hearthstrung

Palate Town: wd~50

The New York bastion of modernist cuisine, to celebrate its ninth anniversary and, as Wylie Dufresne puts it, keep things fresh, recently overhauled their entire menu structure – no longer will they serve à la carte, but rather a series of different tasting menus: 12 courses of entirely new dishes, 5 courses “from the vault” (favourites from the old years), or 2 course samplings, to which additionally selected courses may be added. It is rather in keeping with their revolutionary approach to making food that, I think, is also incredibly delicious.

I ate at wd~50, on Clinton in the LES, one year ago, as part of research (believe it or not) for my final paper for my History of Food and Cuisine class. I was interested in exploring the history and development of ‘molecular gastronomy’, less as a defined school and more as a rhetoric, and how it fits into the broader movement of modernist cuisine. I wrote it a while ago but I’ve attached it below. Any and all comments are welcome.

But first, the food. The food was great. Dynamic, innovative, surprising, and, for the most part, exercising a real restraint and focus (this was part of my argument). It should be noted, also, that none of these photographs are mine, but taken from their old website.

In the beginning, there were cocktails.

Shades of Jade: shiso Tequila, Damiana, cucumber
Bold, floral, fruity; easy and delicious. I love shiso so this one was a shoe-in.

pH: Vodka, raspberry, lychee, rosewater
this one, surprisingly, was the more balanced and precise. I was expecting something sweet with all of the fruit, berry, and aromatic profiles, but in fact it was herbaceous, tangy, and complex. They somehow distilled each of the flavour elements into an essence while keeping sweetness in check. Very surprising and satisfying to the palate and the mind.

these came with a long, narrow, wooden box of sesame flatbread, which was puffed in such a way that you lifted a sheet of it as if it were nothing, and crackled it on your lips like it was a fleck of hardened air. But the flavour was definitely sesame: rich, intense, and nutty.

an Amuse: cod strips, juniper copper snow, pickled turnips, fried turnips, oregano
Small and potent. Intensely aromatic, mineral, and balanced by the herbaceous and woody flavours of the turnips and oregano. One more leaf of oregano would have been perfect.

Hamachi: asparagus, saffron cream cheese, hazelnut, smoked macadamia
Bizarre and highly effective. One tasted, each component served to bring a natural aspect of the fish to the fore. The asparagus, in spears and stalks, coaxed out the vegetal, bitter sulphurousness; the saffron cream cheese was pearled, paralleling the smooth, slippery, unctuous texture; shaved toasted hazelnut and smoked macadamia provided both textural contrast (through crunch) and affinity (intense butteriness). Finished with a champagne vinaigrette to provide that requisite acidic kiss, and that taut, yeasty zing to amp up the other ingredients. Textbook Dufresne: something that sounds far-fetched on paper and makes complete sense in the mouth.

Not to mention the great balance of sensitivity and play. Throughout the meal I could help remarking how much thought, both serious and humourous, had clearly gone into each dish. This one almost looks like a deconstructed chicken dish with corn, peas or beans, and grated parmesan cheese. It is more than mere trompe l’oeil; there is an oscillation, an ambiguity that is more complex than that. I like that.

Eggs Benedict: deep-fried hollandaise coated with english muffin crumbs, sous vide egg yolks, canadian bacon shards, chives
One of his most famous, and for good reason. This is a great example of a classic dish that has been given the modernist treatment and come out with a more intense version of itself. Each of the flavours and textures is condensed, essentialised, and reassembled in a new way that is somehow still familiar, still evokes that memory.

The runny, puddingy yolk is arguably the best part of the original. Dufresne riffs on that, giving you the best of both: the hollandaise bursts out of the crumb-encrusted cubes, an explosion of buttery, eggy unctuousness. The yolks are turned into little pillars of spreadable pudding. Bacon is crispy, right? Crispiness is given a whole new meaning with shards that crackle and flake like a good croissant crust. This is a rediscovery.

