Not so long ago, you might have walked out of a restaurant that served you ludicrous-sounding creations like cream of mushroom foam, or spheres of olive oil that explode in your mouth like salmon roe. Not anymore.
The greatest restaurant in the world, El Bulli, is closing. It's the Mecca of the science-and-chemistry-and-crazy-shit approach to food that's come to be called molecular gastronomy, characterized by the distortion of familiar foodstuffs into strange a hybrid of science experiment and postmodern art. Textures, tastes and expectations are obliterated and reconstructed to create something new. El Bulli, and its chef Ferran Adria, led the bleeding edge of the food world for years. Now, he'll teach a course on culinary physics at Harvard this fall.
The phrase "molecular gastronomy" induces gags amidst Chowhound foodies and ardent Top Chef fans, who deride it as a terrible fad, like trucker hats. The techniques, played-out gimmicks. Who hasn't seen foam on a menu in the last few years? The overwhelming wave in food is all about eating what's local, an obsession with provenance. Even in the mainstream, there's been a backlash against high fructose corn syrup, a sweetener demonized essentially for how it's made. Science is meddling and mucking. Get the chemistry set away from the kitchen.
Well, everybody's looking at it the wrong way.
Newsflash: Cooking is science. Molecular gastronomy simply admits that. It's about what's actually happening to food when it's cooked, on a chemical, physical and biological level, and using that knowledge. It's the why of cooking. And the rise of molecular gastronomy has made cooking better. As wd-50 chef and renowned molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne says in this video, "in the last 15 years we've learned more about cooking than we have in the 15,000 years prior to that." Knowledge and science isn't a fad. As he points out, molecular gastronomy is why we now know that searing a steak at high temperature doesn't "seal in the juices," as most people will you tell you—it pulls the moisture out.
And this infusion of science and food isn't restricted to Michelin-star kitchens and chefs. The democratic march of technology means that formerly inaccessible equipment and techniques, like sous vide and induction burners are making their way into homes. And culinary trends trickle down. Look no further than molten chocolate cake, created by world-renowned Jean-Georges Vongerichten in the 1980s. Dominoes will sell you one for a few bucks now. McDonald's sells lattes.
Even the bellies of people who've never sipped a liquid nitrogen-frozen milkshake are inexorably touched by science and technology. Everything from the savory, miraculous powder dusted over Doritos to the omnipresent sweetener that makes soft drinks quaffable to genetically modified corn and salmon, is developed in a lab by people with more university degrees than ex-girlfriends.
As long as we have billions of mouths to feed, people who demand more from their food and people willing to give it to them, food and science are stuck together. Get used to it.