Cooking is an intimidating task for a lot of people. But to many others, tinkering around in the kitchen is something of a science experiment — they love to try new recipes, add in their own ingredients, and maybe even create their own original concoctions.
Well, real scientists and chefs have taken their tinkering to a whole new level, adding innovative (and just plain weird) things like edible menus, meat glue and froth sauces, to the world of dining.
The concept of molecular cuisine, also known as molecular gastronomy, was introduced me to a few weeks ago, when I spoke with Melissa Craig, the executive chef at the Bearfoot Bistro.
Craig casually made mention of soy pop rocks, which, of course, led me to ask where one could possibly buy such an unusual ingredient.
Her response? Oh, you just whip them up yourself. All you need to do is heat sugar syrup to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and put it under 600 psi of carbon dioxide gas… Okay, she lost me right about there.
I’ll be the first one to admit that science isn’t my strong suit (there’s a reason I’m a writer, not a chemist), but my curiosity was definitely piqued. I mean, who doesn’t like the idea of potentially blowing something up?
So, I turned to the cyber-Bible, Google, to learn more.
It turns out that this culinary science thing is actually the subject of an entire discipline devoted to exploring the chemical and physical processes that occur when we cook, like why mayonnaise becomes firm or why a soufflé swells, and how different scientific techniques can alter the taste, texture and appearance of food.
This is by no means a new concept — according to Hervé This, the Scientific Director of the Fondation Science & Culture Alimentaire and one of the founders of molecular gastronomy, the idea that science and cuisine are inextricably linked can be traced back as far as the second century B.C., when an anonymous author of a papyrus scroll recorded his attempt to determine whether fermented meat was lighter than fresh meat using a balance. The idea really caught on with 18 th century chemists, in particular, who were very interested in the science behind food preparation.
Today, the discipline is something of a mainstream culinary trend, with some of the top chefs from around the world offering their diners strange creations, like fake caviar made from sodium alginate and calcium, in the comfy confines of trendy restaurants in Spain, the UK and France.
Sound too strange to be true? All you have to do is head to YouTube and search molecular gastronomy to find dozens of clips of these chefs turned mad scientists demonstrating this fusion of chemistry and cooking. You can watch as they use infrared laser beams on flash-dried foods to extract a vapour, which then coats the inside of a long-stemmed glass for the ultimate in wine and food pairings, or use a syringe to drop liquefied watermelon into a solution of sodium alginate and calcium chloride to produce tiny watermelon balls — a process known as spherification.
Many of these foodies are curious, ambitious, and bright, casually tossing around phrases like “sub-atomic particle analysis” and “nuclear magnetic resonance machines.” And at least one of the chefs profiled in a YouTube video has actually worked with NASA on projects involving food.
For now, I think I’ll stick to the basics in the kitchen — infrared lasers are a bit out of my league.
Culinary hall of famers
Two foodies with ties to Whistler were recently inducted into the B.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame at the fourth annual gala held on Monday, April 7 at the Vancouver Convention & Exhibiton Centre.
Bernard Casavant, a long-time restaurateur, was recognized with an industry award for his contributions to the back of the house. Casavant was the executive chef at the Chateau Whistler for several years, and was the owner and chef at a café in the upper Village. Currently the operator of The Senora Room Restaurant at the Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, Casavant has prepared meals for a wide range of public figures and celebrities throughout his career, including Princess Diana and Prince Charles, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Liberace, John Travolta, Neil Diamond and Kenny Rogers.
Anthony Gismondi, an acclaimed Canadian wine critic, writer, broadcaster, and public speaker, was also recognized as a Friend of the Industry. Gismondi is beginning his nineteenth year as the weekly wine columnist at the Vancouver Sun, his third year as editor-in-chief at Wine Access and also writes a monthly wine column for Pique Newsmagazine . He spends at least three months each year traveling to vineywards throughout the world to experience site-specific wines.