Aerated foie gras, pickled beets, plum coulis, cilantro
Another of his famous ones. A riff on texture. So much of the discourse surrounding ‘molecular gastronomy’ focusses on ‘defying expectations’, ‘cognitive dissonance’, and ‘surprise’, which is all very well; but it captures only a part of the whole picture. More often than not the thing that was remarkable about Dufresne’s cooking – and make no mistake, cooking it is – was how he intensified expectation, rather than simply subverting it. Here, the expectation for foie gras is that it will be smooth, fatty, airy, savoury, and slightly sweet. Dufresne understands this, and delivers a complex amalgam of extreme fulfillment and unexpected detours.

The foie is aerated, rendered ethereal, like a gas. It is not just smooth, it is hyper-smooth, ultra-smooth. Smoothness takes on a new meaning. A volume of a typical bite becomes less than the expected mass in the mouth; it creates a new sense of appetite, an entirely different psychological relationship with the food as you eat it. And then there is the pairing mastery. Beets are sweet; they are pickled to bring out their deep, earthy sourness. Plums are sweet; they are concentrated and smoothed into a bright, tart sauce. Cilantro is clean, green, citric; here it behaves almost bitterly, like a palate cleanser. Brioche is fluffy and satisfying; here is is shaved into crisps, dried into holey shards that barely hold the foie. This must be how angels eat, beings too light for food that weighs.

And then there were more cocktails.

Moonrise: Sake, Dolin Blanc, papaya bitters
Maybe my favourite, maybe. Incredibly light, clear, ethereal. Was it a drink, I wondered, or something else entirely?

Damson in Distress: Gin, clarified pear juice, pine liqueur
A very clear colour, refreshing, like nectar but better. Slightly fruity, surprisingly rich, carnally bright and piercing. Maybe my favourite, maybe.

And then there was more food.

Parsnip Tart, quinoa salad, baby bok choy, celery shoots, parsnip chips
This was very satisfying. Playfully deconstructed, with something like a toasted brioche crust and a thick, flavourful filling of parsnip purée. Perfect counterpoints of sweetness and texture with the quinoa salad, apricots, and hazelnuts, and the herby, bitter notes of the celery. In a certain way, you can judge a restaurant by the quality of its ‘vegetarian’ entrée; wd~50 passes with flying colours.

Mediterranean Bass, forbidden rice, artichoke, white chocolate-green olive sauce, shiso leaves
By now you’ve guessed I really can’t often speak consistently to my favourite dish of the night; but this one is definitely one of the most memorable. Here again, the overwhelming conclusion is one of texture: specifically, crisp. The forbidden rice was puffed and held together in crunchy little cakes; the skin of the bass was broiled to a crisp, perfectly; and the artichokes and sauce provided expert contrast with smoothness and light, aromatic flavours, bordering on the tart and astringent.

That sauce of white chocolate and green olive still lingers on my mind. The thing is that it wasn’t sweet. It was rich, fruity, slightly creamy, but not saccharine, at all. It was spicy and herby more than anything. The word, I think, is heady. It was restrained and unforgettable.

And then there were desserts.

Grapefruit curd, sorrel ice cream, grapefruit soaked in campari, hibiscus streusel, campari shards
Fruity, smooth, and visually stunning – a rainbow of bold, bright flavours. A successful foray into the realm of pleasant acidic experiences. Delightful, and very refreshing after deeper, earthier entrées. Plus, sorrel is like only the best plant ever.

 

Chamomile ice cream, almond cake, dandelion root streusel, apple poached in olive oil + lemon peel, fried phyllo, candied celery
Disparate elements pulled together into a whole. Texture and vegetal bitternesses are the way to my heart, and no less is that true than in dessert. A sophisticated and subtle play on chamomile and dandelion tea, which I really appreciated. And celery in desserts is definitely a direct route to my heartstrings. Probably my favourite.

