Sunday, May 10, 2009

Molecular Gastronomy: Better Living Through Chemistry?

Beginning in the early 1960s, America was treated to a avalanche of new "space-aged" products created using new advances in chemistry. Suddenly, you could by powder that transformed into an orange-flavored beverage with the addition of water, processed cheese that squirted out of an aerosol can, and a dairy-free dessert topping that had the look and feel of whipped cream (finally allowing for a Kosher version of the Jewish-American classic, brisket with whipped cream). Suddenly, chemists in lab coats were replacing cooks at America's food companies.

Of course, all of this food chemistry led to a strong culinary backlash of organic, local and back-to-basics cuisine, and these days, any foodie worth his or her salt would just as soon starve than ingest Tang, aerosolized cheese-food or Cool Whip.

In light of that history, it's ironic that some forty years after the introduction of most of these products, the use of some of these same chemicals in high end cuisine became the hottest trend in food.

Molecular gastronomy, as everyone now knows, emerged from Spain at the dawn of the Twenty-First century, and Ferran Adrià of El Bulli became its most renowned advocate. It spread quickly to the United States through the likes of Grant Achatz in Chicago and Wylie Dufresne in New York, and finally hit the mainstream through the famously big-haired Marcel Vigneron on Top Chef.

The goal of the space age food of the 1960s was convenience. In contrast, molecular gastronomy used chemistry as an artistic medium, seeking to challenge preconceived notions of taste, texture and culinary composition. However different the attitudes of their practitioners, though, industrial food and molecular gastronomy are more closely related than most food snobs would like to admit. Tang challenged traditional notions of orange juice in the same way many of the molecular creations have challenged culinary assumptions.

And just as occurred in reaction to the space-aged food, there now appears to be the beginnings of a backlash to the molecular scene, and the criticism is largely the same: we should not be putting unnatural chemicals into our bodies, some of which could have harmful effects.

Los Angeles, for its part, never jumped on the molecular gastronomy bandwagon. Other than the very brief tenure of Ludo Lefebvre at one of the many incarnations of Bastide and his occasional project Ludobites, we never had a food-chemist pioneer make a home here, until now.

José Andrés is quickly becoming the Wolfgang Puck of the molecular gastronomy movement. This El Bulli trained chef presides over a growing empire of fine dining spots that produce molecular cuisine and various takes on small plate dishes. Add to that an appearance on Iron Chef and his PBS series Made in Spain and you have the full house of celebrity chefdom.

Now Andrés has come to LA with his much heralded restaurant Bazaar at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, staffing none other than the aforementioned Mssr. Vigneron as sous chef. On Friday, I will continue this feature on molecular gastronomy with a review.

1 comment:

mattatouille said...

I had some of Ludo's Ludobites and I didn't think it was particularly "avant garde", though i did hear that his ways at Bastide definitely had that tilt. It looks like Andres is making a big splash in LA, which is good. LA needs more relevance in the mainstream food world, although it shouldn't need to really shout it out since our ethnic food trumps any other city's.