What is Molecular Gastronomy?

Molecular Gastronomy is a term that I like to bring up in conversation, not only because it makes me feel like a sophisticated intellectual, but because the concept is so fascinating and instantly captivates the kid in all of us. A clear pumpkin pie, an edible helium balloon, or a strawberry that tastes like a tomato and explodes in your mouth. If you’re thinking that it all sounds like some crazy Willy Wonka shit, you’re not wrong, but it’s also guaranteed to have peaked your interest and that’s the beauty of molecular gastronomy.

By definition, molecular gastronomy is “a subdiscipline of food science that seeks to investigate the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur in cooking”, or more simply put, food science. These chefs study the scientific process behind food and drinks, and look to transform ingredients in various ways, creating what is known as experiential or modern cuisine.

This experimental method of culinary artistry might be misconceived as a Frankenstein-like meal; unhealthy, synthetic and unnatural. Chefs also rely on liquid nitrogen, syringes, test tubes and have a mad scientist’s lab for a kitchen, but all the food they produce is in biological form. Through the use of water baths, extremely high and low temperatures, or extracting flavours and vapors, they are able to change the physical state of a food and turn run of the mill dishes into masterpieces.

I had heard of molecular gastronomy but became captivated by it after watching the award-winning documentary Spinning Plates, that showcased the story of Chicago chef Grant Achatz. His overwhelming curiosity and drive to push boundaries led him to open the three-time Michelin star winning restaurant, Alinea – known as one of the best restaurants in the world. Some of his signature dishes include edible dessert canvases painted in front of guests, floating apple balloons, or even a salad that’s served while still growing in the dirt. Everything is designed to challenge your thoughts, create a sense of adventure and provide the most over the top experience.

My first venture into the world of food science was at the infamous Chicago gem, Schwa (please note that Chicago has the MG game on lock). The entire place has a fuck-fine dining approach, with spray-painted black walls and a tiny twenty-six-seater dining room. Schwa head chef Michael Carlson wanted to create a space that combined innovative fine dining techniques and cooking, but threw the traditional fine dining experience out the window. He succeeded. The music is a mash-up of hip-hop, rock and roll, or rap. There are no servers and your fourteen-course meal is served over four hours by the chefs that cook it. It’s also BYOB, meaning the guests bring the booze and everyone share what the chefs feel like pouring. The food experience is unlike any other, with black truffle exploding ravioli, bone marrow crème brulee, and a palate cleanser served in a test tube with a scoop full of detergent on the side. Giving the middle finger to pretentiousness while enjoying a Michelin star meal was a millennial dream.

So, molecular gastronomy might seem a little uncomfortable and  mind bending, but embrace the discomfort and try something new. Life for me was never the same after dining at Schwa, so I highly recommend challenging yourself and your tastebuds.  A multi-sensory food experience awaits!

Words by Jessica Dennis

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