Molecular Gastronomy: Waiter, There's Science Fiction in My Soup!
Long-form copy is a favorite of mine.
I get a thrill from the research process. I’m always on the lookout for unusual details to drive a story forward. This essay about molecular gastronomy was full of them, and they were tasty!
Freelance Journalism Submission
First appeared in shortened form in EAT OUT at the editors' request
This is not as advertised, “A little bit of bad road.” On the contrary, this is potholed, rain-trenched, cursed-and-forsaken, Siege-of-Paris road. A few turns in, and it starts to feel like having taken a wrong turn in time. I pray they never fix it. The road to Lynton Hall should always remain difficult and just a little scary. It should be an epic odyssey with dinner as the prize–if you can make it. Think of it as a portent of things to come. In the same way, a David Lynch movie introduces you to someone’s ear before you meet its unimaginable someone. It’s a little scary. It’s a little Dadaist. It is molecular gastronomy time.
The terms “Molecular” and “Gastronomy” cheek by jowl in the same cramped sentence lend an air of sophisticated futurism to the idea of dinner. At first blush, one imagines the food of astronauts, time travelers even, or perhaps something from a scuffed, stackable plastic tray in the staff canteen at CERN, but this it is not.
It makes this particular plate of soup look the way the sun would have looked if God had had a fabulous decorator who commissioned Salvador Dali to paint it from a mythical substance that never completely dries.
“Molecular Gastronomy” is older, mustier, and considerably less fashion-forward than one might think. In fact, according to Harold McGee–one of the first to warm themselves by this strange campfire–it was a chef who provided the kick-off and a lady chef no less. Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas is a teacher of the Cordon Bleu style in San Francisco who regularly attended any number of sciencey conferences abroad, tagging along with her husband, a noted physicist. During dinner at one such event, she remarked that professional cooks might also benefit from similar symposia by learning more of the physics and chemistry behind culinary science. Egged on by Ugo Valdrè of the University of Bologna, she threw in her hat, and by 1992 the first convergence of cooks beneath the honest, if not utterly dreary moniker “Molecular and Physical Gastronomy” was underway in Erice on the island of Sicily. Thomas and Valdrè found a willing scientist to organize it all: Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti along with Harold McGee and Hervé This to run the summer school.
The modern practice of molecular gastronomy is more commonplace now, with diners seemingly anticipating an arrangement of unusual, rare, or incongruous ingredients to greet them–as if arranged by Kandinsky himself. “Experience” is really what this kind of fine dining is now located around. This modernist kitchen is rat-rodded with laboratory- grade tech and industrial food production methodologies, and it is all glued together by the laws of chemistry and physics for some genuinely spectacular culinary, and experiential, possibilities. Chefs are suddenly freed up to experiment with Willy Wonkaesque flavors such as bacon and eggs ice-cream (for which Blumenthal is probably most notorious, although the Two Ronnies Brit-com duo probably also deserve a nod). Recipes tend to read like pages from an astrobiology textbook published in the latter half of the twenty-third century:
In a saucepan combine 200ml water, coffee, tea or orange juice and 225g chocolate. Heat gently to form a chocolate emulsion, then set the saucepan in a bowl of ice cubes or cold water and whisk to obtain a foam. (Larousse, p674, this time a typical Molecular Gastro recipe for Chocolate Chantilly, simple enough to merit trying at home, at least once.)
Cooking within this milieu becomes tricky for purists due to the necessary abandonment of traditional techniques, guidelines, and superstitions (a spoon in the neck of a champagne bottle does not, in fact, keep its fizz, nor does browning meat “seal in its juices”). It is precisely at this point of convergence that the principal virtue of Molecular Gastronomy–inventiveness–is available for a clever and imaginative chef to exploit.
All cooking, irrespective of discipline, purpose, or cultural bias, relies just as heavily on creativity and imagination as it does on ingredients and prowess. Better meals have been constructed on the spur of the moment by cannibals with poorly stocked larders and unexpected but nonetheless welcome guests, than by bored chefs, doing boring things to boring ingredients by boring food-cost formulas in professional kitchens. What defines great molecular gastronomy, and indeed Richard Carstens’ cookery too, is the gift of imagination.
It is not an overstatement to suggest that Richard Carstens’ imagination is pure, mirror- shades, hardcore cyberpunk. It may be that he has read entirely too many William S. Burroughs novels or has given Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner a few too many screenings. Dinner at Lynton Hall, with Carstens at the helm is reminiscent of the awkward hyper- sexual conversation between Bobby Perdue and Lulu in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart: It is racy, it is hot, and every course feels like someone beyond the kitchen door is trying to get you into bed for an evening with an oxygen tank, a copy of Cities of the Red Night and a white-gloved Ugandan pygmy named “Fritter.” Carstens’ dishes are sonnets to the sublime, the juxtaposed, the incongruous, the chance meeting of a trout and an umbrella on an operating table, the white man’s overbite at Andre Breton’s last do. Carstens does modernist cooking remarkably well; because it’s not simply cooking the same old thing in a new way. It is a new way of thinking about food preparation and gustation while revisiting everything you know about what it means to actually “cook” and “eat” something.
