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Methylcellulose with that?

The rise, fall, and further adventures of the chemist-chef

One of the most popular new pieces of kitchen equipment in America’s finest restaurants is the immersion circulator—a type of heater used in medical labs to achieve precise temperatures. Wylie Dufresne, the chef of WD-50 in New York, has used an immersion circulator to poach eggs in their shells at exactly 147.2 degrees Fahrenheit, just a bit warmer than where egg whites coagulate and a hair cooler than where yolks do. The result is a texture of smooth pudding around one of slightly melted fudge.

Other chefs, less fascinated with transformative increments in temperature, are possessed of a laboratory mindset all the same. They experiment with the absorption properties of different modified starches so that they can, for example, make their own flavor strips, or tableside instant pudding. Or they play with chemicals that allow proteins to bind in unusual ways, just in case they want to make pasta out of shrimp, or cross pork with tuna. Or maybe they work with gums to make any number of things jiggle.

Welcome to the world of molecular gastronomy. It’s an inelegant term, coined in Italy, where more-or-less biennial workshops on the topic were held in the Sicilian town of Erice from 1992 to 2004. Molecular gastronomy basically means using greater knowledge of science when cooking. Practitioners understand why meats brown and how gelatins form, and realize that greens boiled in salted water don’t stay greener, no matter how often traditionalists insist that they do.

It all started in the late sixties. Heston Blumenthal, the self-taught chef who owns The Fat Duck, in Bray, England, points to a single “father of molecular gastronomy”: Nicholas Kurti, former head of physics at Oxford University, who made a presentation at Britain’s Royal Institution in 1969 titled “The Physicist in the Kitchen.” Kurti is also given credit for coining the term molecular gastronomy at the first Erice meeting.

In 1984 two other events helped to bring science to the restaurant world. One was the publication of On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee, which explained how a lot of food science works. The other was the arrival of Ferran Adrià as chef of El Bulli, a restaurant in the remote town of Rosas, in the Spanish province of Catalonia. Adrià changed the way a certain cadre of intellectual chefs thought about food.

Perhaps the first chemical innovation to really catch on was the use of foam. If you’ve been served a dish with foam where sauce would normally be, you have Adrià to thank, or blame. He’s the one who figured out that if you add lecithin or a similar protein to almost any liquid and squirt it out of a nitrous oxide canister, it will emerge as foam. A disciple of his, José Andrés in Washington, D.C., uses the technique for a meat-and-potatoes dish at his high-concept Minibar, a six-seat counter in his Café Atlantico. He squirts mashed potatoes mixed with olive oil, butter, and cream out of the canister. They become lighter but, because of their greater surface area, are just as flavorful. He sometimes tops them with paper-thin slices of top-grade beef.

After the foam phenomenon came something called spherification. A liquid—often a fruit juice—would be mixed with sodium alginate gum and eye-dropped into calcium chloride solution. Alginates react with calcium, so the liquid would then solidify into little balls the size and texture of caviar. Adrià popularized the technique at El Bulli with green apple “caviar.” Elsewhere, cantaloupe caviar was served with foie gras, mango caviar topped yogurt sorbet with crystallized cilantro, and mandarin orange caviar was paired with striped bass ceviche. Theoretically, the little balls burst in your mouth, but you have to be quick about it, because they continue to solidify after they’re removed from the calcium chloride. Before long they’re kind of like hard gum drops.

Spherification wasn’t the only use of gums. Besides sodium alginate, chefs were playing around with carageenan, guar gum, and the xanthan gum you might have noticed as an ingredient in bottled salad dressings. In 2000, Andrés—this was pre-Minibar—created a sort of stuffed gelatin dumpling that he served at Jaleo, his tapas bar. First he would freeze ginger-infused coconut milk into bite-sized pieces and wrap them in unflavored gelatin made from agar agar. Then he would bring them to room temperature. The concoction gave his guests a surprising burst of Southeast Asian flavors.

By the mid-2000s, as the gum fad was cresting, chefs were making aspics or jellies out of everything from almond milk to quail stock. In 2005, WD-50’s Dufresne used a different gum, methylcellulose, to make noodles form before his guests’ eyes. Except for alginates—which react to calcium, as Adrià had demonstrated—most gums solidify when they get colder. By contrast, methylcellulose solidifies when it warms. So Dufresne added it to lemon yogurt, which he poured into a squeeze bottle and served alongside a hot, light cocoa broth. Guests would squeeze the yogurt out into the broth and watch it solidify into strands.

Molecular gastronomy reached its zenith in 2006—the year that chefs in trend-conscious cities like New York and Los Angeles felt they weren’t in tune with the times unless they were doing something with a nitrous oxide canister, or a dust made from dehydrated citrus peel, or a powder made by adding modified starch to fat. Since then, as the intensity of the movement has waned, some of its pioneers have disavowed the term molecular gastronomy altogether. Last year, Adrià, Blumenthal, McGee, and others released a statement saying that innovation is only a tool, not a defining aspect of their cooking.

At the same time, many formerly avant-garde practices have become almost mainstream. Even at steakhouses, not known for culinary adventurousness, molecular gastronomy has found its place. Last year at Neros in Caesars Palace, chef Sean Griffin tossed lean chunks of pork shoulder with salt, pepper, and the enzyme transglutaminase and rolled the whole thing into a cylinder. He refrigerated it while the enzyme glued the pork together into a single piece of meat, and then he vacuum-sealed the meat in plastic and cooked it in a waterbath for 24 hours at 145 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature regulated by—you guessed it—an immersion circulator. The result was an evenly shaped, evenly cooked piece of meat that, once it was browned, bore no signs of hocus-pocus, yet was more consistent than anything he could have achieved otherwise.

Nor has haute cuisine sworn off flashy experiments. The pastry chef Jordan Kahn, who worked at Varietal in New York last year, used methylcellulose as part of an arresting black-and-white dessert. He mixed the gum with tarragon and other ingredients, put it into a pastry bag, and squeezed out shapes like giant Hershey’s kisses, which he then dehydrated. He served the resulting tarragon puffs with black sesame seed paste and another paste made from absinthe, the green, anise-like liqueur that is back in vogue. There were also spirals made from crushed butter cookies and, as a final touch, a glob of ricotta cheese seasoned with lactic acid, salt, and sugar.

The plate ended up looking like a Jackson Pollock painting—indeed, Kahn said Pollock and other abstract expressionist painters were his inspiration. Ultimately it all tasted more interesting than good: a combination of crunchy and smooth textures, flavors of licorice and sesame—perhaps what you would expect a work by Jackson Pollock to taste like.

Chicago has become America’s true hotbed of innovation in this field. There, Grant Achatz, the chef-owner of Alinea and winner of this year’s James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef, offers dishes such as duck with mango and yogurt—served atop a pillow filled with lavender-scented air. The pillow slowly deflates as you dine, releasing the fragrance. Homaro Cantu of Moto, also in Chicago, uses rice paper, edible ink, and a laser printer to make pictures of sushi that reportedly taste like the real thing. The restaurant’s menu is edible, too.

So what’s your pleasure? Are you up for duck à la air pillow? Do you seek the thrill of eating a menu? Oh, you say you’ve lost your appetite? In any case, you’ve got to admit: it’s nice to know that somewhere on the planet, options like these remain open.

BRET THORN, A90, is the food editor and award-winning columnist for Nation’s Restaurant News. His job is to report on culinary trends across the country. You can follow his adventures on his blog, Food Writer’s Diary (nrnfoodwriter.blogspot.com).

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