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Radical food innovation

April 25, 2005

Dismissed by many as a fad, molecular gastronomy has a new found legitimacy, as last week, Britain’s The Fat Duck was named the world’s best restaurant.

At The Fat Duck you will find the most extraordinary menu items imaginable. The Degustation Menu includes; snail porridge, sardine on toast sorbet, salmon poached with liquorice, white chocolate and caviar and smoked bacon and egg ice cream.

Herve Bluemental of the Fat Duck and Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Spain are two of the leading proponents of the molecular gastronomy. These chefs combine art and science to formulate recipes that challenge conventional thinking about food.

It’s their passion for experimentation and their dedication to the science of food, (both have laboratories) which makes these men the world’s leading gastronomic innovators.

Molecular gastronomy began its life in the 1980s, when the term was first coined by French scientists, Herv This and Nicholas Kurti.

Surprisingly, Silicon Valley has also played a part.

Much of the pioneering work, has been undertaken by
Harold McGee, a Palo-Alto based food scientist and writer.
McGee’s most noted work is On Food and Cooking, a book which one critic described as follows:

“McGee’s unique amalgamation of wit, knowledge and clarity of expression is applied to seaweed, cakes ancient and modern, the enzymatic browning of cut fruits, structure of grains, flavors of cooked alliums, the weak connective structure of fish, muscle fiber types in meat, stringiness in melted cheese, couscous (“an elegantly simple pasta”), toxins in wood smoke … McGee offers witty, profound enlightenment about everything you’re ever likely to cook or, indeed, eat.”

The chefs innovate through experimentation. Bluementhal’s creation of his famed smoked bacon and egg ice cream came from over-cooking egg custard for an ice cream. Instead of abandoning it, he went ahead and made an ice cream from it, the result had an intense egg flavor. Blumenthal thought that on its own, the taste wasn’t any good, so he added the smoked bacon flavor, and the rest is history.

Ferran Adria of El Bulli, so passionately believes in innovation and experimentation, that he closes his restaurants for 6 months of the year, so he can spend time developing new concepts and ideas.

These restaurants are clearly at the extreme high-end of the restaurant business and it’s not likely that molecular gastronomy is going to fuel the next chain restaurant concept.

However, both these chefs have already caught the attention of the world’s leading flavor houses, who for many years, have followed fairly conservative conventions in their development of flavors for public consumption.

The pioneering work of Adria and Bluementhal teaches us many things.

Firstly, that innovation knows no bounds, and that its still possible to re-invent traditions that have been with us for hundreds of years.

It also suggests that we might start to think about food and flavor experiences in new ways, that don’t follow the conventions of national and ethnic cuisine. Instead, we might look to molecular science to excite us with new, radical combinations.

Perhaps we might see the influence of this movement in menu items at high-end restaurants, as a kind of dilluted craze, before maybe making its way into mass-market, perhaps first in snacks, anyone for sardine mouse flavored chips?

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