredient in the world, the question is, `What can we do that hasn’t been done before?’

Ferran Adria, the Michelin-starred guru of Spanish avant-garde cuisine, has hit back at critics who say his “molecular gastronomy” is unhealthy, in the latest salvo in a feud between Spain’s top chefs.

Adria told the newspaper El Mundo that the chemicals he uses have been part of haute cuisine for years.

“I don’t understand (this controversy). It’s nonsense, from a legal and health standpoint,” said Adria, whose restaurant El Bulli on Spain’s northern Catalan coast was in April named the world’s best for the third year in a row by Britain’s Restaurant magazine.

“Homemade ice-creams, those which are excellent, must have a stabilising substance to avoid crystallisation. Sugar goes through a chemical and physical transformation. Chocolate contains lecithin. Agar is a thick substance that has been used in Japan for centuries.”

“The tomato also has a chemical composition,” he said.

He was responding to accusations by another top Spanish chef, Santi Santamaria, that his cuisine had harmful health effects.

“Can we be proud of a cuisine … created by Ferran Adria and his chorus of fans which fills plates with gelling agents and laboratory emulsifiers?,” he wrote in a column published in the Catalan daily La Vanguardia last month.

“We are facing a public health problem,” added Santamaria, a self-taught chef who is a fond of using locally-sourced produce at his El Can Fabes bistro near Barcelona which also has three Michelin stars.

The criticism provoked a war among top Spanish chefs, between those who were pro- and anti-Adria.

“We must all have our freedom,” Adria told El Mundo, adding that the real debate should be about “the limits of haute cuisine.”

Adria, 46, and Heston Blumenthal in England have since the late 1990s rocked the world cuisine by using science to “deconstruct” and rebuild food, both bluffing diners and delighting reviewers.

Taste-bud treats on the menu of Adria’s three-star restaurant have included oyster meringue, hot ice cream, frothy truffle cappuccino and liquid ravioli, while vegetables are turned into lollipops or whipped foams.