Friday, July 3, 2009

<-- Traditional ------------------ Creative -->

Buried in a footnote to my last post was the comment that the presentation of a caviar dish with six foams at an old-school, traditional restaurant like Bern's Steak House in Tampa supported my contention that there is no such thing as a "molecular gastronomy restaurant." To which a commenter queried, "How does that prove any point?," and suggested, kindly, that my disdain for the term "molecular gastronomy" was clouding my judgment. I suggested, instead, that it was all the steak and wine that was clouding my judgment.

I actually have no disdain for the term "molecular gastronomy," I just think it is an inapt descriptor for any restaurant. "Gastronomy" is a field of study, not a school of cooking, and all cooking is "molecular" depending on how you choose to look at it. To borrow the examples used in the comment, I would submit that wd~50 and minibar are no more or less "molecular" than Bern's, and indeed no more or less "molecular" than a bakery.

Tell me exactly what defining characteristics make wd~50 and minibar "molecular gastronomy restaurants."
  • Is it that they alter the natural textures of ingredients? Then what of Bern's various foams paired with the caviar?
  • Is it that they use hydrocolloids? What if Bern's is using methylcellulose or xanthan for its foams?
  • Is it unusual ingredient pairings? How unusual do they have to be? Is caviar and curry enough?
Here's my thought of the evening: all restaurants fall somewhere on a continuum between traditional and creative. Both "traditional" and "creative" can refer to a number of things: preparation methods (both hardware, i.e., immersion circulators, and software, i.e., hydrocolloids); ingredient combinations, plating techniques, and so on. Some restaurants are more traditional; others are more creative, some truly cutting edge. But it is a continuum rather than a strict categorization.

How can it be otherwise, when Bern's is serving caviar with six foams, and Alinea is serving Pigeonneau a la St. Clair?


  1. To quote Russ Parsons,"...isn't this a bit of picking nits? No one "owns" a phrase. I know perfectly well what I mean when I say "molecular gastronomy" and I can offer a cogent definition (cooking with nontraditional methods and tools). So what's wrong with that? Where's the harm?"

  2. As for Alinea, if a restaurant serves cole slaw, does that mean they can't be called a 'Barbecue Restaurant'? I'm pretty sure your readers know the difference between Berns and minibar; or are you also arguing that the term 'Steakhouse' is no longer viable because Berns served a foam dish?

  3. I have to agree with you... Mostly because I think that the OC need to label food is just dumb... As long as it's good, who cares?

  4. Danny - I'm not trying to claim ownership of any phrase nor do I think anyone would pay much heed if I did. But your definition makes my point. If a "molecular gastronomy restaurant" is defined as one that does "cooking with nontraditional methods and tools," then Bern's unequivocally does fall within your definition based on the dish I had there.

    Is one dish not enough? Then what about The French Laundry? The flavor profiles of most dishes there are fairly traditional, yet Thomas Keller has become a master (indeed, literally wrote the book) on sous vide, which many think of as both nontraditional method and nontraditional tool. And it is fully incorporated into dishes across the menu. He also doesn't hesitate to use hydrocolloids where they can enhance a dish. So is TFL a "molecular gastronomy restaurant"?

    What about Le Bernardin? Ripert also has dishes that use hydrocolloids (even moreso pastry chef Michael Laiskonis), and sometimes has "nontraditional" pairings like raw tuna with foie gras. "Molecular gastronomy restaurant?"

    It seems that rather than Russ Parsons, you're quoting from Potter Stewart when he said of hard-core pornography, "I know it when I see it." There's a reason that never became the Supreme Court's defining standard for obscenity.

    I'm not suggesting all categories of restaurants are meaningless. "Barbecue" clearly means something (even if there are many sub-genres), as do many regional or ethnic genres. But I'm still not sure what it really means (or will mean a couple years from now as more of these "nontraditional" methods and tools are absorbed into the mainstream) to refer to a "molecular gastronomy" restaurant (even setting aside the inaccuracy of the term in the first place).

