Cutting their teeth under the tutorage of the world's elite chefs, such as Ferran Adrià and Pierre Gagnaire, the new generation of vanguard chefs, in collaboration with scientific sidekicks, are setting new standards and making bold strides as culinary alchemists.
In 1987, Ferran Adrià took charge of the kitchen of the Michelin starred Catalonia restaurant elBulli. Fast forward a few years later and the culinary star elevated the restaurant to the top of every list as the gourmet destination, and he put molecular gastronomy – the study of physical and chemical processes within the kitchen – on the map, situating Spain as an unlikely foodie mecca. But the roots of cooking based on scientific experimentation go way back, even as far as the second century BC, according to the late Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti who, along with French chemist Hervé This, pioneered molecular gastronomy in the 1980s, thus developing the creation of cuisine through techniques and processes more akin to the lab than the kitchen.
In the UK, the phenomenal success of Heston Blumenthal’s legendary Fat Duck restaurant, which closed in early 2009, did wonders for the country's poor culinary reputation. By 2004 (less than a decade after its opening), the self-taught chef’s rural dining spot had garnered no less than three Michelin stars and a place in the annals of gourmet history. Blumenthal’s research into innovative culinary techniques, such as vacuum cooking – a skill that he has perfected through a collaboration with Bruno Goussault, a leading expert on vacuum cooking and Chief Scientist at Cuisine Solutions – have earned him an Honorary Doctorate of Science, not to mention an Order of British of the Empire.
However, the term “molecular gastronomy” has been banded about like an overused soundbyte. Adrià, Blumenthal and other leading lights fear that this has led to misnomers within the field.
As the story goes, the name molecular gastronomy was an impressive title dreamt up to impress a delegate of scientists attending the 1992 meeting with Hervé This and renowned author of the two realms, Harold McGee. What was notable about the gathering was that no chefs were present. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century that we saw signs of this evolution in the chef’s kitchen. But as Ferran Adrià points out in his writings on molecular cuisine, “Molecular cuisine was originally called molecular gastronomy. In the 1980s, a few scientists interested in gastronomy (including Nicholas Kurti, Harold McGee and Hervé This) began to study the physical and chemical processes that occurred in a kitchen. This movement was dubbed molecular gastronomy. In fact, this was a practice that had been common in the food industry for some years, although in that case the objective was simply cooking. Strangely enough, while molecular gastronomy gave its inventors a name, contacts with chefs could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Furthermore, molecular gastronomy ignored certain aspects that today mark the difference from the cooking of ten years ago – for example, the new hydrocolloids: thickeners, gelling agents, emulsifiers and so on. To claim that anyone using these products is practicing molecular cuisine only serves to confuse the public, as does the suggestion that the first person to make a foam or a savoury ice cream was guided by scientific principle (and God only knows how ignorant we were of the world of science when we had the idea of using the whipped cream siphon in 1994).”
In France, Pierre Gagnaire has forged a path in experimental cooking, bringing the country’s gourmet heritage into the 21st century. His early work with Hervé This earned him both national and international recognition as a leading exponent of the burgeoning culinary style.
Continuing the country’s fine culinary lineage, chef Thierry Marx of Château Cordeillan-Bages à Pauillac fame, and a former disciple of Joel Robuchon, brings the secrets of culinary science to the masses with the launch of FoodLab, an experimental workshop dedicated to the avant-garde cuisine, in the heart of Paris. FoodLab brings together the creativity and food skills of Marx with the academic, scientific knowledge of chemist Jérôme Bibette, founder and director of Paris’s Laboratoire Colloïdes et Matériaux Divisés à l’Ecole Supérieure de Physique et Chimie Industrielles (ESPCI) to, as Marx explains “create a collective brain between art and science.” Marx and Bibette recently launched Whiff, a chocolate experience in which one not consumes, but breathes, in chocolate particles through an inhaler. However, no matter how impressive or weird the science practiced in the world’s top gastro labs, Marx stresses that good food still remains firmly rooted as an artform “The scientific processes don’t influence the flavor or the pleasure, cuisine is a fantasy universe. You need to create the imagination around the dish, which brings pleasure.”
