The New Gastronome
Breaking the Bonds of Molecular Gastronomy
by Israel Sher
by Israel Sher
Today, cooking is a generator of hedonic pleasures, as modern chefs are constantly inventing creative presentation techniques that intensify our eating experience. By the 1990s, molecular gastronomy — defined as the scientization of cooking and eating — hit its peak. The use of scientific cooking methods, borrowed from large food industries, transformed our food — shapes, texture and consistency — and turned elemental eating into a techno-emotional [I] encounter.
Despite its popularity, molecular gastronomy comes with mixed reviews. Some argue that unlike conventional restaurants, those that manipulate sensorial reactions besides taste — memory, emotion, and nostalgia —, produce a more attractive dining experience.1 That said, in effacing our sense of satisfaction and fullness, molecular gastronomy may redirect our attention from the basic need of sustenance. What then is the backbone of molecular gastronomy, and how does this eating experience live up to diners’ most basic expectations?
The Cephalic Stage of Eating
In order to emphasize how molecular gastronomy manipulates our perception of food, it is fundamental to recognize how the sensorial experience of dining influences our cephalic [II] phase of digestion. This stage, examined by bio-gastronomy, is the phase of ingestion, that involves both the physical judgements of food — taste, flavor and palatability — and the cognitive processing of the meal — thoughts, beliefs and expectations.2
Whereas the elements of taste (salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami) and flavor (smell, pungency, temperature, texture and color) are often used to describe food objectively, palatability is subjective and, thus, is not an aspect of the food itself. Rather, palatability may be defined as the way food is perceived, and therefore it is inherently influenced by the organoleptic [III] characteristics of the meal and individual receptiveness. Thus, unlike taste and flavor, palatability is considered a hedonic pleasure that depends on a combination of oral food processing, sensory discrimination and attention of the diner.
Because palatability is affected by the familiarity and congruency of the various senses involved in flavor, it is also subjected to its modification. Whereas familiar and congruent senses tend to be more palatable, the unfamiliar tends to be less so. Therefore, familiar and conventional meals are more likely to provide a sense of fullness and well-being, while unconventional meals tend to result in less satisfaction from food.3
In an attempt to transform food in a different, yet still enticing, manner, science-based cooking incorporates the features of the original food that it aims to transform. Sociologist Dieter Vandebroeck argues that the modernist cuisine seeks to re-introduce familiar tastes and flavor profiles by utilizing dishes that have been taken from traditional canons, with the purpose of decomposing and recomposing the organic links between the appearance, taste and texture of food.4
Such notions of avant-garde cooking and dining utilize a great array of laboratory-grade technologies — foaming, gelling, freeze-drying and capsuling — with the aim of manipulating the diners’ senses. Dishes such as Heston Blumenthal’s bacon and egg ice cream, Ferran Adrià’s crackling melon caviar, or Thomas Keller’s coffee and donut are all traditionally ascribed dishes that are disassembled back into their most basic sensory elements and then reconstructed to form a new, but somehow familiar, meal.
“Because palatability is affected by the familiarity and congruency of the various senses involved in flavor, it is also subjected to its modification.”
According to French philosopher Jacques Derrida, this deconstruction juxtaposes structure and content with the aim of acknowledging its pre-existing cultural assumptions and frames of reference.5 In order to be effective, deconstruction must use familiar terms within new contexts. In reference to food, the act of serving bacon and eggs ice cream or crispy melon caviar are both subversions of terms that are immediately recognized as something new and unfamiliar, ultimately provoking further interest.
Unsurprisingly, Adrià — the pioneer of the ‘molecular movement’ 6 — based his culinary deconstructivism process on Derrida’s theory. Reflecting on his work, Adrià implements principles of the French theoretician by breaking a canonic culinary text into its basic components and reconstructing it into a different presentation, with the mission of provoking both the diner’s memory and intrigue. This method has been synthesised into one of Adrià’s most symbolic dishes, spherical olives, which are comprised of a thin olive-paste skin enrobing a liquid olive center and immersed in olive oil to look like an ordinary olive.