  5. "'Barbecue' clearly means something"-but may I propose that it means something different to different people (smoked meats, outdoor grilling, etc.)-yet we all know the general idea of what we are getting into-same with MG and describing wd~50 or minibar as such. Same with 'Steakhouse', 'Bistro', 'Brasserie', 'Trattoria', etc. The actual food served may not be in the traditional (or even perhaps expected)manner, but we all know what it means. In fact your whole argument sounds not just tortured but elitist as well. That was Russ Parsons' point that you apparently missed, my friend,
    that no one "owns" a phrase. Regular people have assigned meaning to a phrase and the elites want to tell them no, we will tell you what to call your food. In my case, I call it a hot dog. You can call it a frank; but either way, happy Foodie Fourth. (Shall we take on that word next?-If so, I would like to replace it with foo-foo; as in "Who's the annoying Foo-Foo?")

  6. I don't think "regular people" (as distinguished from "elitists" if I may borrow your terms) are talking about "molecular gastronomy" - or blowing $100+ on multi-course tasting menus of any type - at all. I know that because I didn't hear Sarah Palin mention it once in her retirement speech.

    I hardly think there's anything about the term "molecular gastronomy" that appeals to "regular people" nor do I think it is coming up in casual conversation among people who are not "foodies" of various degrees of seriousness. Rather, what I see with increasing frequency is food writers with only a modicum of knowledge about contemporary cooking using it - often perjoratively - as a convenient catch-all for any restaurant that uses such techniques.

    So I think your "class war" argument is misplaced.

    But you still haven't told me why, using the Russ Parsons definition, wd~50 and minibar are "molecular gastronomy restaurants," but TFL and Le Bernardin are not (or, for that matter, whether they actually are). And if it's impossible to tell, or if you think it's one and I think it's not, then what is the point of the term?

    Is it picking nits to encourage better, more meaningful writing?

  7. "Is it picking nits to encourage better, more meaningful writing?" No not at all-what you are actually saying though is that you should get to decide something that has already been agreed upon in the general scheme of things, because you don't like the choice-that is elitist. There is no 'class war' either, that is your elitist construct to reduce my argument to a meaningless and trite phrase, counselor.

    I do not need to expand on why wd~50 and minibar are MG restaurants, because everybody KNOWS EXACTLY WHAT THAT MEANS. INCLUDING YOU. And, Frod, of course 'regualr people' talk about molecular gastronomy just like regular people talk about a lot of complicated or controversial issues that, ahem, DON'T INVOLVE FOOD.

    Finally, you offer no support for your argument about MG and writers disparaging it, except for that one douchebag in The Atlantic who, as we both know, is not even a food writer! Nearly all of the pieces I have written, and almost 99% of what I have read (and here I'm not talking about some BS on eGullet or Chowhound) in the trade magazines and elsewhere, has been over-the-top positive.

    Still waiting for your new, catchy phrase, by the way.

  8. ...and I'm also not referring to anyone in the local press, of course, either...

  9. Somewhat apropos, here's how they do 4th of July at Alinea.

    Look, I'm offering an opinion. That opinion is no more or less elitist than someone choosing to use an 8-syllable phrase to describe food - even though the person that coined the phrase, and the people that cook the food, don't think it applies - basically just because the phrase sounds sort of cool and smart.

    If I didn't have to go start some burgers on the grill soon, I'd find you some examples, but it gives little comfort that the Atlantic writer isn't a "food writer" (another loaded term?). Indeed, that's part of my point - people with only a modicum of knowledge simply latch on to the term as a perjorative.

    Meanwhile, you still haven't said if TFL or Le Bernardin are "molecular gastronomy restaurants," and if not, why not?

  10. But for a starter, how about this from Gourmet?

  11. I assume you are using only Pat La Frieda's black label for your burgers-which only an elitist/populist (aren't they the same thing?) will understand.

    And while Justice Stewart's "I know it when I see it" may not be the 'Supreme Court's defining standard for obscenity', as you say, it is a well-turned phrase that has stood the test of time. We will see how long it takes until MG ends up in the dustbin of history...which I agree it is headed to....
    But not now.