In the States, Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago – currently ranked at number 10 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list – has, at the age of 35, already achieved global acclaim as a leading visionary of modern cuisine. Achatz earned his chops at Thomas Keller’s acclaimed French Laundry, in Napa Valley, and a brief stint at elBulli before making a name for himself at Trio in Illinois. Today, he and co-owner Nick Kokonas have become international stars due to the award-winning success of Alinea and Achatz’s radical concoctions that keep the diners coming back.
Fellow US compatriot, Will Goldfarb has carved a niche in the world of experimental gastronomy with desserts that defy belief and his own line of science-inspired kitchen tools that aim to bring modern cookery into the home, from thermowhips to rotary evaporators. In the recent issue of Apicius, a modern foodie bible, the chef cites one of his 14 chambers of pastry as thus; “Finding a guiding light to your work is essential, and developing a system which accepts new information and data points is critical to the ability to maintain interest, both for the chef and the guest. Finding a new ingredient is pleasant; finding a new technology even more so; finding yourself in your work is divine.”
In Spain, now a leading culinary hub, the region’s celebrated citrus fruits and exotic produce form the focal point of chef Rodrigo de la Calle’s “Gastro-Botanica” at Restaurante de la Calle in Aranjuez. While this family of fruits is one of the most used in cooking, de la Calle cultivates many of the restaurant’s fresh ingredients in collaboration with biologist Santiago Orts, head of Huerta del Cura nursery in Alicante. Hybrids such as Limequat, the caviar-like sacs of Australian finger lime and the obscure appearance of Buddha’s hand bring color and flavor to each sumptuous dish. This year De la Calle took the Cocinero Revelaciòn award.
Also hailing from Spain, Paco Morales is a relative newcomer on the block. The winner of this year’s Madrid Fusion competition, Morales made his name at Senzone del Hotel Hospes before his recent departure to the restaurant of Valencia’s Hotel Ferrero, owned by Tennis star Juan Carlos Ferrero. Chef de Partie at elBulli and Chef de Cuisine under the famed Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz are early highlights of the young chef’s already impressive career. Pickled tuna belly with algae and beetroot cooked with crystallized beetroot shoots, cream of goat’s cheese and dried leaves are just two reasons why this chef is leading
the way among today’s new talent. Morales hones and perfects new techniques through a collaboration with the University Politecnica of Valencia. He is currently experimenting with silicon and dehydrated products. “The chemistry process is very important… liquid ice cream has more taste than a good ice cream produced the traditional way.”
The chef’s nitro frozen ice cream has a smoother consistency than the crystalized texture of its original counterpart.
Morales’s Valencian neighbor, Quique da Costa is the self-taught
master of El Poblet. Though he has mastered the region’s traditional
rices with expert aplomb, his sublimely avant-garde gastronomic tableaux have made his signature cookbook essential reading among leading culinary lights.
Davide Scabin’s Combal.Zero which, fittingly, nestles within the Contemporary Art Museum in the Italian region of Piemonte, has become a place of pilgrimage among futuristic foodies. Working his way from the taste up, in the late 90s he created a code for his culinary approach, consisting of five steps: taste, pleasure, emotion, experience and memory. These are the five key ingredients of each provocative dish served up by one of Italy’s leading chefs.
Brothers Enrico and Roberto Cerea have become culinary stars with an impressive epicurean heritage in a country famed for its gourmet excellence. In keeping with all fine Italian traditions, Da Vittorio, the two Michelin star hotel and restaurant that lies on the fringes of Bergamo, is a family affair. The brothers’ parents Bruna and Vittorio Cerea founded the celebrated address in the 1960s, offering a solid grounding for their culinary talent. Vittorio, a celebrated chef brought his Lombardy clientele’s tastes around to seafood, for which Da Vittorio is famed and indeed excels. Fried moleche with risotto Milanese foam and an aerated chocolate dessert are just two good reasons to venture beyond the outskirts of Milan.
While superchefs become well-versed in science and physics in the world’s most lauded kitchens, and scientists once regarded as geeks have become the hot new sidekicks of these culinary superstars, this marriage between cuisine, art and science really does give food for thought.