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Molecular Gastronomy Takedown in Esquire


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Has the backlash begun?

Sadly, this is only a book review and not the feature length look that this subject deserves (whether you agree with it or not), but veteran critic/food writer John Mariani calls bullshit on "modernist" cuisine and the Gaga-esque buzz it's been generating for years.

The praise heaped on such cuisiniers by media hype, with the word "genius" bandied about as if speaking of Picasso or Mozart, obscures the fact that such culinary experiments have long been part of gastronomy, not least by American food companies like Kellogg's, Birds Eye, and General Mills — all with test facilities easily costing millions more than Myhrvold's 4,000-square-foot kitchen. Has anyone considered the years of hard work that went into creating cereals like cornflakes, shredded wheat, and Lucky Charms, which were invented in 1962? With their colored marshmallows and shamrock-shaped wheat bits made with modified corn starch, corn syrup, dextrose, gelatin, calcium carbonate, trisodium phosphate, and artificial color — the kinds of chemical additives molecular cuisiniers have in their pantries? And the admirable sous-vide process is really just a chef's cooking shortcut that was pioneered as boil-in-a-bag decades ago....

Which leads to the question, what exactly has been the effect and influence of the modernist/molecular chefs' ideas on other chefs? The simple answer is: next to zero. Aside from the momentary faddishness of Ferran Adrià's foam sauces — now a cliché — nothing has been adapted from the modernist movement, and the number of such chefs comprising the movement in the entire world might be counted on two hands

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Admittedly, my experience with this sort of thing has been limited to a single journey to MiniBar which was enjoyable but not so compelling that I've ever seriously considered going back. But the whole movement has never struck me as particularly compelling. Who doesn't love playing with their food? But at some point the chemistry lab thing seems off-putting and stuff that might be enjoyable and interesting once or twice deteriorate into gimmicks quickly enough.

Thoughts?

(PS: The Mariana-Aschatz bitch-fest is almost as enjoyable as the Bourdain-Richman cat fight).

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Last night I watched "Marcel's Molecular Kitchen" in the hopes that it would make me sleepy. It was without a doubt the first cooking show where I wanted to eat none of the food.

I have no recollection of my favorite powdered whatever, emulsified whatchamiajigger, or espuma of "insert nonsense here". But I have vivid recollections of actual dishes with actual food that I ate 20 years ago.

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At the old Farah Olivia, a restaurant I loved, Morou used various techniques from molecular gastronomy in ways that did not seem at all gimmicky. Although I noticed the novelty of the technique it seemed to me that the focus was always on the food, not the flash, and that the chemistry set stuff was just an extension of the tools available to him. If chefs have failed to properly incorporate molecular gastronomy into regular cooking, that's a failure on the part of the chefs, not the techniques. It can be done.

On a related note, a recent visit to the new Farah Olivia, which makes its home in the private dining room at Kora, was disappointing. The food was good, the cooking solid, but the magic was missing. I had heard similar complaints about the old restaurant on nights when Morou was absent, but had never experienced it. I don't know if he was in the kitchen that night.

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I have issues on both sides in this battle. I know that the idea of the anonymous critic is a farce, but I believe that playing along with the charade still provides possibilities that the critic has not be recognized, Mariani’s advanced notice of arrival leaves no chance that I will have a similar experience to his.

That issue aside, I have to agree with his take on molecular cuisine. I have had more than my share of it, and while it was once exciting (first meal at WD-50) it has become trite and overused (my meal at Volt), however, that does not mean that it does not have a very limited place in cuisine. I was taken a bit aback by the subtitle of Achatz’s new book being "Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat" as Mariani points out the only truth in this title is the “Facing Death” part – the other two are best summed up by Mariani with his quip “Achatz has had no influence on anyone's cooking at all, unless I'm missing scores of young cooks out there hanging limp bacon from silver clotheslines."

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Although it takes all types, and all types have different tastes, and all tastes are valid; I would rather see kitchens, and the chefs that work in them, moving away from science and back to FIRE. My two cents..

*edit* salt and preserving are also pretty damn cool in my book.

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I love science and I love innovation.

I do not love molecular gastronomy.

I think it's cool for what it is: a unique style that allows some very creative chefs to do things with food. The one thing I do not see it as is an evolution. I've seen people talk about the transition to MG and sous vide and antigriddles as no different from the transition from fire to oven. False.

The transition from "traditional" to "MG" is not the same as the transition from, say, print to digital. It is not a change in medium, it is a change in expression.