And to finish off, a frozen rice crispy treat: a little sphere of marshmallow ice cream in coating of frozen puffed shortbread. I think you can often get the simplest, most distilled vision of a place in the last thing they serve you; this was exemplary of that.

Everything was so sculptural, 3-dimensional, intricate. This is the sort of sculpture I like so it makes sense I’d be drawn to it in food too, I suppose.

There are many elements reminiscent of something else, but more complex, more thoughtful. And there is always at least one ingredient left ‘whole’, intact – a fact often overlooked, I think, and to everyone’s detriment.

It is ultimately not about mad science, but rather about thoughtful play.

Go if you get the chance.

 

‘Twixt Laboratory and Kitchen: The History and Limits of ‘Molecular Gastronomy’

In today’s culinary landscape, the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ is approaching a level of comical, almost cringe-worthy ubiquity.  There are slews of newspaper and magazine articles, not to mention television shows, on the newest chemical or technique, the maddest of scientist-qua-chefs, and the most unlikely of flavour combinations.  The great irony of this popular phenomenon, however, is that that while everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject, hardly anyone seems to know what molecular gastronomy actually is.  The source of this irony is what I hope to elucidate: to explore the history of molecular gastronomy, its development from the realm of laboratory science to that of  restaurant cookery, and to examine the subsequent confusion brought on by the conflation of these two realms in light of its history and its representation in the media.  First, I will chart the history of this branch of the physical and chemical sciences, with particular focus paid to the work of Hervé This.  Then I will discuss certain principles of This’ research in molecular gastronomy, specifically in the complexity of eggs and the production of foams.  Finally, I will use chef Wylie Dufresne’s cooking at his restaurant, wd~50, as a case study to explore how the research of This and others has made its way into the practice of chefs like Dufresne, as well as to describe some aesthetic principles that arise out of Dufresne’s cooking as an example of molecular gastronomy done well.  Ultimately, an understanding of the history and intention behind molecular gastronomy reveals that most of its critics object not the paradigm itself but to particular instances of its poor application to actual cooking.  Rather than a mere culinary trend, molecular gastronomy is a powerful scientific enterprise that is changing the way we think about food, cooking, and eating, and only by understanding its history can we engage fairly with it now and in the future.

A definition of molecular gastronomy is surely needed if we are to discuss its history.  As Hervé This and his colleague Nicolas Kurti were the ones to coin this phrase, it is fitting that we should draw our definition from them.  In the introduction to his book, Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavour, This recalls how in 1988 when he and Kurti were preparing “the first of a series of international workshops on the physical and chemical aspects of cooking” (1) they realised they “needed a pithy phrase that would describe this new field of research” (1).  Being the good gourmets they were, they went first to Brillat-Savarin’s definition of gastronomy in his seminal 1825 work, The Physiology of Taste:

Gastronomy is the intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns man’s nourishment.  Its purpose is to watch over his conservation by suggesting the best possible sustenance for him.  It arrives at this goal by directing, according to certain principles, all men who hunt, supply, or prepare whatever can be made into food. (1)

So gastronomy is the science of how we cook and eat.  But what kind of gastronomy was implicated by This and Kurti’s research?  They originally called it ‘molecular and physical gastronomy’, but after a while it proved too cumbersome a title and in 1998, after Kurti’s death, This shortened the name to simply ‘molecular gastronomy’, which, he supposed, still connoted the physics while proving much more pithy.

