Wednesday 13 October 2010

nature & technology. do they compete in the kitchen?

Image provided by Access PR

An abridged version of this article is posted on

Molecular gastronomy, for want of a better description, has been a fascination of mine since I first saw the weird and wacky creations coming from restaurant kitchens in the early 2000s.

These creations are unachievable for most home cooks, something you can only access through restaurants and the artistry of professionally trained chefs, primarily due to the complexity of the dishes and the expense of the ingredients and equipment.

For me it’s the combination of chemistry and art form that makes it so exciting. I love that I can look at something strange and unrecognisable on a plate, then bite into it and experience amazing and familiar flavours. I love that the textures are confusing but the tastes are clear.

I was a fan from day one and so attending the World Chef Showcase, part of the Crave Sydney International Food Festival, to see New York’s WD-50 head chef and owner, Wylie Dufresne, was quite an overwhelmingly exciting occasion and he did not disappoint.Dufresne is articulate and confident talking to the crowd.

He explained that he sees the chemicals, powders, equipment and techniques he applies to his food as a vehicle to trigger memories through flavour. This all became very clear to me when he talked through a video demonstration of his version of Eggs Benedict.

 He took something so familiar (a simple breakfast of poached egg on an English muffin topped with hollandaise sauce and ham), and then he turned it upside down. When I got my tasting plate, instead of egg, muffin and bacon I saw a smudge of fudgy egg, shards of salty bacon and a deep fried breaded cube that, when I cut into it, oozed rich Hollandaise.

It didn’t look like a typical brunch dish, but it certainly tasted like it. Artistic and alien, yet perfectly in tune with the natural flavours of Eggs Benedict and delivering an old classic with a refreshed perspective. Genius.

Dufresne said that cooking is “a little bit of biology, a little bit of physics and a lot of chemistry”. I agree with him whole-heartedly.

Often the chefs that don’t use scientific applications claim they let the ingredients speak for themselves, leaving the rest of us to believe that the additions of xanthan gum, calcium chloride and liquid nitrogen mean drastically altered flavours.

This session got me thinking. Although the ingredients don’t look like themselves when they foam or wobble on your plate, in some ways they taste more like themselves because these chemicals and techniques change the texture of the food in it pure state, dismissing the need for additional ingredients that would water down the intensity of the flavours.

It’s a pretty obvious concept, yet one that hadn’t occurred to me until today.

Image provided by Fairfax

I was completely enthralled and entertained by a passionate conversation between international food writer, Jean-Pierre Gabriel, and Paul Cunningham, chef of Copenhagen’s Michelin-starred The Paul, as they philosophised on these concepts further.

Cunningham explained that kitchen technologies allow him to remain locally focused yet extend his menu possibilities in the Nordic climate where extreme seasons limit produce availability. He can present simple ingredients in a complex ways but still focus intently on their raw, natural flavours.

Dufresne had a similar philosophy “I have a lot of powders, but I don’t have something that makes bad food taste good”.

Gabriel sees chefs as opinion leaders and the New Nordic cuisine (think Noma) as the manifesto bringing us back to nature through technology. With so many of my friends concerned about chemicals added to food in the name of molecular gastronomy, I thought this was an interesting take on recent shifts in modern food trends like the locavore movement.

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Similarly Brent Savage, from Sydney’s Bentley Restaurant & Bar, touted the use of local and foraged ingredients like wild borage flowers and samphire. For products he sources further afield, he takes an active interest in their production, like Tasmanian mussels from Spring Bay, farmed in deep sea.

Savage is an Australian gem, producing truly delicious creations, and we were lucky enough to try his sous vide bacalao with smoked potato mousse and mussels. Although invented in France some time ago, sous vide is a popular contemporary cooking method (food cooked in vacuum-sealed bags in a low temperature water bath over a long time). It intensifies the flavours of the ingredients significantly. Savage also used xanthan gum to thicken his potato mousse before dispensing it onto the plate through a cream charger.

As the waiters brought our sample, iconic food critic Franz Scheurer leaned over and told me I was in for a treat. After Scheurer tweeted a sneaky snap of me and Lyndey Milan photographing the luscious texture of the mousse, I had my first taste. Exquisite, velvety mousse only lightly smoky and still clearly tasting of potato contrasted perfectly with the salty, barely cooked seafood. The dish demonstrated how scientific cooking can enhance the inherent qualities of the food and doesn’t need to compete with its natural aspects.
Image provided by Fairfax

Another eye-opener.

As Savage explained, the Showcase is a learning experience not only for the audience but it allows chefs to share their knowledge too. All the proof he needed was the army of white chef smocks in the back rows, including Dufresne, Cunningham, Yotam Ottolenghi, Mehmet Gurs, Ben Shewry, Sean Connolly and food critics Scheurer, Matt Preston, Terry Durack and Milan.

Surrounded by so many inspirational food artists, I was in agreement with Dufresne who said “right now I’m having fun and feeling fortunate”.


  1. did you get to go to the dinner at Bentley , Anna ? a friend of a friend went and they said it was amazing...

  2. monica - unfortunately not. i didn't have enough $$$ but franz from australian gourmet pages did a good review with pics that will be in the next round-up.


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