Haute-tech: How Science and Design are Opening up New Culinary Frontiers

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Innovations in science and technology are launching food into a sci-fi future. Today, thanks to the efforts of British chef Heston Blumenthal, for example, astronauts can not only enjoy a bacon sandwich in space—it will actually taste like a real bacon sandwich.

The market for Blumenthal’s space food is currently limited—indeed, it has only had one customer, the British astronaut Tim Peake. But the science involved in making it is just part of a wider “molecular gastronomy” movement, whose extraordinary innovations continue to tumble from the highest levels of haute cuisine into kitchens back here on Earth. In ten years’ time, we might all be wondering how we ever got by without an ultrasonic processor, capable of making egg-free mayonnaise in two seconds.

British Astronaut Tim Peakes – Photo courtesy of the European Space Agency (ESA)

The combination of innovation with modern diners’ increasingly sophisticated tastes has driven the pursuit of technical mastery in the kitchen to new levels. Advances in culinary science and technology allow chefs to achieve a new understanding of what makes food delicious, inspiring dishes that aren’t simply good, but sublime in ways that would astound their predecessors.

The pièce montée, or the start of architectural cuisine

Take Arthur Fèvre’s Bûche de Noël, created in 2016. The young pastry chef of InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hôtel recreated in meticulous details the 18th century neoclassical buildings of Bordeaux’s landmark Place de la Bourse. Fèvre’s creation was the bûche to end all bûches—more an architect’s meticulous scale model than a mere Christmas cake.

Fèvre’s work represented the pinnacle of a long artistic tradition in French gastronomy. His most celebrated precursor is Antonin Carême, who worked for Talleyrand, Napoléon’s chief diplomat. Carême initially made his name as a pastry chef who created staggeringly elaborate pièces montées—elaborate edible sculptures of spun sugar, nougat and meringue in the shape of Gothic pavilions perched on rocky outcrops, crumbling classical ruins and Chinese Pagodas.

But while Carême’s Chinese Pagoda was prized for its visual showmanship, today the theatrical presentation is merely the start. For chefs like Fèvre, their work must also innovate and deliver on flavour.

The idea of using science to discover what makes food taste good originated at a conference in Erice, in Italy, in 1992. Organised by scientists and gourmets, it sought to explore the “Physical and Molecular Aspects of Gastronomy”.

The rise of molecular gastronomy: Ferran Adrià & Heston Blumenthal

“About 30 people came,” recalls Peter Barham, professor of physics at Bristol University, a collaborator of Heston Blumenthal and a central figure in the movement. Two pioneering chefs in particular became associated with it: Ferran Adrià, of the fabled restaurant El Bulli in Spain (which he closed, at the peak of its success, in 2011) and Blumenthal of The Fat Duck in England. Both rapidly established a reputation for beguiling dishes that looked like one thing but tasted like something else entirely.

Adrià used the possibilities of science and technology to play tricks on his diners, deconstructing classics like a Spanish tortilla and reconstructing it as layers of potato foam, onion purée and egg white sabayon, topped with deep fried potato crumbs and served in a sherry glass. Heston Blumenthal’s famous dishes include such Willie Wonkeresque delights as edible cutlery, ice cream ‘pork pies’ and lickable wallpaper.

Savoury ice creams are one of the surprising examples of molecular gastronomy

But while in the hands of Blumenthal or Adrià such tricks delight and beguile, problems can occur when lesser chefs have a go. “Sometimes it’s a bit of a case of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” grumbles Marc Bretillot, founder of a pioneering postgraduate culinary design course at the University of Reims.

He has little patience for food that is all show and no substance—the modern equivalents of Gothic pavilions spun from sugar. Perhaps for this reason, many chefs are now quick to distance themselves from the “molecular gastronomy” moniker, preferring instead to talk of avant-garde or techno-cuisine.

Into the age of techno-cuisine

The new titles might be more appropriate: as Barham points out, culinary science now extends to fields like psychology and neuroscience. “We have a pretty good understanding of chemistry and physics in the kitchen,” says Barham. “What is not so well understood is what happens when you put food on a plate.”

Studies have shown, for example, the importance of sound. In noisy environments it’s harder to taste sweet, salty or sour flavours, while your sensitivity to savoury ‘umami’ food is enhanced. “More Bloody Marys are consumed on airplanes than any other drink,” Barham points out, mainly because, “it’s rich in umami, and therefore the only drink you can appreciate through all the white noise.” High-pitched music, like a tinkling harp, on the other hand, will make food seem sweeter. A study in Australia even found that diners will chew in time to a beat, a discovery some restaurateurs are using to get diners to eat their meals faster.

Avant-garde mixologists create drinks in line with the surroundings – music being one factor – Photo: InterContinental Geneva

Other cues can have a dramatic affect on how food tastes. Blindfold someone and hold their nose, Barham says, then feed them carrot purée and pea purée. They won’t be able to tell the difference, let alone tell you whether they’re eating vegetables or fruit.

These days, Heston Blumenthal is so convinced of the importance of science and technology in the kitchen that he has his own laboratory which is, as Barham puts it, “taking over Bray”—the Berkshire home of Blumenthal’s three-Michelin-starred The Fat Duck. It’s a serious lab, collaborating with universities on leading-edge research. Blumenthal, himself a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, employs staff who are scientists by training and cooks by passion; one has a degree in biochemistry, another is doing a chemistry PhD.

In addition to Chefs, some of the world’s best cooking schools and Universities have opened research centres, pushing the boundaries of what we know about the culinary arts. France’s Institut Paul Bocuse, founded by the illustrious French Chef, started to study the neurobiology of eating years ago.

As far as Barham is concerned, “molecular gastronomy”—or whatever you call it—is here to stay. While every chef’s approach is different, the possibilities science andtechnology bring can no longer be ignored. For proof, he cites the case of a small family-owned company outside Bristol that for decades manufactured laboratory equipment for hospitals. After Blumenthal started buying sous-vide machines from them, for cooking vacuum-sealed food to a very precise temperature, their business exploded. They now supply centrifuge machines and other equipment to the world’s leading restaurants.

Where to draw the line: oui to 3D-printed éclairs?

As always, behind the technological utopia lurks a dystopian shadow. “There is the question of virtuosity and technology,” Bretillot says. “When 3D printing can be better than what you do by hand, how do you give value to the handmade?” One response is that technology is only a tool; it still takes creative inspiration to know how to juggle flavours and textures, and research and development behind every signature dish.

And even if the science is cutting-edge and the artisanship of the highest standards, it’s also more accessible. This incredible food that has never looked or tasted better is democratic: able to be enjoyed by more than just the powerful rulers of the past. As Bretillot puts it: “For seven euros you can go into a pâtisserie and buy a cake that is essentially a piece of hand-made couture. I can’t think of any other domain in which luxury is so accessible.”

For some of the best tech-infused pastries, start with the newest takes on Oriental delicacies in Istanbul’s Ortakoy – our Concierges will know where to go – before heading west to the up-and-coming culinary scene of Berlin – starting with Michelin-star Hugo at InterContinental Berlin – and end in Bordeaux for a taste of Arthur Fèvre’s creations at InterContinental Bordeaux.

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