After a fraught introduction from a nervous sous-chef–Carsten’s understudy and twitchy poster-child for the line, “As unaccustomed as I am to public speaking,” the first course orbits the Lynton Hall dining room briefly. It is introduced to me as Butternut Soup with Curry Ice Cream and Yogurt. No, really, read that again: Butternut Soup with Curry Ice Cream and Yoghurt. At first blush, it seems sort of… morally peculiar, and yet there it is, steaming away in front of me, a traveler from the future, way ahead of its time and… Perfect! This is why molecular gastronomy is important. The appreciation of science as much as artistry in cooking allows us to do that which we can only do with science–kill superstition, nostalgia, and idealism with cold, hard, yet exceedingly edible facts.
To deconstruct Carstens’ soup for a second, we know that butternut squash combines well with ginger, chili, and cinnamon–all familiar ingredients in a good curry, and if you’ve ever eaten a chicken korma, you already know that yogurt and curry match up swimmingly. Suddenly, this entrée makes sense. Sure, it’s been repackaged by Ridley Scott, and it is doing Cirque de Soleil grade acrobatics, but its flavors make sense.
There’s something else too: The quality. Everything on this plate is impeccable, A- grade, Super-Prime, Sans Pareil. Yet Carstens’ butternut soup is pin-stripe-accountant unpretentious. Although it should be said that the dish does have a peculiar air of distrust about it. It’s a little like meeting someone who describes themselves as “I’m in construction.” Who then gives you every indication that they are not, nor have they ever been, nor do they have the slightest bit of interest in ever pursuing anything involving the notion of “construction.” It is just so hard to shake the feeling that this soup is hiding something. Will I be surprised? Will I be annoyed? Should I raise my hands slowly and assume the larceny position?
Back on my plate, it is hard not to notice that my butternut and curry ice-cream soup has a green swirl. My butternut and curry ice-cream soup also has a white swirl. My butternut and curry ice-cream soup also has… a lump.
Not an unattractive lump, to be clear, quite a fetching one actually, as lumps go. It makes this particular plate of soup look the way the sun would have looked if God had had a fabulous decorator who commissioned Salvador Dali to paint it from a mythical substance that never completely dries.
The big yellow puddle of butternut is thin, milky in consistency, and warm and rich on the tongue. It is as if someone went through it one hundred times with an extremely fine comb removing anything you might have to chew. The teeth on Richard Carstens’ soup-comb are obviously microns apart, which affords his soup the texture and lightness of fresh milk recently obtained from extraordinarily sanguine cows. A daring reach for the green swirl, and it tastes like grass. No, wait. That’s completely unfair. It tastes exactly the way a lawn smells right after mowing, and you are the only person smelling it, before the sun rises.
The entire plate is beautiful and strange, like a lover from another planet.
The lump is hard, dense under the kiss of the spoon, and the shrill little voice of one’s inner, gastronomic smart-arse, is screaming that this shouldn’t be in soup–it could be in a bottle in a laboratory somewhere, but definitely not in someone’s soup. And that’s the hook of molecular gastronomy right there; it inverts your understanding, nay your closest held assumptions about what you thought you knew about food–and then it offers you something even better in return: Genuine novelty.
So right now, here, in this place–at this very table that seems to be sliding through a dimensional portal–you simply accept that you know nothing about food. Leave it to Richard, let him compose. And compose he does, placing, with excruciating tenderness and taste-accuracy, a small ball of ice-cream in the soup, curry-flavored ice-cream. All you have to do is put it in your mouth, and when you do–KAPOW! WHAM! SLAMMO! It’s like eating a Lichtenstein. But this isn’t eating. This is a baptism of flavor. This is less soup and more and more like the overture to a seduction. A spicy, sweet en passant in an opening gambit to get your kit off and have Fritter get out the white gloves and wheel in the oxygen tank.
The well-turned-out staff drift through like bored shadows and disappear plates, replenish wine, and smile like background characters in paintings. They are invisible, quick, and crucially without hesitation. Then they return, beaming like folk who are in on the secret punchline, and it’s a doozie. They cradle a second course tenderly like new fathers: The Sushi Cloud. The version of the menu I stole describes the second course as “Tempura Kingklip, Shiitake Mushrooms, Sushi Cloud with Almond and Ginger.” This is Franco-Japanese sci-fi cuisine ripped straight from the pages of a Phillip K. Dick novel. If Captain Kirk had ever gotten one of those green Orion slave girls to agree to a first date, he would have taken her someplace where they serve this.