One of the main concepts of Derrida’s theory of deconstruction, différance, meaning both “to differ” and “to defer”, is a baseline upon which molecular gastronomy relies. In the realm of molecular cooking, one’s perception of a concept is altered (to defer), which then forces one to think about the concept in different, often more complex, terms (to differ).
These deconstructed elements serve a two-fold defamiliarizing function that challenges the eating paradigm: first, in distancing food from what we are able to recognize as palatable by serving us a reconstructed version, and second, by causing a detachment from food through differentiating its appearance, texture and form against its own basic food context.
“The defamiliarization causes discomfort among the diner and discourages them from the meal. Examples include dishes that play with the eaters’ ideas of what is edible.”
The defamiliarization causes discomfort among the diner and discourages them from the meal. Examples include dishes that play with the eaters’ ideas of what is edible: Homaro Cantu’s edible paper at Moto — flavored to correspond to its depicted image —, and Grant Achatz’s green-apple-flavored balloon at Alinea. Other dishes intend to surprise diners by using products in unsuspecting ways, by manipulating texture, temperature and consistency, such as Torsten Vildgaard’s milk skin used for wrapping milk mousse or his cold shrimp soup. In either context, these dishes intend to provoke an unfamiliar sensorial spectacle by questioning the original form of food.
This culinary formalism7 is explored by Shklovsky. In his essay Art as Device, Shklovsky distinguishes poetry from practical language on the basis of the former’s perceptibility — defamiliarizing it by speaking in higher language.8 This process is common in literature for it generates a new way of perceiving art out of (or in another) context. In the same manner, molecular cooking aims to produce a type of sensory defamiliarization that is not unlike the ostranenie that Russian formalists defined to force the reader outside of the usual patterns of perception by making the familiar appear strange or different.
In relation to text, the defamiliarization of food by means of ‘new cookery’ [IV] draws attention to the use of common language in such a way as to alter one’s perception of an easily understandable object or concept. Consequently, eating crispy melon, bacon and eggs ice cream or spherified fruit salad raises the question of familiarity — and therefore the palatability — of food. Regarding the element of surprise, which plays a major role in such dining experiences, we find that the sensory perceptions become separate, unreliable, and deceptive,9 ultimately serving hedonic sensations other than just physical satiation.
Experiencing such sensory incongruity while eating may lead to the disconfirmation of expectation, as the disconnection from food by-passes the pleasure of satiety. According to Vandebroeck, this gastronomic (science-oriented) relationship with food is itself disconnected from any reference to the type of pleasure that food can provide, namely the elementary pleasure associated with the sensation of “fullness.” Physical and psychological fullness are known to provide tangible feelings of comfort and security. At the same time, they are also the most diffused and undifferentiated types of pleasure.
“Experiencing such sensory incongruity while eating may lead to the disconfirmation of expectation, as the disconnection from food by-passes the pleasure of satiety.”
Compared to a quasi-infinite range of culinary discriminations, enabled by the senses of sight, taste, smell and touch, the visceral sensation of fullness is literally a “gut-feeling.” This lack of sensory differentiation achieved by molecular cooking, combined with the fact that hunger or repletion are highly affectively charged, makes this type of pleasure particularly vulnerable to any form of detached aestheticization.10
The suspicion in such progressive dining that arises from the use of cooking methodologies that alter the taste, consistency, and appearance of food through intentional changes in its chemistry and physics, is a challenge that science-based restaurants may face.11 Hence, increasing the degree of the sensory incongruity of a meal might be expected to have a negative effect on people’s ability to sensory-discriminate food.12
Defying the Purpose of Eating
Ultimately, this process of manipulation of food leaves molecular cooking vulnerable to accusations of failing to deliver food as a simple, nourishing agent. A possible fault in such modernity is the generation of a culinary “neo-impressionism”, where chefs, attempting to modernize classic recipes, have, in fact, deconstructed food with inedible outcomes.13 Other critics argue that the defamiliarization process ultimately leaves food, cooking, and eating removed altogether from the domain of culture and its historical exchange and terroir. Although some may disagree with this argument, the defamiliarization of food by means of describing taste in a biochemical idiom — molecularization of taste — inherently dilutes cultural influences, thereby shaping how people perceive food in favor of a formal, predictable, palatable and naturalized account of taste.14
Contrasting classical chef-d’oeuvres culinaires, molecular gastronomy dishes cannot only be perceived as foods that are meant to satisfy hunger. Chef Ferran Adrià’s provocation for a cold soup, playing with textures and temperatures of ingredients — corn and cauliflower mousse, tomato puree, peach granita, beet foam, almond ice cream and basil jelly 15 — can be seen as antithetical to 18th century French bouillon which was said to restore health and vigor. However, as Adrià expresses it, molecular gastronomy dishes are a medium with which to evoke feelings and surprise the guests when eating.16 As opposed to the regular and familiar, performative dining experiences demand the same understanding and appreciation as works of art, meant to be enjoyed to the fullest. 17 But, that may not be what food is fundamentally meant to satisfy.
