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Do you own a cryovac?

Pop food quiz! Q. What food movement scorns the stove, popularized gelatin and foam, and has no problem selling you…

By Kate Allen , in The Masticator , on January 16, 2009

Pop food quiz!

Q. What food movement scorns the stove, popularized gelatin and foam, and has no problem selling you a bag of air as part of a 35-course meal?

If you guessed molecular gastronomy, then you’re right. Today’s post is about that food movement, and it takes us about as far away from millet as you can possibly get. This is food in its most purely aesthetic form, or if you’re a doubter, food at it’s most ridiculous.

Grant Achatz is the most famous American chef to fly the molecular gastronomy flag. Recipes in his cookbook Alinea , named after his Chicago restaurant, begin with lists of flavours rather than titles. Two that caught my eye were “English peas, tofu, ham, pillow of lavender air” and “lamb akudjura, olive, eucalyptus veil.” The section devoted to kitchen equipment calls for a cryovac, a paint-stripping heat gun, and something called a volcano vaporizer. At Alinea, you don’t order from a menu. You eat whatever Achatz has dreamed up for the evening, which might include a single bite of meat underneath a pile of burning oak leaves, or something involving essence of hay. One diner averaged the number of bites per course to be just over four.

Skeptical yet? Some of America’s top food critics have been. It’s easy to see why: food can’t get further from plain caloric sustenance than it does with molecular gastronomy. Mark McCluksy even writes in Achatz’ cookbook that “no one comes to a restaurant like Alinea simply to satisfy his or her hunger…it’s theater you can eat.” The words “art,” “avant-garde,” and “postmodern” appear throughout the introduction. In a social climate that is increasingly conscious of global food scarcity, to dine like this seems frivolous, at best.

A "margarita" at El Bulli. Photo courtesy of elbulli.info
A "margarita" at El Bulli. Photo courtesy of ElBulli.info

But many more critics and diners have heralded the movement. Gourmet magazine called Alinea the best restaurant in America. El Bulli, the Catalan restaurant whose chef, Ferran Adria, has been the vanguard of molecular gastronomy, was voted the best restaurant in the world four times. El Bulli receives two million reservation requests a year, but can only serve 8,000. (I have often wondered what you have to do to get a seat—send a box of diamonds? Send a messenger dove with a box of diamonds? Prove your father is the crown prince of Monaco? If anyone knows, please tell me.)

And to hear Achatz and Adria talk, they want you to think about food as hard as the UN does. The reason Adria serves peanut butter in a toothpaste tube, or Achatz uses liquid nitrogen to deconstruct and then reconstruct a single cranberry, is because they want you to not just enjoy your food but to notice it, confront it, and think about it in new ways. “All I can hope for is that guests find some intellectual stimulation,” says Achatz. He talks about purposely making diners uncomfortable by forcing them to eat off “antennas” instead of forks. What other chefs even talk like that?

I first learned of molecular gastronomy after I read a fascinating profile of Achatz in the New Yorker. But I remained skeptical about the food until a friend of mine, who is the biggest food guy I know, told me he had been to Alinea and that his meal there was some of the best food he’d ever had in his life. I’ve been swayed, simply because I’m for anyone who thinks as hard about seasonality as Achatz does.

But then again—if Achatz really wanted us to be uncomfortable, he could have a crew of refugees from Chad serve diners UNHCR rations of corn-soya blend in a canola oil foam. How postmodern would that be?

Extra Links:
More photos of dishes at El Bulli: http://www.elbulli.info/gallery.htm

More photos of dishes at Alinea: flickr.com/photos/hine/1087553518/