The entire plate is beautiful and strange, like a lover from another planet. The flamboyant green swirl has returned for a cameo, but it isn’t freshly mowed lawn anymore. One starts to think that there is a good chance Carstens has a mugwump back there, chained up in the bowels of the kitchen where it is dark, damp, and quiet; making elaborate and bored swirls on plates while dripping quietly to itself. More shadows clear things; wine is poured and quaffed and poured again. Conversation deepens and turns itself up a notch. This is when Richard Carstens cranks up his own game and plays a big card, a trump of “Duck Liver Parfait with Beetroot, Chocolate, and Macadamia Nuts” arrives in front of me.
If Jacques Derrida was food, he would be thus. Two abstract, perfectly rectangular fingers of beets float beneath a clever, slick nimbus cloud of duck liver parfait. Unidentified polka dots of crucial yellow stuff measle the far side of the plate. You must mix the two fingers together immediately, swirl through the yellow drops on the way up and then behind the teeth and onto the tongue as quick and easy as a Bulgarian gymnast on the mat. If Carstens is asking his audience a question here, the question is most definitely, “So, are you doing anything later?” It is an invitation to a seduction of flavor and, by the time this course arrives, one is no longer simply “eating dinner,” one is transmogrified into a crucial cog in Richard Carstens’ sexy minimalist space opera of flavor, texture, and science-fiction. As his audience, the diner becomes the actual stage where the performance unfolds, the songs are sung, and the actors stomp and squeal. Obviously, Carstens has spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about what is happening in my mouth, thinking about Each. And. Every. Single. Bite. I. Take. This is the triumph as well as the genius of the Mol-Gas oeuvre. This is the home run THWACK! as the ball leaves the bat of molecular gastronomy, first heard at Erice all those years ago. This is why we will regularly eat this way in years to come, and this is why it rocks; to borrow from the parlance of our time. And it rocks dear reader, so very, very hard.
At the pinnacle of the seduction, at that most perfect moment together, in the whirl of the room, when you are ready for anything and almost under the table, Carstens offers you the lamb, like an old testament sacrifice. Again it is unassuming, undercover, a punch lovingly pulled. “Lamb fillet, Pomme Anna, Carrot, Leek and Truffle Oil Jus.” On any other menu, this would be “lamb with spuds and two veg.” This isn’t any other menu. This menu exists only at the intersection between science and art; it has a deconstructivists’ lunacy and is prepared only once. There will be no re-runs, there will be no “Last week, on Molecular Gastronomy…” You will never eat this menu again at Lynton Hall. Not while Richard Carstens is in the house.
A tiramisu arrives. It has amnesia and can no longer speak Italian. This tiramisu holds its secrets like a spy you have to interrogate, like a lover you know is lying about their weekend but won’t ‘fess up. The interrogation is wonderfully hard going and worth every answer it divulges.
The lamb is nuggeted into diamonds of medium-rare joy, which wait patiently, next to a Pythagorean triangulation of potato. But “potato” is to this dish what “Swiss army knife” is to “laser-sword.” The potato wedge is so gentle, so smooth and pure one cannot help but imagine that every ounce of its Andean, human-sacrifice heritage has been lovingly massaged out of it between the thighs of a virgin during a full moon. Where he gets them and how he prepares them is the private mystery of the gods. This is nothing short of an encounter with the sublime. I realize instantly and with devastating melancholy that I will never eat a potato this well prepared again. Crazy asparagus is stacked above it, truffle oil saturating the senses, Blade Runner on the end of a fork.
A tiramisu arrives. It has amnesia and can no longer speak Italian. This tiramisu holds its secrets like a spy you have to interrogate, like a lover you know is lying about their weekend but won’t ‘fess up. The interrogation is wonderfully hard going and worth every answer it divulges. You know there’s booze in there somewhere, but it just won’t tell you what it’s been drinking. You know there’s mascarpone giving it muscle, but you never feel it push. A solitary chocolate truffle waits quietly over an X of drizzled chocolate sauce and is best left for last–a final transgression and your ultimate undoing. Like a last loving look back at the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah.
We play The Killer’s “Sam’s Town” all the way home. Satisfied. Loaded. Loved up. Stupid and fain with pleasure. The road is still bad, but we’re humming along as the grunt of the real drifts by. Uplifted and amazed, content to get lost on this strange road and damn the consequences. A glorious bead of staggering beauty and perfect joy has been squeezed out of the universe and onto my tongue, and I can die happy and wiser now. The Killers drift out of the window as we wander home, dazed and enchanted…
“We hope you enjoyed your stay,
It’s good to have you with us,
even if it’s just for the day.
Outside the sun is shinin’,
Seems like everything’s far away.
It’s good to have you with us, even if it’s just for the day…”