[I.] A Term coined by Spanish journalist Pau Arenós for the kind of cooking that Adrià and his disciples do.
[II.] From Latin: ‘Cephalicus’, means ‘Head’ or that is related to the head
[III.] Aspects of food that create an individual experience via the senses
[IV] A written statement by Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se,
and writer Harold McGee.
1. Davis, M. , A Time and a Place for a Peach, The Senses and Society, (Taylor & Francis, 2012), Vol. 7 Issue 2, 135
2. Pribic, T. Azpiroz, F. , Biogastronomy: Factors that Determine the Biological Response to Meal Digestion, Neurogastroenterol & Motility, (John Wiley & Sons, July 2018), Vol. 30 Issue 7, 5
3. Ibid, 6
4. Vandebroeck, D. , Distinctions in the Flesh, (London: Routledge, 2017), 126-130
5. Duek, N. , Reading a Plate, Gatronomica, (University Of California Press, Spring 2008), Vol.8 No.2, 51-54
6. Roosth, S. , Of Foams and Formalisms: Scientific Expertise and Craft Practice in Molecular Gastronomy, American Anthropologist (The American Anthropologist Association, March 2013), Vol. 115 No.1, 5
7. Ibid, 9
8. (Crawford, L. , Viktor Shklovskij: Différance in Defamiliarization, Comparative Literature (Duke University Press on behalf of the University of Oregon summer, 1984), Vol. 36, No. 3, 209
9. Duek, N. , Reading a Plate, Gatronomica, (University Of California Press, Spring 2008), Vol.8 No.2, 51-54
10. Vandebroeck, D. , Distinctions in the Flesh, (London: Routledge, 2017), 126-130
11. Gustafsson, I. , Culinary Arts and Meal Science – A New Scientific Research Discipline, Food Service Technology (March, 2004), Vol. 4 Issue 1, 9-20.
12. Spence, C. , and Piqueras, F. B. ,The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining, (UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2014), 221-222
13. Vega, C. and Ubbink, J. , Molecular gastronomy: a food fad or science supporting innovative cuisine?, Trends in Food Science & Technology (Elsevier, July, 2008), Vol. 19, Issue 7, 381
14. Roosth, S. , Of Foams and Formalisms: Scientific Expertise and Craft Practice in Molecular Gastronomy, American Anthropologist (The American Anthropologist Association, March 2013), Vol. 115 No.1, 11
15. Parasecoli, F. , Deconstructing Soup: Ferran Adrià’s Culinary Challenges, Gastronomica (February 2001), Vol. 1 No.1, 161
16. Svejenova, S. , Mazza, C. , and Planellas, M. ,Cooking up Change in Haute Cuisine: Ferran Adrià as an institutional entrepreneur, Journal of Organizational Behaviour, (John Wiley & Sons, 2004), Vol. 28, Issue 5, 539–561.
17. Mielby, L.H. and Frøst, M.B. , Expectations and Surprise in a Molecular Gastronomic Meal, Food Quality and Preferences