The Ethos of Molecular Gastronomy by Matthew Eady

It would be difficult to find someone who has influenced the culinary world more than Hervé This (pronounced “Teess”) over the past few decades.  Perhaps, somewhat surprisingly, he is not a trained chef but a chemist who applied his background to understanding gastronomical endeavors that have existed as preparation staples for generations of cooks.  In 1994 he published a paper with his collaborator Nicholas Kurti that kick-started the field.  The seminal book Molecular Gastronomy was published in 2008.  From a holistic view, it has the feeling of jumping from topic to topic.  But the beauty in this text is the level of childlike excitement and scientific exploration found throughout its pages.  Topics such as cooking steak, preparing quiches, and quenelles challenge culinary norms, by suggesting maybe there is a better way to approach cooking traditions than those that have been passed down through generations. 

It’s great to welcome another former student of mine as a guest blogger. I don’t believe that I ever met a more determined student than Matt Eady or a more cheerful one! Chemistry did not like him, but he persevered. Bad things happened to Matt and his family, like a tree falling on his car during a storm, but he showed up to class the next day with a smile. He worked his way through school in local restaurant kitchens and went on to become Dr. Matthew Eady through grit and determination. He was intrigued early with the concept of molecular gastronomy as it provided a bridge between his work life and his life as a student. We are fortunate to have his incite into note-by-note cooking and its forerunner, molecular gastronomy.

The influence of this approach to cooking can be seen in restaurants around the globe, from the tastiest local barbeques to Michelin starred restaurants.  Whether it is wanting to gain knowledge of how various cuts of meat react to the time-temperature relationship of heating or creating sensory trickery with the use of novel techniques.  It may not be the exact words and texts from Hervé’s publications, but rather a shift in the mentality of the approach to cooking.  The influence I saw in other cooks was the desire to dig deeper into the understanding of how cooking processes work, which was a driving force for me to pursue a degree in Food Science.   

A few years ago, El Bulli was the culinary Mecca of the world.  Ferran Adria and his brother Albert were key players in adapting concepts of molecular gastronomy.  A rather unique aspect to their approach was their ambition to build a test kitchen.  Anyone who has worked in a restaurant knows that square footage comes at a premium, but El Bulli was determined to create something different by focusing on exploration of techniques and flavor profiles.  In the restaurant’s early days, it would close for six months out of the year, due to its location and tourist season.  The Adria brothers would devote those six months to scientific exploration in their test kitchen.  As the restaurant’s reputation grew it could have easily filled its tables during those six months but remained closed for menu development.  Somewhere along the line, El Bulli decided to close its doors.

With the success of El Bulli, and other restaurants such as The Fat Duck, and WD-50 came a movement.  Cooks became enthralled with using the term to describe an Avant Garde style of cooking associated with liquid nitrogen, spherification, or cold searing to name a few methods.  It became more about creating a shocking dining experience and less about cooks pursuing science to explore their trade.  I am not saying these cutting-edge dining experiences are not worth it, but rather it moved away from the initial use of the term.

At this point some foodies cringe when they hear “Molecular Gastronomy”.  In some people’s eyes it became a term associated with phrases such as “I don’t want chemicals in my food”.  A point Hervé stresses as well as my food science professors, is that all food is made up of chemicals.  In some ways, this negative view of the Molecular Gastronomy movement has mirrored what the larger food processing industry has faced.  Simultaneously, there has been a stirring movement in dining for hyper-local sourced food items and simple preparations that retain the item’s original flavors. 

These two approaches are viewed as the antithesis of each other. However, the original views on which Molecular Gastronomy were based (not the trendy gastropub scene) can be paired with the desire for satisfying results.  A few years ago, several of the world’s top chefs who tend to have their names associated with the Molecular Gastronomy movement got together and issued a statement.  Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, and Ferran Adria teamed up with author and Harold McGee (On Food and Cooking) described how the world of cooking has changed rapidly in recent times, and make a very strong statement in saying that “we do not pursue novelty for the sake of novelty”. 

Note-by-note cooking is an interesting progression from the author’s previous works.  A culinary trend that has made its way through kitchens is “deconstruction”.  For example, consider the traditional cassoulet.  A French dish that can take several days to prepare and consists of layering many flavors.  One could find a deconstructed cassoulet, which presents the diner with multiple components plated individually with their own accompaniments.  It would seem that a natural progression from “deconstruction” would be note-by-note cooking taking this idea to another level.  Herve describes the approach as “painting with primary colors”. 

a display of books of importance to the author
A collection of some of the books that have had the biggest influence on Matthew as a cook, along with Note-By-Note Cooking. The green books in the back are a collection of menus that have been recorded throughout the history of the world, and are a fun way to look at the progression of dining.

It is hard to say if this cooking approach will take off, as I think many of us have a love for the cooking process and might give pause to removing certain steps from the process.  Apart from the culinary aspirations of note-by-note cooking there is the potential practical impact the approach can have on society.  Note-by-note cooking uses constituent chemical compounds to create food instead of plant and animal tissue, which has potential to address a food supply that struggles to feed the world’s population.  Certain approaches could reduce the presence of pathogenic and spoilage organisms, reducing food waste.

As someone who has spent the past decade conducting research, I can say one of the most beneficial tools I have gained was my time spent in a kitchen.  I have found that sometimes it can be difficult to “think outside of the box” when approaching scientific questions.  Having a background in an artistic field has allowed me to approach research questions uniquely.  A large part of that I owe to Hervé This’s work, a sort of Pandora’s box for many of us working in kitchens.  While I was an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, I had the opportunity to exchange a few emails with Hervé.  This was also a point that he stressed to me, focus on the artistic side of things, and the rest will fall into place.  He was not wrong.  It has been a few years since I last worked in a kitchen, but the skills that I learned there have transcended to the research I conduct now.   

As far as note-by-note cooking goes, time will tell how it catches on with the public.  It is a little more difficult to see this idea spreading the way molecular gastronomy took off in the mid 1990’s and early 2000’s.  It is, however, an interesting addition to the evolution of cooking, and possibly one that cooks can draw inspiration from.  Most likely, as our dining experiences evolve, we will take bits and pieces of note-by-note cooking, molecular gastronomy, and future novel approaches to cooking and merge them into a new normal.  Regardless, it will be exciting to watch. 

Next week: Note-By-Note Cooking: Is This’ Idea Going to Be All That?    

Matthew Eady spent a decade working in fine-dining kitchens throughout the southeastern U.S., including working with James Beard and Food and Wine award-winning chefs.  Matthew obtained three degrees from the University of Georgia’s Food Science and Technology department (Ph.D. ’18).  Currently, he works for an international non-profit located in Durham, North Carolina, that focuses on improving conditions in resource-limited areas. The organization’s objectives range from providing health care and educational opportunities to crisis response and economic development.  Previously, Dr. Eady developed rapid and non-destructive applications for food safety.  He is currently developing rapid testing methods for the quality compliance of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, contraceptives, TB medications, and malaria nets.  Primarily, these medications are distributed throughout Africa and Asia as part of USAID’s global distribution chain.

 

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