This is also very careful to draw distinctions between molecular gastronomy and ‘molecular cooking’, ‘technological cooking’, or any sort of variation on the theme – a sensitivity to terminology and nuance that the media hardly observes and even outright defies for the sake of sensationalism.  This explains that “cooking is a craft, and art – not a science” (2); though cooking necessarily involves certain chemical processes, it is not necessarily a scientific endeavour.  “Nor,” as This points out, “is molecular gastronomy the same thing as the technology of cooking, because science is not technology” (2); the former has to do with the production of knowledge, while the latter “is the systematic treatment of techne – art, craft, or skill” (3).  And what about food science?  Quite simply, “food science deals with the composition and structure of food, and molecular gastronomy deals with culinary transformations and the sensory phenomena associated with eating” (3).  Though the latter surely involves knowledge of the former, they are not equivalent.  Ultimately, the single most important distinction to cull from these language games is that between cooking and molecular gastronomy: cooking is a craft, and “craft aims at the production of goods, not of knowledge.  For the same reason molecular gastronomy is no substitute for cooking but it seeks to produce something entirely different.” (4)  So molecular gastronomy is the scientific process of producing knowledge about the culinary transformations and sensory phenomena of food and eating.  Though it involves food science, makes use of technology, and contributes to cooking, it is equivalent to none of these and is an endeavour unto itself.

Thus we come to the history – or rather, the prehistory – of molecular gastronomy.  This tentatively begins its story with the anonymous author of the London papyrus in ancient Egypt, who “used a scale to determine whether fermented meat was lighter than fresh meat” (3), but only if his motivation for the experiment was “to understand an effect of cooking… if he was interested mainly in the properties of meat, then it was [merely] food science” (3).  The following centuries saw a growth in scientific inquiry and the development of chemistry – indeed chemistry and cooking involved many of the same techniques, such as “cutting, grinding, heating, macerating, and so on” (3).  Even Platina’s famous cookbook De honesta voluptate et valetudine from 1475 “made little distinction between chemistry, medicine, and cooking” (3).  A few centuries later in 1742, François Marin reflects this same view in his La suite des dons de Comus:

The science of cooking involves decomposing, digesting, and extracting the quintessence of meats, drawing from them their light and nutritive juices.  Indeed this kind of chemical analysis is the main object of our art. (3) [italics added]

This expresses a certain incredulity towards Marin’s casual use of the now highly technical terms of ‘science’, ‘art’, and ‘chemical analysis’.  Whether or not such a stance is anachronistic, it is interesting that such a casualness also permeates popular treatment of these terms and their relation to cooking and molecular gastronomy today, and it is part of This’ mission to establish clearer distinctions and definitions in this regard, to better understand what we mean when we talk about food and cooking.

With the Enlightenment and the rise of science in the eighteenth century came a great succession of scientists who, each in their own way, contributed to the growing knowledge of chemistry and the invention of new technologies.  In 1773, Antoine Baumé, a French chemist, refined methods of extraction, clarification, and evaporation involved in preparing dry meat stock tablets.  Around this time, the great chemist Lavoisier also busied himself with stocks, developing a densitometer to measure the optimal concentration of meat stock in water to feed to patients in Parisian hospitals.  Only a few years later in 1776, Benjamin Thompson, later Count Rumford, published an extensive book entitled On the Construction of Kitchen Fireplaces and Kitchen Utensils Together with Remarks and Observations Relating to the Various Processes of Cookery and Proposals for Improving That Most Useful Art.  He did much work related to food and technology, including discovering fluid convection, supposedly by burning the roof of his mouth with a thick soup whose middle layer had not sufficiently cooled.

Slightly later in the mid-nineteenth century, Justus von Liebig, a prolific scientist in Germany, became famous and wealthy through his formation of an American company that produced meat extracts from excess meat supply.  Michel-Eugène Chevreul, a French chemist, later discovered the chemical structure of fats; during the same time, Emil Fischer in Germany was studying the chemical structure of sugars.  Both experiments had immense implications for the burgeoning field of chemistry.  Then, in 1912, Louis-Camille Maillard published his discovery of the nature of the reactions that govern flavour production in grilled meats, bread crust, roasted chocolate and coffee, and many other transformed foods.