An evolution represents a better way of doing something, not a different way. Photography evolved from film to digital, but first year fine arts students still take shitty pictures of old people on benches. It didn't make better photographers or better pictures. MG doesn't allow someone to cook better, just different. It doesn't make better chefs or better food. Just different.

Sure, some of what MG develops has far-reaching effects: the best temperature to cook a steak, the exact number of nanograms of salt to add to a brine, the optimal temperatures to favor lactobacillus versus yeast growth in a sourdough. Knowing those things can make better food.

MG isn't a fad - I think it's going to stay and continue to change (evolve, even). But I don't think it's the next step beyond the oven.

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What a silly and poorly thought-out piece! As a journalist -- although maybe we should be safe and stick to the word "writer" -- I would be extremely hestitant to break out the old "industrial food processing" chestnut, given that it's been bandied about for at least half a decade now. A Google search would have helped, or a cursory look at any of the debates on progressive cuisine on any number of food forums. Many chefs readily acknowledge that some of their techniques and food additives originated in industrial food, and they've been acknowledging it for a very long time now. That's where a lot of food science and research are concentrated; that's where the money is. We should welcome chefs appropriating this knowledge for their own ends, as well as Mr. Myhrvold approaching food scientifically from an enthusiast's perspective, as opposed to a conglomerate's.

As for the influence question, Mariani is just dead wrong. It takes a very willful ignorance to overlook that Ferran Adria is, at least arguably, the most influential chef of our time, alongside Michel Bras. Look at the San Pellegrino Top 50 Restaurants list, regardless of what you think of it: El Bulli is number 2 and the other top 7 are clearly in the progressive vein. Number 8 is Daniel. Mariani mentions Thomas Keller and his roast chicken. Is he aware that The French Laundry and Per Se use hydrocolloids? Transglutaminase? Sparingly, yes, but probaly more than you'd think. Corey Lee makes fake shark's fin -- with chemicals! He ran The French Laundry for four years. Manresa, Coi, all of the Momofukus, Corton, Eleven Madison Park, Providence, Blue Hill -- all of these restaurants, and many more, are at the very least informed by the progressive approach. Just because you're getting a pretty bowl of vegetables doesn't mean they're not sous-videing your lamb's neck or thickening your sauce with seaweed extracts. Even Michael White uses a thickener in his sauce for butter-poached lobster with root vegetables and vin jaune. And that's just in the US. What about in our own area? Oval Room, New Heights, RJ Cooper, Volt, Ashby Inn, Townhouse...

Mariani should know this; if he actually does, then he's being deliberately obtuse. If he doesn't, he's just inexcusably ignorant. I don't know which is worse.

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I said this years ago when this nonsense started and will say it again: This food for bored rich people who eat out every night.

If I recall you spent quite a number of years matching wines for bored rich people eating this nonsense...

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Didn't read the article very carefully. It looks like an excuse to rehash his personal issues with Achatz. I personally enjoy molecular gastronomy on occasions but it has no application in my kitchen. Just like I enjoy modern art but I'm not shelling out big bucks to keep one in my house. Although I could probably live happily without ever seeng another Pollock or Calder, I think I would miss the deconstructed tomato, basil and mozzerella at Alinea. As for the title of Achatz's book, I think he's chasing the same kind of greatness achieved by, maybe not Picasso, but Leger.

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I don't know. Articles like this make me foam at mouth....

Probably the reason why some Spanish chefs linked to the "movement" are uncomfortable with the term mol... gas...., especially when their repertoire includes very traditional dishes, playful riffs on tradition and neo-new stuff.

Reminds me of a couple things from my days in academe, including the battle waged against so-called theorists by old-school practitioners of Humanities [insert your field here]. Some old foggies were lazy and full of crap, some hard-working, productive and idiots, and some brilliant and illuminating. Same with the neo-newo's. Why can't we all just get along says Spike Lee in School Daze.

Also reminds me of back-in-the-giorno handbooks for painters by Cennino Cennini and Leon Battista Alberti in which the authors argued for the elevated status of the profession because their handiwork involved intellectual pursuits, that is, they were more than manual laborers.

Sounds like cooks are going through the same process and mol-gas is a prominent route to their goal. Just have to wait to see when Yale starts offering a BA in culinary practice and not just food as subject of Cultural Studies, anthro, etc.

(Can you tell I haven't read the article yet? Will do; thanks for link, W.)

