Is Molecular Gastronomy Burning Bright or Burning Out?

Molecular gastronomy is that culinary confabulation of carrot air foams, nitrogen-blasted pumpkin, spherized kelp, and transparent ravioli. This approach to cooking is as much laboratory work as it is developing flavor. There are very calculated steps in the balance of ingredients to make this sort of magic happen. No denying that the shock and awe factor of these almost 22nd century-like creations draw curious onlookers. There is a lot of hard work needed to bring the science to life.

But is it food?

Does this approach take food to a new place, invent bigger flavors, and offer more dynamic experiences? And is it sustainable?

Is It Too Much of a Novelty?

When dining has become more relaxed than ever, plates have become sharable social events and the feel has become even more laid back. Perhaps the too-much science of molecular gastronomy can be off-putting for those looking for a casual experience. Communal dining is a fit for the Gen Y segment and the older folks are taking a warming to the notion, as well. That can be enough of a distressing factor without knocking the core spenders off of their base with Dr. Who-style food.

Banquet chef at Portage Grill, Audrey Hickman. says, “It's for the hipsters, even though the scientific side is interesting.”

The Cost

Staffing kitchens is more than a headache in the sparsely populated collective of talent. Elevate the cook to scientist and the market gets a lot narrower. It may not make financial sense to embed a kitchen with costly cooks surrounded by a cooking suite of very pricy scientific instruments to produce food that has a slim audience.

The Secret Is in Moderation

Little beads of spherized olive oil are on Amazon. Pipettes are on bars. Fluid gels like agar and methylcellulose are oozing their way into pantries, right there next to the Basmati and balsamic. When mac and cheese, burgers, and falafel are top performers, little encapsulated beads of olive oil on guacamole might just be enough to rile interest without scaring away the paying public. A little pillow of buttermilk foam bobbing about on the clam chowder might suffice to differentiate your soup from the guy down the street, all the while not instilling terror in the more timid diner. Give them something Instagram-worthy but not Yelp-laughable.

Jetsons’ Era Food May Be Too Soon

Pushing the limits of flavor is not only a rite of passage for the inspired cook but also a personal goal. Going for that “wow” factor is something we all savor. Is there a ceiling that shouldn’t (or can’t) be lifted? When spinach comes out looking like shaving cream, perhaps science has gone too far for making dinner look less like food and more like Dr. Bunsen Honeydew meets Anthony Bourdain in a dark alley.

Different for the sake of being different is never really a mantra that works. Michelle Brown, executive pastry chef at Dallas’s Brook Hollow Golf Club puts it succinctly when asked, fad or fizzle: “Mainstreamed.”  

A little of that mainstream scientific approach may be the answer. Dotting a plate here and there with a molecular-inspired flourish may be the solution. No surrendering to the lowest common denominator, just accepting that fettuccine alfredo wins out over transparent ravioli — for now.