The twentieth century saw the rise of food science, particularly as a  growing field in America.  While Édouard de Pomiane was working on the rationalisation of cooking at the Institut Pasteur de Paris, others were doing the same in the United States.  In 1932, Belle Lowe, a professor of Food and Nutrition at Iowa State College, published a book called Experimental Cookery: From the Chemical and Physical Standpoint, which became an authority on the subject for home economics classes across the country.  Then, in 1943, Evelyn Halliday and Isabel Noble at the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota respectively published Food Chemistry and Cookery, also in the field of home economics.  It is notable that in America, most of this work was being done by women as professors of home economics, while in Europe, research was dominated by men in positions of physics and chemistry.  This is a telling fact about the different valuations of food and food science on the two continents, and what sort of work it was perceived to involve.  Futhermore, as the food processing industry continued to develop in America, food science came to be co-opted by industry as a vehicle for researching food’s structure and composition in order to develop better methods of preparation, preservation and packaging – an altogether different role than that of food science in Europe.

Then, of course, came Nicolas Kurti in the late 1960s, teaching physics at Oxford and lecturing on its applications to cooking at the Royal Society of London, at one visit to which he is famously reported to have said “I think it is a sad reflection on our civilisation that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.”  Hervé This followed soon after, testing the experimental mettle of old wives’ tales and cooking adages beginning in the early 1980s to see which ones held up, in what he calls his ‘culinary precisions’.  It was not long before they, along with famed food science writer Harold McGee, became the directors of the International Workshops on Molecular and Physical Gastronomy (although McGee left the project after the first meeting in 1992).  Now, this scientific approach to studying food has spread around the world, with classes and schools in many countries.  With its popularisation, however, it was only inevitable that it would come to inform cooking in its own right, and since the turn of the millennium countless chefs have achieved renown by their culinary innovations that draw on principles of molecular gastronomy as a science, including spaniard Ferran Adrià of El Bulli fame, Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago, and Wylie Dufresne of wd~50 in New York City.

These great chefs, and others like them, understand that “molecular gastronomy does not aim solely at attaining pure knowledge… because it seeks also to give practical knowledge a sound basis by explaining why successful recipes work and why mistakes occur” (16).  Hervé This gives voice to this very sentiment (12):

Time-honored maxims, proverbs, old wives’ tales, folk beliefs, and culinary rules are all millstones round our necks that weigh us down when they are false and wings that carry us aloft when they are true.  Hence the importance of molecular gastronomy, whose primary objective is first to make an inventory of such rules and then to select those that have withstood careful analysis.  Culinary art has everything to gain by separating the wheat from the chaff of empirical obervations.

This approach of subjecting non-rational practices to experimental rigour is a hallmark of This’ molecular gastronomy.  He uses it to explore beliefs about many different sorts of foods, including the humble yet incredibly complex egg.  After debunking the myth that the way to center the yolk in a hard-boiled egg is to cook it in water that is already boiling (the trick, in fact, is to keep the egg from staying in one vertical axis for too long, so that the yolk does not float off centre), he goes on to examine the differing compositions of both the white and the yolk, the causes behind the sulfurous smell and green tinge of overcooked eggs, and what happens when they are cooked at different temperatures.  He discovers that not only is it not necessary to cook eggs in boiling water, but that at the temperature of 100°C much of the water inside the egg escapes before all the proteins coagulate, leaving a firm, often rubbery texture; at a temperature of 68°C, rather, all the proteins are able to coagulate while water is retained, guaranteeing tenderness and smoothness.  Furthermore, there is a sweet spot at 62°C, where “one of the proteins in the white is cooked, but the yolk remains liquid because the proteins that coagulate first in this part of the egg require a temperature of 68°C” (31) – such is This’ notion of the “perfectly cooked egg”.  While molecular gastronomy avails us of these useful discoveries, it alone does not tell us which method produces the ‘better’ egg, per se – that judgement is up to our sensory and aesthetic faculties.  But the fact that we now know how eggs transform means we can cook them to our own ideal of perfection every time, and surely this is a great triumph for the chef of any level.

