EASILY THE MOST controversial thing to issue from a restaurant kitchen since foie gras, molecular gastronomy is not easy to get a Seattle restaurateur to own up to.
“We don’t like that term,” declare Dana Tough and Brian McCracken, the owner-chefs at Belltown’s Spur Gastropub. “We prefer ‘modern techniques.’ ” Of course when those modern techniques include dredging fresh produce through sodium alginate and something called “reverse spherification,” many diners will simply call it bizarre. Not to mention unnatural, faddish, pretentious, and bleak: a method, seemingly, of replacing the intuitive art of cooking with the cold chemistry of science.
But much as they seek distance from the label, some of Seattle’s highest-flying gastronauts have been quietly incorporating its methods into their repertoires. Mark Fuller of Spring Hill might use gellan gum, a polysaccharide, to thicken up nectarine juice to the sheen and velvety consistency—and bursting-with-freshness nectarine flavor—that’s glorious across pork chops. At Crush, Jason Wilson removes the brine of Moroccan olives by dehydrating, then adding starch to them, leaving a flavor-packed substance he calls olive powder.
And over at Canlis —hardly the land of culinary gimmickry—Jason Franey um… spherificates, a technique he picked up during his time at Manhattan’s 11 Madison Park. Combining freshly squeezed cherries with calcium lactate, he freezes the juice into individual little globes then immerses them in a slimy algae-derived goo called sodium alginate. The calcium reacts with the alginate to “cook” the globes, forming a thin exterior skin which, when bitten into, floods the mouth with cherry juice. “It’s like eating a Gusher,” Franey smiles, referring to the popular fruit snack.
All these methods change the texture of food—something cooking routinely does, as anyone knows who has ever boiled an egg. What the French chemist who invented molecular gastronomy in 1988 wanted to discover was new methods for transforming textures. Add alcohol to a raw egg, for instance, and it will “cook” the egg same as boiling.
“Many of these methods, they’re right out of nature,” says Wilson. “But because of how they’ve been presented”—he cites the seminal interpreter of molecular gastronomy, the Spanish restaurant El Bulli, which has been critically adored but popularly savaged for such gastronomic abstractions as “foam of smoke”—“they’ve been made to seem strange.” Wilson chuckles at the email he received from a diner who wanted to know exactly which chemical prevented his fresh pears from browning. “It’s lemon juice,” Wilson replied.
A few years back William Belickis, proprietor of the studiously designed new multichambered restaurant Mistral Kitchen, made a pilgrimage to Spain to study with El Bulli’s chief scientist. That trip not only deepened Belickis’s interest in delectables such as potent vegetable foams, it helps to explain the vacuum pumps and nitrous oxide siphons and special devices outfitted to hold multiple syringes (for fruit-flavored caviars) one spies in his shiny new display kitchens. “These are exciting tools for me, like having a new paintbrush or a new instrument to play,” says Belickis, noting that chefs owe it to their diners to stay interesting.
But woe to the chef who overdoes it. “The movie Transformers was so laden with special effects, it became tiresome,” he says. “That’s why molecular gastronomy is a part of what we do—but it will never be the basis.”
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