Mr. Wizard Meets the Locavore

eat_local_challengeEat Local.

That’s the rallying cry I hear these days. Maybe it’s because I live a stone’s throw from Berkeley, mecca of Slow Food. Maybe it’s because my Southern California college cafeteria prided itself in serving scraggly but delicious apples and tender stalks of asparagus from local farmers. Maybe it’s because Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food makes me want to grow my own food like my Neolithic ancestors or, at the very least, my great-grandmother. Of course I want to eat local: it’s healthier for me, good for the environment and supports the local economy. Eat local, eat what’s in season, eat what’s natural. Don’t tamper with your food — let its own flavors shine through.

When I read Denver food critic Jason Sheehan’s article “Mr. Wizard,” I was surprised to learn that not everyone is obsessed with eating locally grown and natural food. In fact, a whole crop of molecular gastronomists study the science of how of food behaves under certain conditions and then manipulates food with chemicals and extreme temperatures to create new forms of food. Ian Kleinman, the “Mr. Wizard” of O’s Steak & Seafood at the Westin Westminster, CO, is one such chef.

Whether Kleinman is flash-freezing crème anglaise around a blackberry, creating grape caviar by squeezing drops of grape juice into calcium chloride or coaxing balsamic vinegar into a stiff, peaked foam with a blowtorch, he is constantly transforming (transmuting?) the familiar into the unfamiliar.  If Alton Brown explains the rules of food science, then Ian Kleinman pushes the rules to their limits.  

My immediate reaction to molecular gastronomy is “No! No! No! This is so unnatural! This can’t be healthy! Isn’t everyone on the eat-local, eat-natural bandwagon?”

No, apparently not. What also disconcerted me about molecular gastronomy is how different the mindset is than the eat-natural philosophy. With the eat-natural philosophy, there is no need to change the texture or form of good quality food. The pleasure in eating foods naturally is derived from celebrating the food in its original form. In molecular gastronomy, however, the chef tinkers with the food’s very essence to create something unnatural, a cuisine nouveau.     

I’ll be honest: I’m skeptical about molecular gastronomy. Then again, I have never read the book Molecular Gastronomy, and I’ve never eaten a molecular gastronomy creation, but reading Sheehan’s “Mr. Wizard” opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about and preparing food. I’m not about to run out and buy a molecular gastronomy starter kit and test out this cuisine, but if you do, let me know. I’d love to try your creations and formulate an experience-based opinion on molecular gastronomy.        


Virtual Points of Interest:

***Chowhound’s 10-point cheat sheet to molecular gastronomy. 

*** Jason Sheehan’s article, “Mr. Wizard” (page 157ff).

*** Ian Kleinman’s blog

*** Molecular Gastronomy starter kit (complete with Calcium Chloride, Sodium Alginate and Sodium Citrate).

2 Thoughts on “Mr. Wizard Meets the Locavore

  1. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Indeed, most of the pioneers of molecular gastronomy are also extremely picky about their sourcing. Heston Blumenthal, for example, goes to great lengths to find the finest suppliers for his restaurant, The Fat Duck – and it pays off in spades.

    Personally, I love my totally traceable pork belly, from pigs I’ve actually met. And I like it even more when I cook it at 83 degrees in a sous-vide cooker, bringing out all the wonderful flavours of the meat and the fat, softening it and mellowing it into an amazingly rich, luxurious experience.

  2. andrealein on January 27, 2009 at 11:04 AM said:

    Hugh, that is a very good point that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. It certainly makes sense that the ingredients one uses in molecular gastronomy can be natural and from local sources.

    The first time I heard of this style of cooking was last week, and my initial impression was, “hey…isn’t this awfully close to processing food too much?” I suppose better questions to ask would be, “What is it about processed food that is unhealthy and unnatural? How do the processes used in molecular gastronomy actually change the food, and do these changes affect the nutritional benefits of the food?”

    If molecular gastronomy is cooking pork belly in a sous-vide at 83 degrees, then maybe it’s not quite the monster I thought it was. Be it a monster, an angel or just something new of which I’m still skeptical, the subject of molecular gastronomy demands more research on my part.

    Thank you, Hugh, for bringing these things to my attention, and if I ever make it back to the UK, I’ll have to drop by The Fat Duck.

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