This culinary trend is one of the most sophisticated, but the use of its techniques and the application of ingredients are not far from scientific knowledge, facts that were previously exclusively for the food industry.
Innovation in the culinary segment manifests itself as avant-garde cuisine, which is a movement made up of several trends. There are establishments and chefs who tend to prepare fusion dishes, which are those that combine the ingredients and techniques of two cultures, a classic example would be cuitlacoche ravioli; There are others who prefer indigenous cuisine, personal interpretations of classic dishes, mole poblano on seared tuna loin, instead of classic chicken breast, could be an idea; The third aspect is the spa kitchen, which strives to offer attractive dishes that take care of the nutritional intake and health of the visitors as much as possible, even offering therapeutic possibilities.
However, the most sophisticated of these trends is molecular gastronomy. These are classic dishes, where the texture, presentation and assembly have been modified. To achieve these preparations, it is essential to combine the creativity and mastery of culinary techniques of an expert chef, with more scientific and technical knowledge of a food chemist, since the techniques used require precise handling of ingredients and their ratios.
Molecular gastronomy emerged less than 20 years ago, fueled in part by a movement known as New Basque Cuisine and a roster of highly regarded Spanish chefs, led by Ferrán Adrià – of the perennially ranked El Bullí restaurant on the outskirts of Barcelona. number one in the world – also expressed in other gastronomic cultures with great skill – such as Fat Duck, chef Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant in England or René Redzepi’s Noma in Denmark, recently named number two and three in the world class quality by Restaurant Magazine – as a method of cooking that involves the use of ingredients and utensils that were previously exclusive to the food industry or chemical specialties.
The first expressions, developed in the mid-nineties, played with the stabilizing power of gelatin and soy lecithin suspension. An attempt was made to stabilize mixtures of liquids, as well as mixtures of liquids with gases. Dishes are designed with creamy foams, mixed in a gas-charged siphon – a technique borrowed from the soft drinks industry in the 70s – or light air, fat-free and almost imperceptible to the palate, both stabilized with soy lecithin. The latter are simply intended to “perfume the mouth” without being carriers of food. Soy lecithin is also essential for the stability of sponges, a type of sweet or salty gelatin, very firm but with a large amount of incorporated air. Another interesting interpretation of this technique is carbonated juices: carbonated preparations of classic dishes, for example prepared tomato juice can be served as an addition to ceviche or a seafood cocktail.
When we talk about perfumes, it is worth mentioning a technique that was only recently created, in 2006. It is about soaking dishes with a certain smell. This is achieved by placing the saucer on a pillow made of natural fabric – linen is ideal – which is inflated with a vacuum cleaner with scented air. The weight of the plate releases the aroma. Another way to offer it is to place it under a glass bell, as simple as a pot or as complicated as a real bell or cap, filled with scented vapors or fumes. Or perhaps the most spectacular way: put it in a container with dry ice and bathe it in a scented liquid. Thus, the entire environment is impregnated with a thick curtain of fragrant vapors.
Later experiments included gelling agents that had no place in the kitchen until then. Today, hot jellies based on agar-agar are offered that can be served in a solid state up to 70 C. Or balls made by pouring a colored liquid (otherwise not very acidic), flavored and mixed with alginates or carrageenans from a syringe into a container with an alkaline solution, where carbonate is almost always used. They can be semi-solid, and if they are small they are known as fake caviar and are served in cocktails, prepared drinks and as a decoration for desserts which give a very attractive appearance; or liquid, when they contain lipids and are heated, already gelled, immediately before serving. An interesting example is the melted butter spheres served at Chicago restaurant Alinea, which chef Grant Achatz pairs with roasted popcorn and steamed Alaskan crab drumsticks.
Other techniques used are based on seemingly very simple principles. Perfumed stones are served that, in contact with the tongue or any other liquid, explode jumping on the palate. They are nothing more than clusters of baking soda with a pleasant taste and color. But when they are served lavender flavored with foie gras pâté terrine, prepared by chef Juan Mari Arzak, it becomes a science and an art.
The use of liquid nitrogen is also widespread. This is used to freeze food mixes and achieve sweet and savory ice creams with a super soft texture and almost imperceptible crystals. But perhaps even more interesting is the use of the same gas (imported directly from medical and dermatology labs) to freeze cookware which is then given to the diner to cook cold food. At Moto chef Homar Cantú’s restaurant in Chicago, one of the most daring interpreters of molecular gastronomy, the menu is printed on edible paper and is part of one of the dishes offered on the tasting menu (yes, the one that wraps some kind of sushi roll in stage four!). a small metal grill frozen in liquid nitrogen is placed in front of the diner and with the help of chopsticks it is necessary to close several pieces of fresh tuna (which are marked as when exposed to heat) and then consume them bathed in also ice-cold soy sauce and wasabi gel.
Also taken from microbiological laboratories or dental offices, we find dishes cooked sous vide. These are mixtures of meat with spices or herbs, placed in resistant and perfectly sealed thermos bags, which are cooked in the same way as we sterilize Petri dishes: in an open autoclave known as a runner. The result is a dish – which has never been in contact with the cooking liquid – soft, juicy, with a very intense flavor, but almost always without fat.
One of the most colorful methods of molecular gastronomy is deconstruction. This is about presenting classic dishes as separate ingredients, each with a different temperature and texture. You can find a deconstructed fiche on veracruz, which serves boiled fish, accompanied by stewed tomato jelly and a mixture of chopped green olives and capers with oregano. Without a doubt, one of the best manifestations of deconstruction is the Caprese salad offered at Alinea in Chicago. It is ice cream made from grated buffalo mozzarella cheese, served on basil gel decorated with fresh leaves of the same plant, but in a children’s version, with five diced tomatoes. Two of them are raw vegetable jellies, one plus cooked and seasoned tomato paste gel; and the last two, some dry but excellent-tasting cubes, obtained by freeze-drying barely seasoned juice from ripe tomatoes. Yes, freeze-drying as in the vaccine or live yeast industry: freezing for dehydration without passing through the liquid state, thus preserving all the sensory characteristics of the ingredient. They are not necessarily very difficult to prepare, but the way they are served is unique.
Another characteristic of molecular cuisine is the plates or utensils used to present the food to the visitor. There are dishes such as mock potato oysters with truffles, which require their own dishes: in this case, half-shells 10 centimeters in diameter are made of natural wax, which are filled with cold truffle-scented potato soup into which specially designed needles are inserted, which hold pieces of cooked potatoes and fresh black truffle.
However, some of the molecular gastronomy techniques are not well accepted or are very difficult to handle in large quantities. There are those who say that this kitchen is just a show, that taste is sacrificed for appearance and play. And these techniques are temporary because they require a lot of product manipulation and a large number of staff in the kitchen. Others classify them as elitist, since in addition to an expert and a large number of chemical substances, a lot of equipment is needed – expensive and sophisticated – such as sorbets, vacuum devices, autoclaves or sliders, siphons, hot and cold blenders, hands, mixers and even dehydrators and freeze dryers.
It is impossible to predict, what can be assured is that the journey has been exciting and that different possibilities have opened up for food preparers: new techniques and ingredients with different functionality.
* Graduated in Nutrition and Food Science, Universidad Iberoamericana. With experience in product development (Procter&Gamble, Richardson Vicks) and food service management (Celanese Mexicana, Grupo Ambrosia del Bosque).