Molecular gastronomy versus home cooking

As regular readers here will have realized, I’m a pretty basic cook. I might be trained as a chef and be able to chop veggies faster and more neatly than many of my readers, but my maxim is that if you can read, you can cook. My goal as a recipe writer and home cook is to make food that’s easily identifiable, satisfying and delicious.

Ingredients, emotions and cravings drive my cooking. (In fact, if I’m stressed out or feeling down, look in the kitchen. Chances are there will be something yummy bubbling in a pot that I’ve prepared to escape what’s on my mind.) I think this personal connection between emotion and cooking is why molecular gastronomy confuses me.

Being a food trend expert, molecular gastronomy confounds me on another level, too. Just like the post I wrote yesterday about how salted caramel’s popularity flies in the face of health news and consumer demand for low sodium, low fat recipes, molecular gastronomy, with its chemical and scientific interventions appeals to the opposite group of people who are popularizing the locavore movement. Instead of highlighting the goodness and simplicity of a perfect, in-season squash, Ferran Adria and Grant Achatz seem to strive to make ingredients do new, unrecognizable things. I get the impulse but am surprised by its popularity.

I spent an hour or so Saturday afternoon leafing through the new books by these two scientist chefs and, although I found it fascinating reading, I wasn’t driven crazy with cravings while I turned pages. I just couldn’t relate to most of their food on an emotional level.

It could be that having not been to either El Bulli or Alinea that my eye isn’t trained to anticipate the great taste that will be delivered by a mound of foam that resembles dish sink suds. I can’t say.

Please don’t misunderstand. On a technical level, I’m in awe of what these chefs do and would love to try their wares. I just can’t see myself longing to go to one of their restaurants when I’m tired and hungry or wishing mid-afternoon that I had “granola in a rosewater envelope” (suspended from a metal trapeze when photographed for page 369 of the Alinea cookbook!). I imagine eating at these restaurants to be more like going to an amusement park: fun once every year or two but not something that I’d enjoy doing every week.

Needless to say, I can never see this kind of cooking spilling into the weeknight home kitchen. I may have to eat these words but it won’t be until moms start trading stories about how little Johnny will only eat asparagus if she prepares it bubbled (see recipe page 100 in Alinea).

Have you eaten at one of these famous eateries? Feel like setting me straight? If so, I’d love to hear your perspective.

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16 Responses to Molecular gastronomy versus home cooking

  1. I have never eaten at El Bulli, The Fat Duck or any other restaurant based on molecular gastronomy. I share your food philosophy and am confused by MG.

    Initially I felt it drove a wedge between people and food. As someone who thinks we need to get closer to how our food is grown and where it comes from, I felt MG was elitist and ego-driven. Science based art for the sake of art, not to satiate hunger or nourish the body. Notice the use of past tense.

    While I am not about to jump on the MG bandwagon, I am coming to think of it on the same level as haute couture and space exploration. In the Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep’s character explains how the colour of Anne Hathaway’s lowly sweater had its roots in high fashion. I’ll never go to space, but I wouldn’t have a microwave if someone hadn’t left orbit.

    MG will likely never directly connect to the average person, but its discoveries might have a beneficial trickle down effect. After all, induction cooking sprung from MG and who knows what else will evolve.

  2. Rosa says:

    I’ve never eaten anything of that kind… I find molecular gastronomy interesting, but I’m not impressed by it! Technically speaking, it’s great, yet I’m not too sure that I find it appetizing…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  3. Sheryl says:

    I think Charmain pegs it right in comparing it to high fashion. Most of us will never own a Dior gown, but we can still appreciate its beauty and craftsmanship. From a practical standpoint, MG, like haute couture doesn’t have the emotion going for it. No one ever snuggles up in a Theirry Mugler jacket because it’s cozy and inviting, and no one longs for foam and asparagus bubbles after a hard day at work or an afternoon raking leaves.

    What Adria and co master in in scientific perfection, they miss in terms of emotional response. For many people food equals love, and molecular gastronomy is too cold and heartless to warm the heart.

