If you happen to be at a cocktail party where the topic of molecular gastronomy comes up (and who isn’t these days?), you’ll no doubt want to participate. The trend, generally defined as the application of scientific techniques and tools to cooking, is wide ranging and a little mysterious. On the one hand, it’s about stuff that happens in the back of the house: the chemical powders and lab equipment that chefs use to create new tastes and textures. But it’s also about what diners see, and how they interact with the food: the surrealistic plating and surprising presentation, the trompe l’oeil food that looks like other food, the morsels served on wires, the flavors added tableside from test tubes.
Lasers, chemical powders, flash freezing: This stuff is complicated. So we’ve put together a ten-point cheat sheet designed to help you sound informed when the topic arises. This is by no means an all-encompassing survey of the topic, but it will give you a handful of talking points to get started. And what better time to get started than now, seeing as the Madrid Fusion conference, a major molecular gastronomy conference, is in full swing over in Spain.
For a demo on correct usage of terms, watch our video.
1. Pronouncing the famous names. Four of the biggest molecular gastronomy chefs have unpronounceable names. Nobody—NOBODY—knows how to pronounce them at first.
- Grant Achatz (Alinea; Chicago)—”Grant A-kitz,” as in “Packets.”
- Ferran Adrià (El Bulli; Girona, Spain)—This one is extra tricky, as you have to affect a Spanish accent: “Feh-RAHN Ah-dree-AH.”
- Homaro Cantu (Moto; Chicago)—”Ho-MAH-roe Can-TOO.”
- Wylie Dufresne (wd-50; New York City)—”WHY-lee Doo-FRAINE,” as in “Ukraine.”
- Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck; Bray, UK)—Just as it looks, but no molecular gastronomy cheat sheet would be complete without this trailblazing chef, whose signature dish, caviar on a white chocolate dish, has been duplicated by many.
2. Don’t call it molecular gastronomy. Like hippie or Tex-Mex, the term molecular gastronomy has stuck in the public consciousness as the de facto name for the science-lab brand of cooking we’re talking about here, thanks to French scientist Hervé This. However, the chefs who cook this way think it’s a dumb name and have said that “molecular gastronomy is dead.”
3. Frozen food. Flash-freezing is to molecular gastronomy as flame-broiling is to Burger King. El Bulli was the first restaurant to experiment with quickly freezing the outside of various foods, sometimes leaving a liquid center, using a volatile set-up involving a bowl of liquid nitrogen dubbed the TeppanNitro. Later, Alinea’s Achatz began using an appliance called the Anti-Griddle, whose metal surface freezes rather than cooks.
4. Spherification. Also known as ravioli (not the kind you eat with marinara sauce), spheres are what you get when you mix liquid food with sodium alginate, then dunk it in a bath of calcium chloride. A sphere looks and feels like caviar, with a thin membrane that pops in your mouth, expunging a liquid center. Popular experiments from the chefs above have included ravioli made from purées of things like mangoes and peas.
5. Meat glue. One of the greatest hits of the movement has been Wylie Dufresne’s “shrimp noodles,” which, as the name states, are noodles made of shrimp meat. They were created using transglutaminase, or meat glue, as it’s known in wd-50’s kitchen, a substance that binds different proteins together and is more familiarly used in mass-produced foods like chicken nuggets.
6. Froth. You probably know about foams, which are sauces that have been turned into froth using a whipped cream canister and sometimes lecithin as a stabilizer. They were invented at El Bulli, along with similar “airs” made with an immersion blender. Despite hitting the mainstream, they’ve refused to die.
7. Eat the document. Arguably the biggest gee-whiz innovation in the genre has been the edible menus by Homaro Cantu of Moto. Using an ink-jet printer adapted for inks made from fruit and vegetables, and paper made of soybean and potato starch, he has created menus that taste like everything from sushi to steak.
8. Bacon on the line. Alinea’s multicourse tasting menu often includes a crispy piece of bacon decorated with butterscotch and dehydrated apple, served threaded on a horizontal wire. The famous dish exemplifies Alinea’s use of creative serveware, and molecular gastronomy’s enthusiasm for dehydrators and savory-sweet combinations in general.
9. You’ll never eat there. Although you may want to dine at the pioneering Spanish restaurant that launched this movement, you’ll be slightly more likely to win the lottery or get struck by lightning than to get a reservation at El Bulli. It’s open only from April to September, and there are a mere 8,000 spots. Over 300,000 people attempt to get one each year.
10. You may never want to eat there. Some dishes created at molecular gastronomy restaurants have not been good ideas—for example, rack of lamb with banana consommé, a “cocktail” of dehydrated powdered rum and cola-flavored Pop Rocks, lamb encrusted with crushed Altoids, and chili-cheese nachos for dessert, made of sweet corn chips, kiwi salsa, and mango sorbet.