The first chemical practitioners on Earth were chefs. They were the pioneers in turning the natural materials – the items they found around them, into something different: into something better, more interesting, more delicious, safer to consume and storable.
Today we have big restaurant chains, offering their services to thousands of customers. They have perfected their systems, use contemporary appliances. They also clean and maintain their ovens, fridges and dishwashers and keep them at a high level. Yet, something was seemingly missing to provide a new experience for new clients.
The cooks have been dealing with these kinds of transformations for thousands of years. The best traditional cuisines – the classic French, the classic Chinese, Japanese, Italian – have appeared with the evolution of culture at certain places. Those kitchens were basically isolated from each other, worked with a restricted set of local ingredients and resources to transform them.
Namely those notable but niche kitchens were perfected to the tiniest detail.
XXI century, however, is a very different time in human history
The cultures are not isolated from each other, whereas the ingredients are available all over the world. Now the big question many chefs face is: what can you cook with a planet-full of ingredients?
What can you do with all the findings that many different cultures made on how to combine ingredients and how people can be influenced by the eating experience?
The same unruly, creative, ambitious chefs, who probably would contribute for the perfection of well-defined classic cuisines, now explore the opportunities of opened cooking without any preliminary conceptions.
The simple undefined textbook rules of providing a great meal – using quality ingredients, mixing them with passion and using well-cleaned and polished appliances to minimise the risk of contaminating your food and increasing its quality further weren’t enough.
The notion of “molecular gastronomy” has often been mentioned in different conversations lately. It sounds somewhat attractive, but it’s just a hollow phrase.
The molecular gastronomy was at first a marketing word, coined at the beginning of the 90s, in order to sell the idea at a meeting which will gather at one and the same place scientists and chefs – at a conference in a scientific centre in Sicily.
Ettore Majorana Centre in Eris normally conducts its meetings, connected with topics such as the origins of the universe or the biology of cancer – interesting and important subjects of large scale.
Cooking wasn’t so important then as it is now, and the scientists looked at it as a domestic chore, rather than something that deserves paying attention.
In order to justify the very existence of the conference, two of the organisers managed to think of the new shiny long word in order to describe what they were interested in: molecular gastronomy.
What is Gastronomy?
The gastronomy is the understanding and enjoyment of the good food and drinks. Whereas the molecular biology and molecular medicine – the real ultramodern research of concrete molecules in life and diseases – was modern in the scientific circles back then.
So, the molecular gastronomy got its name – although it didn’t have even the slightest resemblance with real molecular science and what the experts did – applying of standard, industry-specific nutritional chemical processes, in order to understand and improve cooking.
Although the conference was conducted successfully, the notion itself still didn’t mean anything – people gathered to talk about ingredients and tactics, not molecules.
Chefs now are lively interested in the science of cooking, but only a handful of them think about molecules in practice. They think of ingredients, because that’s what you work for in the kitchen.
The molecular scientists use complicated and expensive tools in order to study and manipulate the behaviour of single molecules. That’s science.
The chemistry of food can one day reach there. Cooking, on the other hand, won’t, because the aim of cooking is not a form of understanding or manipulating. Its mission is to make food more delicious, whereas the taste doesn’t depend on simple understanding of molecules.
Some of the most adequate science for the chefs today stand far from the chemistry of the kitchen and are more connected with perceptions and emotions in the dining room.
Food, restaurant and science journalists, that were caught in the marketing term “molecular gastronomy” turned it into a synonym of the contemporary, innovative cooking, or cooking that gives the food the appearance of a scientific experiment. Which, in turn, takes off the appearance of what’s the most exciting and important in the world of modern cooking – its nature of exploring the environment.
The chefs now ask questions on food and eating, which were never asked before, so we try and experience eating that has never been looked before. We try and experience things which we’ve never seen.
Not all of them are great, but that’s precisely because we are talking about research, and not about slight variations of the tested and proven.
There are many good, meaningful and important notions of the world of eating research.
For example – an experimental cuisine. Or opened cooking. Modernistic cuisine. The world gastronomy itself doesn’t need a fake addition of nobility or seriousness.
It has been contemporary for over 200 years, has existed for over 2000, and includes everything connected with preparation and enjoyment of food and drinks, from chemical, to historical, psychological and philosophical aspects.
That notion derives from the Greek word for “stomach”, which, in turn, derives from the Indo-European root, meaning “swallow”.
Gastronomy doesn’t need connecting the molecules, although it knows them well.