  4. Corey says:

    I spent half an hour with Adria last week. He was very passionate and I would definitely liken his pursuit to that of an astronaut. At one point he inhaled a croissant and told me that it’s simple to make one, because there is a recipe. But there is a mind that looks at a croissant and wants to find a new way to make one. I only had four hundred words to write it up for the paper (http://www.thestar.com/living/article/514101), but we talked about the contextualizing of his food. It’s summed up like this; no one goes to elBulli for a meal after a hard day at the office, any more than one goes to outer space just to take the dog out for a walk.

  5. danamccauley says:

    Looks like we are all in at least pseudo agreement. I wonder then how people feel about restaurants that are not exclusively about an artistic or space age experience incorporating MG techniques and touches into their menus. Does it work for you or do you find it a bit precious at best or band wagon-esque at worst?

    And, if people like Ferran Adria and Grant Anchtz aren’t creating food that can be popularized, can they really be called the world’s greatest chefs? Or, are they the world’s greatest at one select aspect of chefdom?

    So any burning questions!

  6. Cheryl says:

    Well, I’ve never eaten at those two places either, but one of the best pieces of food writing I’ve ever read was my friend and colleague Jess Thomson’s account of her meal at Alinea
    (http://www.leitesculinaria.com/writings/columns/waiterly.html).

    She approached the meal with great humor, to say the least.

    I do feel like these men are artists and I imagine I would approach their work as such — as an experience more than as a meal. But who knows. If I left hungry after plunking down $300, I’d probably b pissed — experience or not.

  7. Cheryl A says:

    Not to change the topic, but have you seen “The Grocery Bags” on W network, Dana? They are taking famous cookbooks and trying to see how successful two home cooks can be at translating and cooking the recipes. It’s actually quite interesting and a better review than what a food writer would probably say. I think it is on Wednesday nights.

    PS I bet, as you say, the Adria book is a fascinating read. As is watching Heston Blumenthal, but I’m seriously never going to try MG at home. Even when I want to get fancy or do something special I don’t have the energy for bringing in beakers and vacuums into the kitchen. But they do represent an evolution in cooking – only the truly strong (techniques and tastes) will survive.

  8. Sarah says:

    Hey Dana! Saw your comment on my blog – I grew my kale from seed I bought at WalMart and it grew really well! Hope you give it a shot!

  9. Potato Chef says:

    I can relate. I like my mac and cheese bubbly with just a hint of salt.

  10. danamccauley says:

    Well, that didn’t take long!

    http://www.slate.com/id/2201626/pagenum/all/

    Can someone pass the salt and pepper to help these blog post words go down more easily?

    At least it ends with the kid wanting his ‘real’ supper.

  11. Corey says:

    Blerg. Once upon a time, the idea of ice cream probably seemed like witchcraft. Adria is just trying new things. That doesn’t make him “the world’s greatest chef” and more than a t-shirt makes my father “the world’s greatest dad.”

    The woman who made broccoli bubbles for her kid was silly, but had a good time. A home cook trying out Adria’s recipes might as well try curing cancer too.

    I had a new dish at my favourite restaurant a couple weeks ago. It was terrible. But I’m happy that the chef is experimenting.

  12. Shari says:

    I appreciate the creativity of it all, but does it taste good? I’m looking forward to browsing through this new cookbook too, but I don’t see it becoming an everyday thing. I like your comparison to going to an amusement park, once a year. That sounds about right. Thanks for the link to that Slate article!

  13. Hugh says:

    I realise I’m in the vast minority here, but I deeply, deeply love the work of people like Adria and Heston Blumenthal. Indeed, the tasting menu at the Fat Duck was, quite literally, the meal that changed my life – it got me into more serious cooking, it taught me new ways that I could consider and imagine food.

    Just because it doesn’t look familiar doesn’t mean it can’t taste wonderful.

  14. Hugh says:

    Incidentally, I regularly use so-called molecular gastronomy techniques at home. I can’t imagine cooking meat without a sous-vide cooker, for example – I’d really miss the incredibly tender chicken, the melting, sumptuous mutton, and the crunchy-yet-cooked-and-flavourful carrots.

  15. danamccauley says:

    Hugh: I have no doubt that tasting is believing. I just don’t see this type of cookery becoming mainstream any time soon.

    Thanks for adding your opinion and experiences. THis kind of dialogue is exactly what I’d hoped for!

  16. [...] be back with insightful and critical comments and comparisons to the other new books by kitchen scientists when I get a chance. In the meantime, send me referrals for good chiropractors.  (My neck is really [...]

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