You just spent $300 on a 16-course dinner that was supposed to be the taste experience of a lifetime. You booked a table three months in advance at a hyped molecular gastronomy temple. You waited with anticipation and read countless reviews. But after those 16 grand plates and bowls passed in front of you, some with scarcely a tablespoon of food in the center—outlined with a wisp of intense sauce and accompanied with a bowl of vapors meant to enhance the flavor with the scent of the sea air or the dense forest floor—you walk away hungry and wonder how those little morsels cost so much.
Some of your answers lie in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science published by AZTI-Tecnalia. The magazine offers no subscription information; however, it’s available online. Here you can read about the theoretical framework of the now shuttered elBulli restaurant in Spain that set the culinary world abuzz. You can learn about the method used in powdering olive oil or freeze-drying sea fennel found on the Apulian coast of Italy. You can learn about vacuum poaching a pear with hazelnut oil and serving it with splintered grapefruit ice and chervil soup.
These complex procedures involve hours of labor and high tech equipment amounting to tens of thousands of dollars. Suddenly you understand that this is not the food of peasant farmers, fishermen or bakers, as you’ve known it, but rather, the product of chemists, artists of the palate, who seek to lift you beyond the comfort of warm toast and a perfect summer peach.
This study in food as theatre, food for the few with deep pockets, food as entertainment rather than sustenance, takes the diner into a kitchen removed from the stove. Cooking takes on a new dimension beyond fire. Here you find fancy ways to dry, freeze, infuse, compress, and combine flavors far beyond your conventional impressions of salt, sweet, spice, and fat. In the world of molecular gastronomy you will find bacon used in dessert and vanilla used with seafood. This is not about dinner with protein, greens, and grains, but surprises for the senses that make you taste in new dimensions.
What’s more, this journal comes to the English reader in stilted translation. There’s been little thought given to the flow of language, making it a cumbersome read. Repetition is a problem, discussing the benefits of, say, heat drying vs. freeze-drying. The articles will make you think about flavor and what it means to taste, though the journal reads like a research document, and over all it may be too esoteric for the home cook.
Interesting it is, though, to realize that this, elBulli mode of molecular gastronomy, is now being overtaken by the pendulum swinging in the direction of Nordic cuisine, with restaurants like Noma and Faviken, which have returned to traditional techniques, foraged food, strict seasonal and local products. People are traveling great distances and laying out large sums of money to rediscover the hearth.
Photos: Barbara Keer