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Sunday January 27, 2008

The science of deliciousness


Having revolutionised the culinary scene in major cities such as London, New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong, molecular gastronomy makes its way quietly into the Kuala Lumpur dining scene, offering to turn your ideas about food and cooking on their head. 

WATCHING celebrity TV chef Anthony Bourdain present the programme Decoding Ferran Adria was a revelation. Spanish chef Adria is credited with being among the leading chefs who pioneered a new revolution in culinary practice known as molecular gastronomy. 

(Others include British chef Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck and American chef Thomas Keller of French Laundry in California and, later, Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago.) 

You might recall the carrot foam that got the world talking way back in the late 1990s. That is just one of Adria’s many amazing creations. His restaurant, elBulli in Spain, has become a pilgrimage site of sorts for gourmands and chefs from around the globe. 

I vividly remember the part in Decoding Ferran Adria when the chef uses crushed mint as a caramelising agent on a slice of peach to create a texture similar to that of foie gras: browned on the outside, soft and creamy on the inside.  

Bourdain calls this technique “a cute trick”, but I was stupefied. Although this may be a simplistic example of the creative extent of Adria’s work, to me, it was an eye-opening introduction to the infinitely inventive, quirky world of molecular gastronomy. 

Deconstructing dishes 

Late last year, while holidaying at the new Novotel resort in Bali’s exclusive Nusa Dua resort enclave, I had my first brief taste of a simple version of molecular gastronomy at lunch one day. The dessert, Coconut Ravioli in Lychee and Basil, was perplexing at first glance. Coconut was disguised as pasta to form the ravioli; when I popped a piece into my mouth, the outer membrane broke and my mouth was bathed in a rich, velvety coconut cream. What a wonderful surprise!  

Back in Kuala Lumpur recently, I met up with the chef de cuisine at Shangri-La Hotel’s French restaurant, Lafite (which is among the first French haute cuisine establishments to open in KL). Chef Kevin Cherkas has been responsible for the restaurant’s accolades of late and is, arguably, the first chef to experiment with molecular gastronomy cuisine in Malaysia.  

“The idea is quite simple,” explains Cherkas. “It is scientific techniques and concepts applied to daily cooking.”  

But cooking is already a form of science, if you think about it, especially in commercial kitchens. Using a scale to measure exact cuts of meat, adding salt to make water boil slower, or using a thermometer to control the oven temperature – these are all applications of science in cooking. 

“People think only people like Adria, Blumental, Achatz, Homaro Cantu (of Chicago’s Moto) and Wylie Dufresne (WD-50 in New York) are practicing it. But I think everybody practices it in a modern environment because you just have to apply it,” Cherkas elaborates. 

“The difference is that you now have these five chefs pushing the boundaries with this kind of technique to continue to develop cuisine.” 

In molecular gastronomy, the idea is to deconstruct ingredients and dishes and then put the elements back together in new ways. By understanding the scientific principles behind the creation of whipped cream, for instance (putting cream into a siphon canister charged with nitrous oxide), chefs can now “whip” any liquid they want in similar canisters, as long as the liquid is mixed with some protein content. And so we have delicious creations like mango “whipped cream”, or mango espuma, Italian for spume or foam.  

The idea was first developed not by a chef but by a French chemist. Herve This (pronounced “tees”) began working on these ideas in the 1980s and continues to experiment scientifically on food. (See box below.) 

Turning consciously towards scientific principles has helped chefs to think outside the box when it comes to techniques. For instance, it is common knowledge that alcohol doesn’t freeze so we could never have, say, a vodka sorbet. Well, now it is possible – with the help of liquid nitrogen that freezes at -196°C. And to think liquid nitrogen was, until recently, solely used in the medical and chemical industries! 

Some ideas would take you and me a while to digest (pardon the pun), methinks. For instance, using a centrifuge, a medical machine commonly employed to separate blood into its component parts, to produce parsley juice by separating chlorophyll from the parsley.... 

Or, in another case, creating an edible menu by using an inkjet printer to print organic ink onto “paper” made from starch! The brilliant Cantu at Moto came up with that one. 

If you caught the Chef at Large episode on the Asian Food Channel on Thursday, you would have seen Achatz, of the celebrated Alinea, serving a lavender-influenced starter on a plate placed on a pillow pumped full of lavender scent that was gradually released to hang around the diner’s torso as the food was consumed. Said the diners, “the lavender made the difference!”  

These new tools and techniques can be intoxicating, allowing chefs to invent totally new recipes – “But I don’t mean making beef taste like chicken,” Cherkas hasten to explain. 

“However, we do look at food as much more than nourishment. I look at it as creating a dining ‘experience’ (which is exactly what Adria says he’s doing at elBulli). I wouldn’t say there’s shock value in every dish but there’s definitely something that would make someone say, ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ 

“We base dishes on emotions. Some are humorous while others are mischievous, meaning they look like one thing but taste like something else,” Cherkas elaborates, adding, “You can go to a million restaurants to get a great meal but why do people want to come to a place like this? It is an experience in dining, something a little bit different.” 