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As for the influence question, Mariani is just dead wrong. It takes a very willful ignorance to overlook that Ferran Adria is, at least arguably, the most influential chef of our time, alongside Michel Bras. Look at the San Pellegrino Top 50 Restaurants list, regardless of what you think of it: El Bulli is number 2 and the other top 7 are clearly in the progressive vein. Number 8 is Daniel.

I would say that he is not even close to the most influential chef in the world when viewed by the impact on what the general public is eating, as opposed to food writers, bloggers, twittereers, list compilers, and so forth are eating. I think that you could make an real argument that Dan Courdreaut. I am sure that more people eat the food they oversee in one day than eat the food on the San Pellegrino’s list of restaurants in a year. Granted, popularity does not equate to quality, but influencing the chefs at the top rung of exclusive restaurants does not equate to “redefining the way we eat."

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I would say that he is not even close to the most influential chef in the world when viewed by the impact on what the general public is eating, as opposed to food writers, bloggers, twittereers, list compilers, and so forth are eating. I think that you could make an real argument that Dan Courdreaut. I am sure that more people eat the food they oversee in one day than eat the food on the San Pellegrino’s list of restaurants in a year. Granted, popularity does not equate to quality, but influencing the chefs at the top rung of exclusive restaurants does not equate to “redefining the way we eat."

That's a given, though. Of course most people don't know what Alinea is, or care. We're a self-selected group of people talking about a small subset of the food industry. I'm not going to qualify phrases like "most influential" because I assume that the audience on this forum knows what I'm talking about.

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That's a given, though. Of course most people don't know what Alinea is, or care. We're a self-selected group of people talking about a small subset of the food industry. I'm not going to qualify phrases like "most influential" because I assume that the audience on this forum knows what I'm talking about.

For me the rub comes from his subtitle "redefining the way we eat" that little we does not indicate to me he is only meaning a small subset, but a pretentious belief that he has an Alice Water's type of influence on the country's eating habit. He has not had any more influence on the way the 'we' of America eats - if they had chosen the word 'dine' instead of 'eat' then maybe there would be a small case for it, but dining is a much different thing than eating.

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I really love molecular gastronomy because I think it is fun. And I have had some really tasty dishes. And Hubby thinks it is too cool and enjoys it. But I am ok with the fact that I may be in the minority on that. I think I tend to like the fun aspect of food perhaps more than other people. But I actually remember bites I have had of things years later. I guess I am just odd, wouldn't be the first time.

But I don't think it is going to change the way people eat or save the world in any way. I think it is just one of many styles of cooking.

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That's a given, though. Of course most people don't know what Alinea is, or care. We're a self-selected group of people talking about a small subset of the food industry. I'm not going to qualify phrases like "most influential" because I assume that the audience on this forum knows what I'm talking about.

http://www.casadellibro.com/libro-la-cocina-al-desnudo/1199273/2900001253413/en_gb is the link to Santimaria's book. This three Michelin star chef (who sadly just passed away-Adria attended the funeral) was the source of the best meal I have ever had. He was a huge critic of Adria and molecular cooking.

Google Spanish to English translation of the book's overview

Are we witnessing the decline of domestic cooking and the unstoppable decline of the Mediterranean food culture? Should we be proud of a cuisine, molecular tecnoemocional-championed by Ferran Adrià and his cohort of supporters, who filled our plates jelly laboratory stabilizers and emulsifiers?

These and other attempts to answer questions Santi Santamaria, the Spanish chef with more Michelin stars in a book unusual and thought provoking, no magic recipes, peppered with memories and personal and professional references, writing outside the prevailing fashions and against the kitchen -show by someone who takes life glued to the kitchen. It aims to stimulate dialogue, to open a public debate on the future of our food and of course, also the controversy that is also served.

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2438 pages, 40 pounds, 6 volumes.... And when available it's only $462 at Amazon.

I think this is the biggest, easiest, and most accurate critique of MG - something that is supposed to be a showcase for a chef's creativity and playfulness is often overshadowed by pretentiousness and long-windedness. I'm a fan of MG because I like being challenged as a diner. That being said, if your crazy techniques and 12 hour cooking processes result in something that doesn't actually taste good, I could give a damn. Fact is most of the MG techniques are best eaten but not seen, but many of their biggest advocates can't get over their need to screw with things just to screw with them - and it ends up bringing down the dish as a whole. The steak still needs to match the sizzle, and often that doesn't happen. Too many Marcels, not enough Blaises.

(and I'm going to Minibar this week too - maybe this will renew my hope in the concept?)

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