For Wylie Dufresne, such knowledge “has opened up a world of possibilities [and] applications” (interview) of new ways to derive pleasure and fascination from the egg (indeed it is a well-known fact that eggs are one of his greatest obsessions).  He believes that “knowing mechanically how to poach an egg but not what’s happening to it while its poaching is almost an empty knowledge… knowing the different variables makes anybody a better cook.”  He used this knowledge to conceive a new version of Eggs Benedict, extremely concentrated in flavour.  He blends egg yolks and cooks them in long plastic tubes in a 64°C water bath for 55 minutes, then cuts them into small cylinders of what he calls “egg-yolk fudge”.  He then pairs these with cubes of deep-fried, english muffin crumb-coated cubes of hollandaise sauce (themselves made of egg and butter, with hydrocolloids to keep their shape while cooking), shards of super-thin, super-crispy bacon, and small chives, and it is the most compact, most flavourful version of Eggs Benedict you will ever try – made possible by the discoveries of molecular gastronomy.

Another topic among This’ many hundreds of research interests is that of foam.  Often skewered by critics as one of the most painfully trendy practices of ‘molecular gastronomy’, representing its supposed frivolous lack of substance and gratuitous theatricality, foams are in fact integral to many well-loved foods, encompassing a much broader category than just the watery, tasteless froths made by attention-seeking chefs that have given this otherwise fascinating culinary form an unjustly bad reputation.  Generally, foams are “composed of air bubbles separated by liquid films [that] retain their form only if the liquid forming the walls of the bubbles does not subside or if these walls are able to support themselves despite the draining away of the liquid.” (149)  Foams originally became popular with the Nouvelle Cuisine in 1960s France, a movement that favoured lighter dishes and focussed on presentation.  In those days foams were almost always made by vigourously beating egg whites to achieve bubbles that were “sufficiently small that the surface forces are stronger than the forces of gravity” (149) which would “cause the water to fall and the air to rise” (149) and allow the foam to subside.  Now, after the research of This and others, we know how to make foams more easily, using materials other than egg whites that will better hold their form.  The key discovery in this research was that the stability of a foam “results both from the interactions of the proteins present in the walls of the liquid films that separate the bubbles and from the viscosity of these films” (150).  Foams can be made and stablised from a variety of different materials by “increasing the viscosity of its liquid phase” (150) as well as by arranging these proteins “at the water-air interface in such a way that their hydrophilic parts are in contact with the water and their hydrophobic parts with the air, [which] favor[s] and increase in the surface area common to both air and water” (150).

Dufresne has taken this knowledge and applied it even beyond what This and others had in mind.  All a foam is is a dispersion of air bubbles in a liquid – well, says Dufresne, why not in a colloid, or even in a solid?  With his Aerated Foie Gras, he does just that.  He takes foie gras, makes a terrine to achieve uniform texture (a traditional recipe, in fact), and then whips it to disperse air bubbles into the rich, fatty substance.  The result is, to be technically precise, a foam, but one that is both light and heavy, rich and soft, flavourful and delicate.  He serves it with ultra-thin slices of spongy brioche, curls of pickled beet, and dabs of mashad plum purée – a combination that highlights the texture and flavour of the foie gras perfectly, lending a slight crispiness, sweetness, and sourness that elevates the already divine foie to a new level of culinary mastery.

As Dufresne himself says, “without foam, there would be no bread, no ice cream, no cappucino… there have been foams around long before the so-called ‘foam movement’” and that “people have a responsibility if they’re going to criticise to understand the past, present, and hopefully a little bit of the future” of the object of their criticism before making “misguided” judgements on something they don’t understand.  Certainly there are many foams out there that are unsuccessful – but the same is true of any dish.  We do not blame the dish for being wrong, but the chef who conceived or executed it poorly.  For Dufresne, just like any other of our favourite chefs, it’s all about making something delicious:

Some chefs, myself included, recognised that taking heavy things and lightening them, and then presenting them that way, was another way to eat it and experience it, but also made it more pleasant – that’s the joy in a cappucino.  What’s bad about that?  You’re eating something rich and luxurious in this very light, ethereal, delicate way – I think that’s a nice juxtaposition.  But, like anything, when done poorly, it’s easy to attack.  For all the people making foams well and properly, there were many more that were doing it improperly, and that didn’t help.

