Molecular Gastronomy

I left culinary school with a negative connotation of what this term meant. I associated molecular gastronomy with the much pretentious, yet very admirable, food that was being prepared by the best restaurants in the world. I saw this practice as an attempt to make fine dining more exclusive than it already has become. To me, food is first and foremost nurture, and I believe that nurture, especially that coming from the best craftsmen, should be made available to everyone. It seemed odd to me that fine dining was reserved for those who could afford to contribute a monetary sum, not necessarily to those who could appreciate it. Now I realize that this exclusiveness sources from the nature of the service and not the food. Service is evidently not nurture and is exclusive to those who can afford it. This realization made me rethink the definition of the term Molecular Gastronomy.

Lets break it down. As I understand, people define it as the study of gastronomy to a molecular level. But this simple definition does not do this study justice given it sets it up as a mere scientific study. And food is not just food science.

Lets first look at Gastronomy which Merriam-Webster defines as “the art or science of good eating.” What does that mean? How can it be one thing or the other? What is good eating?

Given we are a species that mostly eats cooked food it is important to acknowledge this. Cooking is a craft. The term “craft,” then, cannot be missing in the definition of gastronomy. Cooking, however, has its roots in cultivation because we know that good cooking can only come from good ingredients. These are all prime examples that the word craft is often avoided when really it should be in the forefront of the gastronomic definition. Cooking involves processes that require subjectivity, feeling, and intuition. Techniques like plating, flavor pairings, and service that can be an art of their own. To avoid the addition of “art” to the definition would also be unacceptable. Gastronomy also applies to eating because we know that textures, temperatures, eye appeal, sound and really anything that stimulates our senses all affect how we perceive food. And simpler yet, food is not food until it is eaten. So even though cooking is a crucial part of Gastronomy we cannot be oblivious to the rest of the cycle. There is also an art to eating, this does not refer to pretentiousness or snobiness, but rather that same subjectivity. The art of tasting, enjoying, and expressing food. Eating is also science. The way we perceive food by stimulating our senses is a science we constantly study. Also, science is ever present in the kitchen. In fact cooking is the accumulated knowledge of how substances react with temperatures, each other, and mechanical manipulations.

As you can see art, craft and science are ALL essential in the definition of gastronomy. Gastronomy is not one or the other. Nor is it good eating. Because good eating can refer to a number of things. If you enjoy a Big Mac it is easily considered  good eating. So I offer the following as a new definition. Gastronomy is studying the art, craft, and science of food.

Now the term Molecular. In plain terms molecular involves anything relating to molecules. Molecules, without getting scientific, are simpler building blocks that form the food we can see with plain sight. And using this word in combination with gastronomy offers more than a scientific purpose. We can assume that cooking can be “molecular”. Cooking can be broken down in to simpler building blocks like boiling, roasting, emulsifying, etc. And these can be broken down further and further. And so can cultivation and even eating. This term then refers to understanding. We break things down to understand. To answer the question: “Why?” Why does mayonnaise happen when I beat egg yolks and oil? Why does broccoli soften when I boil it but harden when I fry it? Answering these questions we can further advance our craft by approaching and creating new techniques to cook or preserve foods. This is why the chefs mentioned in the beginning of this article are admirable. They are pioneers in the craft of truly understanding the craft of cooking, the science of eating, and many other studies to further advance their technique. Molecular, used in this term, also implies history. Although I would love to include the study of history in the term gastronomy it is not really required. However, for progress to happen we must learn from our mistakes. This gives there word molecular in this two word term a strong tie with history. Both ancient history (what has been passed on by the world of food) and recent, even personal, history and how our personal cooking has evolved.

Molecular Gastronomy is then a beautiful term. A term that encompasses knowledge, craft, appreciation, art, science, evolution, and progress. A term that forces understanding. I appreciate understanding because it is crucial if we are to encourage people to cook. A recipe as we know it is setting us up for failure, for if the end result does not turn out, we are left as mere executioners. Without the knowledge of what the processes achieve and how the different ingredients interact with one another, we can no more fix the recipe than we can enjoy our newly created disaster. So this term encourages recipes to involve explanation and cooks to become more aware. And this, I am all for.

Anyhow, if you love to cook, and understand cooking I highly encourage the following books:

at Home, Heston Blumenthal

On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee

Keys to Good Cooking, Harold Mcgee

Molecular Gastronomy, Herve This

What Einstein Told His Cook, Robert Wolke

[much credit to all these books for enlightening me and given me the knowledge to write this article]

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