Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Molecular Gastronomy: Panel discussion at Le Cordon Bleu

Molecular Gastronomy has always looked to me like science experiments or magic tricks.  I was leaning towards the magic trick perspective at the start of a panel discussion into Molecular Gastronomy  at Le Cordon Bleu (LCB) last Sunday.  When Martin Bosley referred to David Burton as 'Harry Potter' (a jibe at the academic robes he wore) it seemed that magic was the more appropriate term!

As the panel explained, joked and debated it became clear to me that science was at the heart of the conversation.  I came away with the impression that food science has not habitually formed great chunks of chef training.  One panellist noted that he had been told to add mustard every time when making salad dressing when training.  It took a long time for him to learn that it helped stabilise the emulsion between vinegar and oil.

Martin Bosley admitted that he had been an enthusiastic adopter of many practices of molecular gastronomy when learning about them during a collaboration with food scientists for some contract work.  What was basic knowledge to food scientists, and common in the processed food manufacturing industry was new to him.  Why wouldn't you experiment with this knowledge?  He enthusiastically purchased much of the very expensive equipment and ingredients.  He stated that he lost enthusiasm for it when doing stock take one day and observing that the shelves were full of packets of gelling agents rather than ingredients better representing food.

The costs involved are considerable.  The equipment is very expensive ($20,000 for an essence extractor) and you use twice as many ingredients to get the final result.  El Bulli, the restaurant considered the heart of the modern molecular cuisine movement had a lot of staff (including 20 unpaid interns) because the cuisine is labour intensive.  The restaurant reportedly never made a profit (and has since shut down, transforming into a foundation instead).  The panellists agreed that New Zealand was not quite prepared to pay the prices necessary to support full 'molecular cuisine' style meals.  It is also not the New Zealand way to have fussy food - if you start with good ingredients then why would you mess around with them?

Mike Egan (Part owner of Boulcott St Bistro, Osteria Del Toro and Monsoon Poon) felt that comparisons could best be made with various artistic movements.  The 1980's had Nouvelle Cuisine and the experimentation with molecular cuisine is currently waning.  Martin Bosley opined that the next big thing was 'note by note' cooking.  It is best that you follow the link for the explanation, it makes my head spin!

I left with the impression that the magic and showmanship involved in molecular cuisine provided a nice distraction - perhaps adding to the chef's toolbox and giving diner's an experience that was multi-sensory (like Heston Blumenthal's 'Sound of the Sea' dish served with an I-pod playing ambient beach sounds).  It was fun to experiment, but in the experience of these panellists, the molecular cuisine era has passed.  The promotion of food science will be a good legacy for the molecular gastronomy movement to leave.
My favourite molecular gastronomy (food science) discoveries:
  • A member of the audience discussed the Maillard reaction/ adding baking soda when caramelising onions.  Read this story carefully! It is a must read if you want to reduce the amount of time you spend caramelising onions.
  • For better caramelisation on your steak brush with a sugar solution (for example, the sugar could be part of a marinade).

I was very kindly given a ticket to this event by Le Cordon Bleu, as part of their sponsorship of the New Zealand Food Blogger's Association conference.

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