This juxtaposition is a feature that appears in much of Dufresne’s cooking.  To some, his aesthetic may seem haphazard and his process disjointed, but in fact he and his team are not only extremely detail-oriented and thoughtful in their creations, but they work hard to toe the line between both gratifying and defying expectations:

One of the things we like to do, one the formats we like to play with a lot, and I think successfully, is to take something familiar and serve it in an unfamiliar way, or take unfamiliar things and serve them in a familiar way… People are beginning to see that eating can be an artform, but it’s still not ‘the sky’s the limit’ with eating as it is with other artforms, like painting or sculpture.  You have to eat; you don’t have to paint or do these other things.  Eating is still about sustenance.

Contrary to much criticism of molecular gastronomy cooking, Dufresne and other chefs are very much concerned with giving pleasure and making things taste good, while also pushing the limits of our conventional notions of certain dishes.  He recognises that his version of Eggs Benedict “does not resemble that of your childhood or of Sunday brunch… but, when you eat it, you can still be transported, it’s still all the flavours, it still taps the memory of Eggs Benedict.”  Dufresne realises the important connection between food and memory, and that harnessing this relationship “often contributes to a successful dish”.

The counterpart to this process of deconstructing a familiar dish into a new presentation is to take unfamiliar elements and construct them in a familiar way.  Dufresne explains that “when there are elements of a dish that sounds like they won’t go together, we’re going to present it in a way that makes it seem friendly, that makes you want to interact with it in a nice way – it’s not going to be intimidating.”  This is precisely the thought behind his Mediterranean Bass, paired with “artichokes, forbidden rice, [and] white chocolate-green olive” – not exactly a conventional menu description.  But the way it is conceived and presented makes all the difference.  The integrity of the whole filets are maintained, cooked lightly with a crisped skin.  There is rice, a sauce, and a vegetable – an entirely “friendly” and familiar way of serving fish – with the form of the artichoke maintained alongside rice that has been puffed into miniature textured cakes.

Throughout Dufresne’s cooking, there is evidence of this thoughtfulness, this attention paid to finding a balance between the interest of innovation and the comfort of familiarity.  He wants the dishes to be successful; he wants his diners to enjoy their experience.  He is always looking to find ways for his patrons to think “oh, I never would have thought of that before” while still gaining pleasure and nourishment – this is hardly the philosophy that the media assigns to this sort of cooking, which is too easy to pass off for shock value and ‘empty innovation’.

Why do we criticise experimentation for experimentation’s sake?  Is this not what gives rise to successful new forms in any field?  Surely we cannot hold anyone or anything to the double standard of both avoiding failure and pursuing growth.  Dufresne maintains “you have to experiment for experiment’s sake – wasn’t the guy that speared that animal and held it over a fire experimenting?  He didn’t know that it was going to taste delicious… [but] that was a very successful experiment, and thank god that somebody did it.”  It is this spirit of mindful play that I find so compelling about Dufresne’s work, and about this sort of cooking when done well.  “What says that I can’t – or shouldn’t – play with [the food I serve]?  Because in playing with it, I’m going to learn something, if I have my eyes open and my mind open.  I see nothing but good coming out of playing with my food.”  Even failed experiments, as he explains, lead to more knowledge, and more successful versions of themselves – the very spirit of science and ‘progress’ that, as This says, we should make no “facile apology” for (7).

