Molecular gastronomy versus home cooking

October 15, 2008

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.