Debating the Merits of Molecular Gastronomy

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Sergio Perez / Reuters

Ferran Adrià holds up bread as he addresses the audience during a discussion at the Madrid Fusion

It had the grave air of a medieval disputation, one of those deep discussions in which 13th-century theologians debated the finer points of monotheism. In a highly anticipated panel discussion earlier this week at the international culinary conference Madrid Fusion, Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, and Andoni Luis Aduriz took on the pressing question of whether molecular gastronomy is for real. Considering that the three chefs are widely considered to be the leading practitioners of molecular gastronomy, it came as something of an ontological relief to learn that it — and thus they — do exist.

The three men spent over an hour discussing different aspects of innovation, and what part science plays in helping chefs in their everyday work. "Molecular gastronomy is the movement that studies the chemical-physical processes of cuisine," said Adrià, hazarding a definition. (See the Top 10 food trends of 2008.)

If only it were that simple. Known for its blood orange foams, and 'spherified' croquettes made from ham broth — as well as for bringing the likes of centrifuges and hydrocolloids into the kitchen — molecular gastronomy has been more reviled than any style of cooking since a handful of chefs thought stacking a few undressed pea pods on the plate and calling it nouvelle cuisine was a good idea. That might account for why the trio sounded ever so slightly defensive as they protected the role of science in their kitchens. Brandishing a loaf of bread like an amulet, Adrià, chef of el Bulli restaurant in Spain (judged the best restaurant in the world a record four times by Restaurant magazine), located the root of the problem in a kind of public ignorance. "Today, you've got bakers working to find the best flour, the best yeast, the best oven. This is science, pure and simple. But people still say they're shocked if science participates in cooking."

Blumenthal, chef and owner of The Fat Duck in Bray, England, agreed. "We all use sugar. And sugar — sucrose — doesn't grow in the form of white grains. It has to be processed. Yet sugar is okay. Sucrose is okay. It's only when you get to maltodextrin (a group of low-molecular-weight carbohydrates produced by the hydrolysis of starch) that people start saying, 'Wait a minute, that's going too far.'" (Read a TIME story about Blumenthal's perfect day in London.)

In other words, ovens and alginates exist on the same technological continuum, and the public wouldn't be so put off by avant-garde techniques if it understood the true nature of this relationship. Impeding that realization, however, is the movement's unwieldy name. "Molecular gastronomy sounds scary," said Harold McGee, who writes regularly on the science of cooking for The New York Times, and, along with physicist Davide Cassi, also participated in the panel. "If it were called something else, it wouldn't make you think there's something there you don't know or can't trust. But the moment you start talking about molecules, about these particles that you can't see, people begin to get concerned."

Still, what else are you going to call it? In an effort to move away from the dreaded 'molecular,' in 2008 Adrià embraced a new name, coined by Catalan journalist Pau Arenós: "techno-emotional." The term was received with relief among some chefs desperate for a more lyrical description of what they did and derision among the better part of the food-writing community; this year, it got no traction at all. Instead, Adrià opted for 'scientific gastronomy,' while McGee, arguing that all cooking involves scientific processes, made a plea for plain and simple 'gastronomy.'

David Chang, the chef behind the adored Momofuku restaurants in New York, was more skeptical. "It's never going to lose the name molecular. Hippies don't like being called hippies, but that's what everyone knows them by." Still Chang, who described the panel members as "the Mount Rushmore of current gastronomy," wasn't troubled by the prospect. "This style of cooking, is a language, a code, and it can be intimidating. But only if you don't try to understand it. The boneheads who reject it never ask questions, never ask why someone might cook this way. But if you do ask you see that they're just trying to express themselves."

After a suitably scholastic detour into the origins of the phrase "molecular gastronomy," (McGee maintained that the term was born at a scientific conference in the early 1990s in an attempt to make inquiries into cooking sound more impressive; physicist Cassi suggested that he coined the phrase some years later), Adrià urged the audience to, essentially, chill out. "If we keep seeing science and cooking as two Martians coming at each other with test tubes, we all lose," he argued. "We have to normalize the relationship between them." A few hours later, as Elena Arzak demonstrated sauces that change color on the plate, and Dani García used liquid nitrogen to create a life-like tomato out of pureed vegetables, a handful of chefs continued to do just that.

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