‘New cookery’ becomes old hat

‘New cookery’ becomes old hat

For a slow-cooked meat dish, Sean Griffin breaks down a pork shoulder, removing the sinew and excess fat, and then tosses the lean pieces with salt, cracked pepper and transglutaminase.

He rolls that mixture into a cylinder and refrigerates it while transglutaminase—an enzyme sometimes called “meat glue”—causes the pork to stick back together into a single piece of meat. He then vacuum-seals it in plastic and cooks it in a water bath for 24 hours at 145 degrees Fahrenheit.

The temperature is closely regulated by an immersion circulator—a piece of equipment developed for use in medical labs that has become a favorite tool of chefs who like to cook foods at low temperatures.

At service Griffin heats the pork in fat to crisp it up and serves it with caramelized onion “crackling.”

The “crackling” is made by making a dough out of caramelized onion and crushed tapioca. The dough is rolled thinly between sheets of plastic wrap, steamed for 20 minutes and then—with the plastic wrap removed—dried overnight at 125 degrees.

At service Griffin deep-fries pieces of the onion dough. They puff up to resemble pork cracklings.

Griffin is the chef de cuisine at Neros [3], the steakhouse at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. It’s a steakhouse with high culinary aspirations—the salmon is wild, not farm-raised, and the classic steakhouse tomato salad is served only when tomatoes are in season—but it’s still a steakhouse.

And that shows how far molecular gastronomy has come.

Molecular gastronomy—a term that applies to a number of techniques that require a better understanding of science than most other cooking—was once the exclusive province of the most cutting-edge chefs. But it has spread across the high end of foodservice.

Ask a pastry chef what his favorite ingredient is, and the answer might well be maltodextrin, a humidity-resistant type of sugar. Spherification—making tiny globes out of virtually any liquid by getting alginate gum to react with calcium—is now so common that suppliers of the necessary ingredients, who ship most of their product in bulk to food manufacturers, have started to assemble little kits for independent chefs.

The French Culinary Institute in New York now has a director of culinary technology, Dave Arnold. He taught his first continuing education course, focusing on transglutaminase, this month. Classes on hydrocolloids and low-temperature cooking are to follow.

David Mullen, chef of the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach in Palm Beach, Fla., makes little passion fruit spheres to go with his scallop ceviche. He also prepares crispy chips from pineapple juice, ginger syrup, maltodextrin and glucose powder.

Jason Dady, chef-owner of The Lodge Restaurant of Castle Hills [4] in San Antonio, purées fennel with water and soy lecithin and stores it in a mason jar. At service he shakes it “extremely vigorously,” skims the froth that forms on the top and serves it with fish. “It adds a little flavor, without adding a true component to the dish,” he says. “People might take the first bite and taste the fennel but not see it, and then it’s gone.”

He also likes the texture—or the lack thereof. He uses a similar technique to give guests a spoonful of grapefruit “air” as a palate cleanser.

“The acidity cleanses the palate, but there’s nothing in the mouth per se to chew on,” he says. “It’s a neat effect.”

As new chefs experiment with such techniques, the early practitioners are not resting on their laurels. Wylie Dufresne, the executive chef of WD-50 [5], has been using a variety of gums for years, and he helped popularize transglutaminase by using it to shape shrimp into noodles. Now he is working with pectin.

“There are different types of pectin,” he explains. “There’s the pectin that your mom uses to make jams that is dependent on low-pH and high-sugar systems. Others are calcium-reactive.”

He adds the latter to a thinned-out mole sauce and uses a pump to drop it, one drop at a time, into a calcium bath. “It pancakes on the surface and looks exactly like lentils,” he says.

Then he separately mixes papaya and papaya juice with enough gellan gum to give it a smooth texture that, when cut into fine dice, makes it resemble cooked carrots. Carrots and lentils are a common French combination with foie gras, he explains.

He serves the mole and papaya with foie gras. “It’s sort of a trompe-l’oeil and a flavor play,” he says.

