It’s not just about molecular gastronomy. Kitchens are searching for innovations in old-school cooking techniques too.
This is part of CNET’s “” series about how technology is changing the way you eat.
My teeth pierce the crisp outer shell and sink through a fine layer of honey-infused dough, allowing the creme fraiche with its precious cargo of glossy caviar to spill over my tongue. The little black pearls pop like starbursts between my teeth, each sending a salty hit into the creamy, crispy, fluffy mix.
Chef Eduard Xatruch of Disfrutar in Barcelona likes to call this dish “the best sandwich in the world.” I choose to fondly remember it as a fried pillow of joy sent from heaven to save my tastebuds from yet another plate of patatas bravas.
Cooking this bite-size masterpiece in hot oil while maintaining the freshness of its cool, soft center is no easy feat, but these magic tricks are a big part of what Disfrutar, an experimental Catalonian restaurant filled with natural light, is all about.
It’s fiddly work that’s preceded by months of research in the team’s lab in the basement of the restaurant — all to get the science of it right. It’s also this innovation that earned Disfrutar the accolade of the One to Watch in the World’s Best 50 Restaurants Awards 2017.
Serving up foams and multi-sensory theatrics at the dinner table — sometimes referred to as molecular gastronomy or modernist cuisine — are considered the hallmarks of scientific cooking. That style has fallen out of favor with food critics these days, but just as technology has infused itself into most aspects of our lives, top restaurants are embracing science and innovation in the kitchen in other ways.
You just may not see it.
“The way to think about it is that the techniques have become embedded in many kitchens already (think sous vide), but perhaps chefs are now moving on from drawing attention to the science of cooking and focusing more on the end result,” said Charles Spence, a gastrophysicist (yes, that’s a thing) who runs Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory.
Restaurant-goers might therefore need to look beyond what is served to see the science at work, because in some cases in can be more than just a dish — it can be a whole new ethos of running a restaurant.
Waste not, want not
When it comes to science in cooking, one area that is seeing innovative leaps is how restaurants handle waste, according to Adam Coghlan, UK editor of Eater. “Food waste and sustainability is absolutely rightly becoming much less avoidable for chefs than it perhaps once was,” he said.
Doug McMaster is best known for pioneering no-waste cooking at Silo in Brighton, an English seaside resort town about a two-hour drive south of London. McMaster is taking that concept to his new project, Cub, in London. It’s a joint effort with his friend Ryan Chetiyawardana, also known as Mr Lyan, the man responsible for Dandylyan, which won the World’s Best Cocktail Bar 2017 in the 11th annual Spirited Awards — a sort of Oscars for the drinks industry.
In the entrance to Silo, McMaster told me, he has a vast stainless top-of-the-range composting machine. He calls it “the biggest oxymoron,” because there’s usually nothing to put in it due to his approach of using every bit of a product. “It’s only waste if you don’t know what to do with,” he said. “But we do know what to do with it, so it’s not.”
A similar approach to cooking is being taken at Cub, except using up byproducts from ingredients will also be carried over into drinks, which will be carefully matched with the dishes. For one drink, McMaster pickles rose petals that fall in a local florist’s shop and mixes the leftover pickle juice with run-off liquid from the sourdough bread he makes (milling his own flour, of course).
The pair have had plenty of experience doing this having previously worked on a project that involved making wine without using grapes. So what did they use?
“Everything else,” said Chetiyawardana. They matched the flavor profiles of wines they liked to other ingredients like rehydrated jams, dried fruits, herbs and spices and attempted to re-create them.
Flavor profiling — the breaking down of flavors into their component parts to better understand how they taste — is a science they will continue to use at Cub to find innovative ways to use up foodstuffs that would normally be waste. In charge of this is their third partner in the project, Arielle Johnson, a fellow at MIT Media Lab and formerly the head of research at Rene Redzepi’s MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, an annual gathering of chefs, farmers and academics.
For the trio, it’s about going back to the drawing board and taking another look at ingredients and ways of cooking that might have fallen out of favor, and using modern flavor profiling to suggest ways in which they might delight the tastebuds.
Extracting tech from technique
At Disfrutar, the end goal is the same, but the emphasis is more on developing new techniques. I watch as sous chef Nil Dulcet squirts creamed corn into spherifying gel, bringing it back to life as corn kernels and reassembling them into a corn ear. When I try it, there’s all the taste of corn, but with all the texture of silk.
The chefs at Disfrutar have pioneered this technique, called “multispherification,” which allows the spherified balls to cling together when set.
“For us, this is the best of creativity, to be able to make new things and new concepts,” said Xatruch. “When you make one technique or one concept you can [use it to] make hundreds of different dishes.”
But while their techniques might be avant garde, their tools are not. Setting up a new restaurant gave the chefs free reign to install whatever equipment they liked, but inside the kitchen there was no sous vide or 3D food printer in sight. Xatruch insists that to be creative you only need your hands, not “strange machines.”
The only tech that stands out is a cheap pressure cooker purchased on a research trip to South Korea, which helps them ferment ingredients. They are no different than the machines used in Asian households for years. It’s what they’re putting in them — simple, but nontraditional ingredients like cauliflower, for example — that are different.
The embrace of techniques like fermentation and other “more primitive styles of cooking” are for Coghlan where exciting change is occurring in the restaurant industry. He sees innovation as “the reclaiming of old practices that went out of fashion, rather than introducing new technology that’s in fashion.”
Science and tech are central to one hot trend: creating vegetarian dishes that would satisfy even the most meat-inclined omnivores.
The immense popularity of the veggie-friendly, lab-grown Impossible Burger is proof that the consumption of an alternative protein source can become a bucket-list dining experience. Perhaps we’re not all dining out on crickets just yet, but edible insects are certainly making the restaurant scene more interesting for those keen to cut down on meat.
“Restaurants will become more creative and innovative as more is known and explored in this area of food science,” said Coghlan. “The price of meat is rocketing and it just becomes unsustainable for restaurants to carry on buying meat and serving meat at an affordable price.”
The movement toward better sustainability has its roots in nose-to-tail cooking — where every part of an animal is used on a menu — but is now becoming more radical by moving away from meat altogether.
Cub, which has an almost entirely meat-free menu, will only use animal products if they fit within its ethos by deriving from organic food systems rather than industrial farming. At launch, it has no meat dishes on its menu, which was a conscious decision, McMaster said. “I feel like it’s a responsibility of ours to do the right thing.”
As for the customers, they don’t seem to mind or even notice.
“It wasn’t until the end that we realized we had had no meat or fish,” wrote a reviewer for London lifestyle site the Handbook about the restaurant.
For Coghlan, science is a means to an end, a way for some chefs to be creative in the kitchen. “It’s those things that matter more than what gel you use to spherify an olive,” he said.
Science may have fallen out of fashion, but many top restaurants continue to make it work for them with creative approaches. For Disfrutar, it resulted not only in the aforementioned accolade, but a Michelin star and rave reviews from critics. (According to The Times it is “currently the best restaurant in Barcelona.”)
Crucially, science isn’t the only thing the restaurant does well — it fulfils its basic mission: Disfrutar is Spanish for “to enjoy,” and enjoyable it definitely is.