Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

ACS: Against “molecular gastronomy”

The hype-heavy world of haute cuisine has recently been rolling its tongue over the phrase “molecular gastronomy”, said to be practiced by such chefs célèbres as Pierre Gagnaire and Ferran Adrià. The trend is for innovative foods, and new ingredients. Shrimp treated with protein-knitting enzymes, so it can be coaxed into noodle shape, glass-like spheres of isomalt, filled with the smoke from roasting mushrooms, flavored foam.

But On Food and Cooking author Harold McGee, in a session this morning, opined that the term should be ditched. He noted that most chefs labeled as molecular gastronomists rejected the label and say that their experiments rarely take place on the molecular level. Apparently, the phrase came from a workshop about the science of cooking, held in Sicilly in the early 1990s—but the workshop was, according to McGee, was all about the chemical underpinnings of traditional cuisine, and has nothing to do with the Julia Child-meets-Dale Chihuly creations of the new cooking.

These chefs aren’t looking into molecules, says McGee, “they are cooking with ingredients. They are artists, not chemists.”

That said, there are some firm links between the new daring cooks and chemistry. Fat Duck chef Heston Blumenthal questioned the age-old custom of removing the jelly and seeds from tomatoes before cooking with them. To his palate, they were tastier than the flesh. He worked with Don Mottram of the University of Reading to see why, and they found that the jelly has tons more glutamic acid—the source of the famous meaty, nummy umami flavor (See—than the flesh.

So, special note to my boyfriend: I now have scientific proof that de-seeding tomatoes is silly.


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    Paul Handley said:

    There’s a career opportunity listed on the Fat Duck website, one I never would have imagined:

    “Research Chef … A background in chemistry or other related science is desirable, but not necessary.”

  2. Report this comment

    Frank Leibfarth said:

    Dear Mat Todd,

    I totally agree. Aren’t we all tweakers though? Look at some of the greatest triumphs in recent synthetic chemistry and you can justify them all as “tweaks.” Olefin metathesis as we know it today (2005 Nobel: Chauvin, Grubbs, & Schrock) has its foundations in the work of Ziegler and Dupont patents. Tartrate ligands were used well before Sharpless employed them for enantioselective epoxidations. Even Richard Heck, widely credited as the first to do Pd catalyzed cross-couplings, states the Ziegler-Natta type chemistry and work of Wilford, Treichel, and Stone as his initial inspirations.

    Jobs was a tweaker, but with the wealth of literature and previous work in chemistry, I assert that we are tweakers also. And that’s the point I wanted to get across. That is how great innovations are realized. The tweaks Jobs made were just very public because he worked in the consumer technology industry. We make tweaks and cite who inspired us. I don’t see much difference.

    Jobs was a genius, but like great scientists, he couldn’t have come up with the iPod without those who came before him. I think it’s funny that people want to make up a special definition, like a “tweaker,” for Jobs. He was simply a great scientist. Why not leave it at that?