Dufresne still uses transglutaminase in short ribs. He takes the raw meat off the bone, trims it, slices it very thinly, seasons each layer and then reassembles them by dusting them with the meat glue. That way the meat is seasoned evenly throughout.

He vacuum packs that and cooks it at a low temperature. “So the meat still looks pink, but it’s fully cooked and tender,” Dufresne says.

Ben Roche, the pastry chef at Moto [6] in Chicago, says a favorite piece of equipment that he and executive chef Homaro Cantu are using is their laser—similar to the type used for eye surgery—which can shoot focused beams at temperatures of 2800 degrees Fahrenheit.

They use that to vaporize bits of cinnamon, vanilla, a powder they make from orange zest—or anything that doesn’t have too much moisture.

The resulting aromatic smoke is captured in an inverted funnel with a tube that passes through liquid nitrogen, quickly freezing the smoke back into a pellet.

They will place that pellet on top of a dish and let it sublimate from a solid into a gas. “It melts pretty quickly,” Roche says. “It basically disappears, and people think: ‘Where did it go, and what’s that smell?’ It’s fun.”

Although the techniques of molecular gastronomy have become popular among chefs, the actual term has not. Indeed, several top chefs, including Ferran Adrià of elBulli [7] in Rosas, Spain, and Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck [8] in Bray, England—both early practitioners of these new techniques—recently released a statement advocating the term “new cookery” instead of molecular gastronomy.

The gist of their statement was that chefs should use whatever techniques are at their disposal to make eating more enjoyable. Innovation, however, should be a tool in that process, not a defining aspect of it.

Dufresne agrees, saying chefs, by becoming better informed about the science of cooking, can use that knowledge to get exactly the desired effect they want. “There’s not necessarily any right or wrong way to cook—every chef will have different opinions about that,” he says. “But by being better informed, you can decide exactly how you want to do it.”

However customers don’t necessarily want to hear every detail, observes Pino Maffeo, chef of restaurant L in Boston, who has been working with hydrocolloids and other molecular gastronomy tools for years.

“We do it for one reason: To make food taste better,” he says.

For example, he serves a sashimi of Hawaiian bluefin tuna topped with a “sponge” made of mirin, soy, wasabi and other flavorings, plus gums that keep it gelatinous.

That “sponge” is used in place of the usual dipping sauce, allowing Maffeo to determine exactly how much of that sauce will be eaten with each bite for the best flavor balance.

“It holds the soy and mirin until it’s in your mouth, and then it slowly dissipates,” he says.

Will Goldfarb, chef-owner of a New York dessert bar called Room 4 Dessert [9], also was an early user of science in his food. A dessert called “Red” features a dehydrated raspberry “bread” made by whipping and then dehydrating raspberry purée, sugar, water, egg white powder and gelatin.

He is calling the next generation of avant-garde cooking “experiential cuisine.”

He says the goal of that “will be a synthesis of the creative process through foods” in which everything will feel like it was customized specifically for that particular guest.

As part of his research process for that concept, Goldfarb created a restaurant in Second Life, a virtual world on the Internet with more than four million members. At the virtual restaurant, Mama Sugar, visitors are asked exactly what they want in a dessert bar.

Other chefs are tapping into technology as well. Roche says Moto recently added surveillance cameras to their kitchen, so the expediter can see food as it’s being prepared and right before it goes into the dining room.

The expediter can talk to any of the servers or kitchen staff via two-way radio earpieces.

He says visitors touring the kitchen often comment on the earpieces “We either get ‘robot,’ or ‘Madonna,’ and sometimes we’ll do a dance and further confuse our guests,” Roche says.

As for new equipment, Arnold, the FCI’s director of culinary technology, sees promise in rotary evaporators. They allow their users to distill items without heating them by creating a vacuum. “So you have these fresh, bright-tasting reductions that are fantastic,” he says.

Such applications require liquid nitrogen, however, which, though becoming more widespread in restaurants, still is not accessible for many chefs.