Acclaimed Chef Thomas Keller urges us to remember that “molecular gastronomy is something the media has used as a phrase to identify a new style of food.  It’s not something any of the cooks that are doing it have ever said about the food they do.”  The purely scientific and research-oriented underpinnings of molecular gastronomy as it is originally understood demand a new phrase to refer to the actual praxis of the knowledge it produces.  Scientists, chefs, and the media would all be grateful if this necessary distinction could be made.  Thanks to Nathan Myhrvold, ex-CFO of Microsoft and long-time gastronome, such a distinction is finally being available to be instituted.  His masterwork, which took over five years and a team of forty-six to complete, is a comprehensive compendium of all the scientific knowledge about the composition and transformation of food, entitled Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.  With this new term of ‘modernist cuisine’, perhaps we can finally delineate the territory of molecular gastronomy while also providing an umbrella term for the wide range of new techniques and methods that this science has made available to the realm of cookery in the modern era.

By studying the history and purpose of molecular gastronomy, we come to appreciate the boundaries of its domain: what it is concerned with, and what it is not.  In doing so we are able to formulate a new paradigm – ‘modernist cuisine’, perhaps – that both respects molecular gastronomy as a science and ackowledges the innovative work that chefs like Wylie Dufresne are doing by applying its knowledge in the kitchen.  Ultimately, as This insists, “culinary phenomena – the phenomena that generate transformations in food – are at bottom nothing more than chemistry and physics, [and] to cook well, at least from the technical point of view (art, as I say, is another story), we have to know both these sciences.” (11)  When we cook, we are already engaging in science – it is our choice to either ignore or engage with that science and harness the knowledge it produces.  It is natural that such scientific knowledge should lead to practical applications, so, as Hervé This exclaims, “let us go about our cooking, then, with full knowledge of what it actually involves” (18) – and I am sure, with ingenuity and an eye for balance, widsom, and restraint, that we shall hardly be worse off for it.

 

References

Bruni, Frank. ‘The Shape of Eggs Benedict to Come’. The New York Times. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/05/dining/reviews/05rest.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ref=dining&gt;. March 5 2008. April 27 2011.

Chang, Kenneth. ‘Food 2.0: Chefs as Chemists’. The New York Times. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/06/science/06food.html?pagewanted=1&ref=dining&gt;. November 6 2007. April 27 2011.

Maurer, Daniel. ‘Foam Fan Wylie Dufresne: ‘Farm-to-Table’ Is ‘Smoke and Mirrors’. Grub Street New York. <http://newyork.grubstreet.com/2010/08/ foam_fan_wylie_dufresne_thinks.html>. August 24 2011. April 27 2011.

Morabito, Greg. ’15 New York Chefs That Don’t Like ‘Molecular Gastronomy’’. Eater NY. <http://ny.eater.com/archives/2011/03/chefs_that_dont_like_ molecular_gastronomy.php>. March 7 2011. April 27 2011.

Raisfeld, Robin, and Rob Patronite. ‘He Is the Egg Man: Wylie Dufresne reveals his ultimate fantasy: taking a bath in hollandaise sauce’. New York Magazine. <http://nymag.com/restaurants/features/30007/&gt;. April 1 2007. April 27 2011.

Ruhlman, Michael. ‘Cook From It?  First, Try Lifting It’. The New York Times. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/09/dining/09modernist.html?_r=2&scp=3&sq=molecular%20gastronomy&st=cse&gt;. March 8 2011. April 27 2011.

Sytsma, Alan. ‘Why Is Everyone So Down on the Term ‘Molecular Gastronomy’?’. Grub Street New York. <http://newyork.grubstreet.com/2011/03/ why_is_everyone_so_down_on_the.html>. March 14 2011. April 27 2011.

This, Hervé. Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavour. trans. Debevoise, M.B. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Travaux de Hervé This. <http://sites.google.com/site/travauxdehervethis/&gt;. April 27, 2011.

wd~50. <http://www.wd-50.com/info.html&gt;. April 27 2011.

 

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