Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Joël Robuchon - Molecular Gastronomist and Revisionist Historian?

Of the chefs who are typically credited with the popularization of "molecular gastronomy," several may jump to mind: Heston Blumenthal, for sure, who was a participant in the first 1992 "International Workshop on Molecular and Physical Gastronomy" (Harold McGee, one of the other original participants, has written a great history of the event); Pierre Gagnaire, the only other chef participant in that original workshop, and a regular collaborator with scientist Hervé This since then; Ferran Adrià, who was doing his own pioneering work in experimental cooking at the same time and whose food is often given the "MG" label;[1] here in the U.S., Grant Achatz, Wylie Dufresne, Homaru Cantu.

And Joël Robuchon? Yes, if he is to be believed. In a recent interview in the New York Post, Robuchon is quoted as saying:
Too many chefs are attracted to molecular gastronomy. ... It's not the kind of cuisine that should be important, with all the additives. I know I was really the first one to make it famous, but I have complete control of what I'm doing. The danger is that those who don't have the knowledge and that control start using additives that are not acceptable.
Right now, I am doing the reverse of molecular gastronomy. I'm working with scientists to find ingredients and produce that are proven to be good for you. Turmeric is very good for you. White tea is better than green tea. One of the dishes I'm experimenting with is carrot purée with turmeric. Also white-tea gelee and sea urchin.
Robuchon is undoubtedly a great chef, duly recognized as "Chef of the Century" by Gault-Millau in 1989.[2] And yet there is no way around it: he has absolutely positively no clue what he's talking about here.

"I was really the first one to make it famous." WTF? Unless you consider the physics of incorporating a stick of butter into a pound of potatoes to be "molecular gastronomy" (and of course, it actually is, but I don't think that's what he means), then I don't think there's another soul in the food universe who would back up that claim. Indeed, a Google search of "Joel Robuchon molecular gastronomy" yields nothing at all until 2006 (nearly 15 years after the term was coined, and so late in the game that other chefs had made a point of disassociating themselves from the term "molecular gastronomy" as describing any particular style of cooking, much less their own), and even then, none of those references would remotely suggest he had anything to do with making it famous.[3]

"Additives"? What is an "additive"? Agar agar (a seaweed derivative)? Gelatin (derived from animal collagen?) Cornstarch? Flour? And is there really a significant risk that restaurant chefs are serving untested ingredients to unsuspecting diners, and waiting in the kitchen to see if they blow up like Violet Beuaregard? I suspect there's more danger for diners lurking in all that butter in the potato purée.

But even more absurd: "Right now, I am doing the reverse of molecular gastronomy. I'm working with scientists to find ingredients and produce that are proven to be good for you." Chef, I don't know how to break this to you any more gently: using science to understand your ingredients better is, um, the definition of molecular gastronomy.

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

[1]Blumenthal and Adrià, among others, issued a statement years ago noting that "The fashionable term 'molecular gastronomy' was introduced relatively recently, in 1992, to name a particular academic workshop for scientists and chefs on the basic food chemistry of traditional dishes. That workshop did not influence our approach, and the term 'molecular gastronomy' does not describe our cooking, or indeed any style of cooking."
[2]He apparently actually shared this honor with Paul Bocuse and Fredy Girardet.
[3]Robuchon was, perhaps, an early adopter of sous vide cooking. But it turns out it was actually Marcel Vigneron who taught Robuchon everying he knew about "molecular gastronomy," as Vigneron claims in an interview mentioned here last week.


  1. At the Star Chefs ICC, we saw Robuchon show his techniques with vacuum and sous-vide... which, were in actuality, Bruno Goussault's techniques (the man is the foremost authority on SV and respected as such by chefs everywhere).
    I was amazed at the relationship between these 2... mainly at how Goussault's unwaivering humbleness was counter-balanced by Robuchon's huge ego. It seems the scales have finally tipped to the ego side.
    At that same demo, he stood on stage and condemned the use of additives. Just to make an uneducated all encompassing statement about 'all' additives shows a lot of ignorance. Thankfully, Jose Andres rebuked everything Robuchon said later when he did his own mind-blowing demonstration.
    It just sucks when a chef like Robuchon, whom you want to have total respect for, can't keep his mouth shut. Move to Italy with the other like-minded folk!!!

  2. Fine post, Frod and well said, Chad. I have to say that Robuchon's comments at that ICC irritated me as well and Robuchon's comments highlighted here are simply absurd. I think the part that bothers him is that he was not the one who made these techniques famous. Robuchon is a great chef, perhaps one of the greatest ever. Were it not that I saw and heard Robuchon myself at that ICC, I might be tempted to discount this post as having taken some comments out of context, but based on that I can totally believe he made them. He shouldn't need to stoop to this level of BS and envy.

  3. In restrospect here, maybe Robuchon was right. He did in fact introduce Ferran Adria to the world... and in effect, creating MG history. This would be very similar to what Huey Lewis did with Bruce Hornsby.

  4. Chad, how did Robuchon introduce Ferran to the world?

  5. I suspect this is what Chad's talking about (1996, when Robuchon "retired" and anointed Adria as "the best chef on the planet.")

  6. And that will probably be the first and last time someone draws an analogy to Joel Robuchon, Ferran Adria, Huey Lewis and Bruce Hornsby.