And, yes, people will go to great lengths to get that unique experience that goes beyond just a great meal: According to an article in Britain’s The Independent newspaper in October last year, Adria’s elBulli seats 50 diners a night – and it is already booked out for every sitting this year....  

Welcome to the kitchen 

To further demonstrate the magic of molecular gastronomy, Cherkas invites me into his kitchen (trust me, this feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as not many chefs would openly divulge their kitchen secrets!). First, he shows me another technique that has become synonymous with molecular gastronomy: spherification. 

By mixing liquid with sodium alginate (commercially known as Algin) and then dispersing it into a bath of calcium chloride (commercially known as Calcic), you can congeal the liquid in a thin membrane. When that almost invisible ball of liquid is placed in the mouth, an “explosion” of flavour of created. 

Depending on the equipment used to dispense the liquid into the Calcic bath, you can create caviar (with a syringe), ravioli, or even an egg yolk-shaped sphere made entirely of mango puree (using a dosing spoon). 

But what really has my brain turning somersaults is the technique of “cooking” at -196°C using liquid nitrogen. 

Cherkas dispenses dollops of yoghurt from a siphon canister into a bowl of liquid nitrogen. I watch as the liquid sizzles and instantaneously transforms the yoghurt into cold, crispy petals that, when crunched in the mouth, release smoky breaths. This little act is referred to as dragon breath. 

To demonstrate how multiple techniques can be used to create a truly outstanding dish, Cherkas prepares his signature dessert, which he calls Breakfast. 

On the surface, this dessert looks like any regular hard-boiled egg. But here’s the surprise: the “yolk” is actually a mango puree “ravioli”, the “egg white” is made out of coconut espuma, the egg shell fashioned out of coconut cream, shaped and frozen in liquid nitrogen. The “egg” is then placed on a dollop of passion fruit espuma. 

The taste is exquisite: sweet, sour beautifully balanced out by the neutral and creamy coconut espuma. 

I can imagine the wow-factor in serving this here at Lafite, or any restaurant for that matter. The presentation of it alone is enough to incite a gasp of awe – molecular gastronomy has firmly returned theatrics to the dining room.  

The mad chef’s laboratory?  

Molecular gastronomy, as mentioned earlier, requires sophisticated equipment that never would have been associated with kitchens before. Even Lafite, which doesn’t boast a centrifuge, is filled with many cutting edge machines and looks far more industrial than any regular professional kitchen. 

Cherkas walks me through some of it, pointing out a digital thermostat that accurately registers temperatures down to one decimal point, a vacuum packing appliance, and a machine for “cooking and impregnating in vacuum” known as a Gastrovac. 

A Gastrovac “creates the sponge effect, that is, when atmospheric pressure is restored, the food absorbs the liquid around it”. Perhaps this is why Cherkas mentioned that the Gastrovac can make peach feel like butter in the mouth. Oh, and did I mention that this machine is one of only six in the world right now? 

Despite using these machines, though, Cherkas doesn’t see his kitchen as a laboratory. With a laugh, he says that, “This is still a kitchen. At the end of the day, we are still cooking food for guests. Laboratories sometimes develop things that are never going to be eaten but we produce food every day for a busy fine dining restaurant”. 

What is the future of molecular gastronomy? 

Cherkas believes that it has already gone mainstream. There’s a major molecular gastronomy conference in Spain called Madrid Fusion. Ferran Adria and his brother Albert have developed a range of products called Texturas that are becoming essential for the practice of molecular gastronomy. And, the final proof it’s being embraced by, if not the masses, than by more than just chefs: you can now find cookbooks on featuring dishes created with molecular gastronomy techniques.  

But is Kuala Lumpur ready for this? 

“Sure,” says Cherkas. “It’s something that intrigues people everywhere.” However, he doesn’t think KLites are into it yet because very few know what molecular gastronomy is all about. That’s his role here in KL, he says: “I’m not here because there’s a demand for it. All I’m doing is offering something different.” 

I agree with Cherkas on one thing, and that is, people like variety. Cherkas believes this is where he comes in. He says enthusiastically, “We are offering a wider possibility of what you can do with the ingredients we are familiar with. For instance, taking orange juice and making bubbles out of it. But why do that? Why don’t we just serve orange juice? Because you can get orange juice everywhere. And when everybody starts serving bubbles, I’ll serve just orange juice!” 

Frankly, I would expect nothing less from a practitioner of molecular gastronomy. 

 

  • Lafite restaurant at The Shangri-la Hotel regularly offers a six- or 12-course tasting menu featuring dishes created using molecular gastronomy techniques. For more information and to make reservations, call 03-2074 3900 or e-mail restaurantreservations.slkl@shangri-la.com.  

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