Food science – the term immediately conjures visions of sci-fi dreams of nutritive tablets that would inevitably replace traditional food, or perhaps the recent lab-grown meat from Dutch laboratories. In the last couple of decades, however, food science – and its sub-discipline molecular gastronomy in particular – has been inextricably linked with the endlessly inventive, de- and re-constructed creations of the luminaries of fine dining.
Chefs such as Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal and Homaro Cantu have not attained the cutting edge of the culinary arts so much as redefined it. Typical of their ‘why play the game if you can change it’ attitude is Adrià’s oft-quoted claim that “the ideal customer doesn’t come to elBulli to eat but to have an experience.” This sentiment was something that Homaro Cantu, a chef perhaps best described as cooking’s answer to a Dadaist Dr. Frankenstein, lived and his recent, tragic passing should give us pause to consider the history of food science, a progression that led from canned vegetables and meat stock to sous-vide and exploding ravioli.
The History of Food Science
Strictly speaking, food science has been around since mankind first put meat and vegetables to a fire to instigate a chemical change – in other words, since we decided to start cooking, driven to improve our wellbeing. Nevertheless, it is a bit of a stretch to call this food science, as it was most likely the product of guesswork and dumb luck, and more the use of technology to create food. Properly speaking, food science is the applied science devoted to the study of food rather than the application of technology to create food. According to Hervé This (about whom more later), one of the first examples of food science come from an anonymous papyrus from the second century BC which describes the use of a balance to determine whether fresh meat was heavier than fermented meat.
Another early instance of food science was the discovery, in the late 1650s or early 1160s, of agar-agar by a Japanese innkeeper, Mino Tarōzaemon, when he tried to throw away some left over seaweed soup but discovered it had gelled overnight. To this day, agar-agar, a jelly-like substance produced by boiling certain types of algae, is used in desserts throughout Asia, as well as put to myriad other ways since its creation. It was a lucky discovery perhaps, but so are many famous scientific discoveries!
Back in Europe, early food science took on a more programmatic character during the 19th century, and was driven primarily by the preservation of food. For example, in 1810 Nicolas Appert developed canning (albeit in glass jars) in response to the French government’s desire to feed its troops during the Napoleonic wars, and in 1865 Louis Pasteur made his name preventing milk spoilage (thereby becoming a pioneer in bacteriology). As these examples show, the traditional stomping ground of food science has been the study of the production and preservation of food for the mass public.
From Food Science to Molecular Gastronomy
This traditional conception of food science began its revolution to take the form we associate it with now – that is, the source of inspiration for the likes of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià – on the very precise year of 1988. This was the year that the French physical chemist Hervé This and his Hungarian colleague Nicholas Kurti decided to subject our collectively accumulated recipes and cooking know-how to the piercing gaze of scientific testing and found it to be wanting. Kurti, famously, is said to have lamented that “it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus we do not know what goes in our soufflés.” To those who thought of themselves as pretty well versed in the art of fine dining, this indictment was a bitter pill to swallow.
With the shift from food science to their “molecular gastronomy”, with its distinctly modernist valence, This and Kurti founded a discipline that has at its locus the culinary arts rather than large-scale production. While molecular gastronomy is now most associated with the chefs who learned from This and Kurti’s precise measurements and discoveries and popularized them (to the extent that now no self-respecting chef is without a sous-vide machine) molecular gastronomy is not only for the world of faux caviar, hot ice cream, and haute cuisine.
This’ main impetus was to investigate recipes (so far the count is over 25,000) that have remained essentially unchanged since the 14th century and for This the everyday remains equally important. For example, an early foray into egg-protein chemistry revealed that the perfect egg is cooked at precisely 61˚C, as well as the fact that it is also possible to cook an egg simply by injecting it with liquor. Just because molecular gastronomy is the newest thing in cooking doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be for everyone
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that molecular gastronomy has had a profound effect on fine dining in recent years. Inevitably, investigation into what happens on a molecular level within food when its cooked led to new methods and techniques of cooking. More importantly, however, This and other molecular gastronomes also turned their attention to the art of cooking and, consequently, what it is about food that delights people. They began to see food as a narrative that begins with all the components on a plate and end – if all goes well! – with an empty plate.
The story of the meal is thus created from the flow of expectations and discoveries through contrasts of flavour and consistency, as well as the other senses. A paradigmatic example of a technique that uses this model is Ferran Adrià’s apple-flavoured faux caviar, which uses the mismatch between the visual expectation and the actual taste to create an ebullient culinary experience. This playful use of scientific sleight of hand has been key to the molecular gastronomy-inspired fine dining, so long as it also tastes good!
You enjoy culinary experiences? Then it is time to explore the wonders of Clubvivre – from wine pairings and casual BBQ’s to molecular gastronomy and the dining-in lifestyle.
The Weird and Wonderful World of Homaro Cantu
Homaro Cantu embodied the spirit of molecular gastronomy to such a degree that it is tempting to call him an inventor rather than a chef. His innovations treaded the fine line between inspired and ludicrous – miracle berries, edible menus, levitating meals, laser-cooked foods, to name a few – so often that his closest culinary cousins are the fictional Willy Wonka and Flint Lockwood from the film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. This should be taken as a compliment.
Cantu was rightly honoured with a Michelen Star with his restaurant Moto in 2012, but he wanted to revolutionize how everyone eats. Cantu hoped that his edible paper (on which flavours were printed using normal printers!) might feed hurricane victims and alleviate global hunger, and that his miracle berries (which make everything taste better) would allow hyper-local food production. Simply put, if This studied food to revolutionize how everyone cooks, then Cantu, like Lockwood and Wonka, took the revolution and injected it with a super-concentrated dose of fun and occasion. So, while food science hasn’t delivered on the nutritive tablets, it could change the way you eat very soon!