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Science and food mix in molecular cooking

September 1, 2005

By Mark Wilkinson

BOSTON (Reuters) – Pino Maffeo throws on plastic safety
goggles and vanishes in a puff of smoke as he pours liquid
nitrogen out of a large metallic canister. But appearances
aside, Maffeo is no mad scientist.

His experiments are of the culinary kind and his lab is the
basement kitchen at Boston’s swank Restaurant L, where he is
the chef and dinner for two with wine averages about $130.

Maffeo, who describes his cuisine as mainly European with
Asian accents, is one of a new breed of American cooks who
practice what has become known as molecular gastronomy.

Using liquid nitrogen, emulsifiers and an arsenal of
equipment typically stocked in scientific laboratories, Maffeo
creates what he calls “one-bite wonders.”

“If science can make my cuisine better, then I’ll use it,”
he said, while putting ravioli made from mango and dry cured
ham on skewers alongside aloe vera and muscato grape juice
gelatin cubes.

“I’ve opened my doors to anything.”

To create unusual and original recipes — such as pairing
fried calamari with watermelon and cantaloupe — Maffeo
analyzes the molecular make-up of the ingredients with an
infrared spectrometer nuclear magnetic resonance machine,
equipment usually used by synthetic chemists and physicists. He
believes foods with similar composition pair well together.

He meets weekly to discuss projects with Angela Buffone, a
visiting professor of organic chemistry at Suffolk University
and partner in Maffeo’s culinary experiments.

For his signature dish, seared foie gras with a 24 carat
golden egg, Maffeo pulls out a keg of liquid nitrogen — a gas
more commonly used to zap away skin growths such as warts.

The browned foie gras is placed on a bed of shaved pickled
fennel and a small oblong and airy meringue is then dredged in
lightly whipped cream and dunked into the liquid nitrogen.

The gas — a cool 300 or more degrees Fahrenheit below zero
(184 degrees Celsius below zero) — flash freezes the cream,
creating a texture resembling an egg shell. Using a syringe,
Maffeo then injects mango sauce into the meringue, which is
then dipped into the frigid bath.

As a finishing touch, the egg is wrapped in 24 carat gold
leaf and placed on the plate, where once cracked it oozes with
yolk-like mango sauce.

A THIN LINE

As creative and innovative as molecular cuisine can be, the
line separating it from overkill or the absurd is thin, said
food writer Michael Ruhlman, author of “Soul of a Chef” and
“The Making of a Chef.”

“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have
to,” he said. “Do it if it’s a pleasure to taste.”

Maffeo agreed, saying “it’s all about flavor, if people
don’t say ‘Wow, this is bloody delicious,’ then all this is
unnecessary.”

While modern science provides room for more tricks, it’s no
replacement for traditional technique. “No matter how you do
it, cooking comes down to fundamentals,” Ruhlman said.

Molecular gastronomy was spearheaded by Spanish chef Ferran
Adria, who spends half the year testing his world-acclaimed
dishes and the rest cooking at El Bulli on Spain’s
Mediterranean coast. Other world-renowned chefs such as Heston
Blumenthal of Fat Duck in the English town of Bray have joined
the ranks of molecular cooks.

In the United States, few have ventured into molecular
gastronomy but the style is here to stay, said Ruhlman, even if
the market is relatively small and restricted to more
discerning diners.

‘WAY EXCITING’

“I wouldn’t make every dish on my menu a science project,
but it’s way exciting,” said celebrity chef David Burke of
davidburke & donatella in New York City. “It’s like going back
to school, and I find it naturally appealing.”

The avant-garde type of cooking could give chefs a deeper
understanding of how foods work together, making the final dish
more creative and better tasting, he said.

Burke has taken his experimenting outside the kitchen and
sells spray bottles for $5.95 containing flavorings ranging
from bacon to Memphis barbecue and chocolate fudge designed to
flavor food while cutting on calories.

In New York City, Shea Gallante, executive chef of Cru,
uses a medical machine known as a thermo-circulator to cook
foods in a vacuum, a technique known as “sous-vide.” The device
is typically used to grow cultures and bacteria.

While the sous-vide method isn’t novel, Gallante’s use of
the thermo-circulator breaks the norms. Because the machine can
maintain an exact temperature better than a stove, Gallante
says he can pack in all the natural flavors of the foods he
cooks sous-vide while retaining their juices and nutrients.

He also uses emulsifiers to make hot foams and has
experimented with carbonating ingredients, such as whole
gooseberries.

While he admitted that some of it was “kind of noveltyish,”
he sees an important role for molecular cooking in a
still-maturing American cuisine.

“Food is going to turn very simplistic,” Gallante said. “So
these techniques will play a greater role because you can’t
pack that much emphasis into something as simple as a carrot.”




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