  12. Oh, I understand, but no La Frieda Black Label here. Instead we went pseudo-elitist with some Maverick Ranch beef from Publix, which was way too lean (I folded in some leftover short ribs a la Daniel Boulud to make up for it).

    While we're throwing quotes around, how about this one from Ferran Adria at the last Madrid Fusion on this very subject: "If we keep seeing science and cooking as two Martians coming at each other with test tubes, we all lose. We have to normalize the relationship between them." My concern - and I'm not alone - is that using the term "molecular gastronomy restaurant" has the opposite effect.

    Have a Happy 4th!

  13. Flour is a hydrocolloid. So is gelatin. So is cornstarch.
    To use these ingredients while understanding the what the end result will be is simply knowing how to cook.
    To use these ingredients and understand how this works on a microscopic and chemical level is molecular gastronomy.
    Unless you have a microscope in the kitchen, you are cooking on faith and experience. This is more confusing than kosher cooking (too many conflicting rules and too many opinions). The only issue with everyone using the term inaccurately is having to side-guess what exactly that person means when they use it, then this same conversation ensues, then it's all just a big waste of time. Do we really need that?

  14. Petronius ArbiterJuly 5, 2009 at 9:40 PM

    We could discuss the use and abuse of language ad nauseum, but that is generally the case with a semantically ambiguous and neologistic phrase like "molecular gastronomy". The semantic ambiguity arises from the fact that, as Frod points out, neither of the root words is functionally meaningful in denoting the ingredients and techniques that are part of the concept (although the original ancient Greek usage of gastronomy may be more apropos than modern English usage). In which case, the denotation is just the connotation, whether pejorative or not.

    Furthermore, since the term is a neologism there is no historical context or usage to get semantic clarity. Frod questions whether the use of sous vide preparation or particular hydrocolloids falls under the rubric of molecular gastronomy, since these constitute novelties in relation to "traditional cooking". But had the term existed in the past might it have not applied to other techniques and ingredients that have been long since integrated into the latter: the microwave, the food processor, New World ingredients just to offer some examples. All these underwent a transition from the novel to the accepted/traditional and that transitional stage may be where sous vide preparation is now.

    That being said and assuming that molecular gastronomy denotes the use of techniques and ingredients that are novel relative to the present moment, without implying any positive or negative connotation for the end product of such use, I would say that the "I know it when I see it" interpretation can be fairly applied to determine a "molecular gastronomy restaurant" by the preponderance of molecular gastronomy on the menu. It isn't one dish or two or three or a single night per week (apologies to Chad) but 50% or more of the menu meeting the definition of molecular gastronomy.

    From that perspective and based only on restaurants I have eaten at:

    The French Laundry/Per Se - not MG
    Alinea - MG
    wd-50 - MG
    Le Bernardin - not MG

    Based on your description of Bern's it would also not be MG. In fact, I don't see how a steak house could ever make it to the threshold of an MG restaurant unless they use transglutaminase to prepare some more interesting "cuts". Anyone for seven-layer steak?

  15. I had a suspicion that your "50% rule" is where this conversation might wind its way to. Interesting to note that Keller has said that 15-20% of his cooking is now done sous-vide; and, judging from his cookbooks, while the more exotic hydrocolloids are part of his repertoire, they are not a major part.

  16. Petronius ArbiterJuly 7, 2009 at 10:56 AM

    There is also the issue of perception. Some food cooked sous vide is virtually indistinguishable from more conventional preparations. In that sense dining at a Thomas Keller establishment offers none of the cues that you are experiencing a molecular gastronomy technique. Some other techniques, like spherification, are much harder to miss.

    I'm not sure the "50% rule" would meet the "I know it when I see it" criterion if it was just a matter of sous vide preparation simply because it would not be apparent to a typical diner. Fortunately, there are really no borderline cases among those we are discussing. I would say that the restaurants we are discussing fall in the 80-90% range for either MG or non-MG.