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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Richard Blais' Knife's Edge: Droppin' science


I'm not a molecular gastronomist.

I'm not even sure what one of those looks like. I know there are a few amazingly talented scientists who apply their knowledge to food. They certainly may be molecular gastronomists.

But I'm not one. Except that I am.

Because every once in a while during an interview, or while communicating with the media, I have no choice but to acknowledge the title being applied to my cuisine.

Now, I could spend two of the three minutes I have explaining that what I do isn't necessarily molecular gastronomy. I could recount how I failed chemistry twice in high school (I just wasn’t applying myself). Or I could argue that many of these techniques have been in existence for a long time. Did you know Taillevent was making liquid nitrogen ice cream in the ’70s? That cooking sous vide was discovered in the late 18th century? I found a recipe for faux caviar in a junior high chemistry lab workbook from the ’80s. But that wouldn’t help. Turns out, chefs have been "molecular gastronomists" way before the now fashionable title tipped into mass culture.

It's a lot like rap music.

Follow me now.

I'm as ambivalent about the word "rap" as I am the term "molecular gastronomy." See, before I had an immersion circulator, a smoking gun, or hydrocolloids, I had turntables, a milk crate of old records, a four-track mixer in my basement “studio,” and a high top fade with the Nike swoosh shaved in it. Honest. I was Eminem, before Eminem was. In theory…

Rap, much like the term molecular gastronomy, was just a title that the media used because it was tough to describe what MCs were doing. They were "rapping" about their inspiration, their lives, etc. But what was really happening was a paradigm shift. One where kids from the street were expressing themselves in an artistic way. Rap was just the descriptor. But it was also apparent in graffiti, break dancing, fashion, sport. All of those combined were a culture called hip-hop.

In the cooking world, molecular gastronomy, as a word = rap. Creative cooking = hip-hop.

It's usually the media, not necessarily the artists, that put a title to the art.

And rappers (see how quickly that happens?) do the same, I guess. At the end of the day, who has the time to reverse the spin of the pop culture media machine? Especially in only a few minutes.

The artists don’t care. Because it’s only a name being painted on with a broad brush for the sake of a trend.

And because molecular gastronomy is a “trend,” now come the popular pronouncements that predict its demise. Or the wave of bloggers and journalists — hell, even other chefs — who deem it the evil enemy of cuisine. But they can announce the end of an era all they want. Chefs will still tinker with ingredients and technology to make their food better. Just like kids in the Bronx or Queensbridge still found a way to plug in speakers and amps and have a party in the early age of hip-hop.

Creativity and science will never go out of style.

Hip-hop music became a little less interesting in my opinion when rappers and groups had to clear samples. When they faced legal restrictions and financial repercussion for paying tribute to older artists by borrowing bits and pieces of their work and using it in hip-hop songs. Even withstanding that, the music survives. Flourishes.

It's a good thing for the hip-hop food movement that borrowing bits and pieces of classic cuisine isn't illegal.

Escoffier’s counsel isn't likely to send you a letter for having a sauce Espagnole that's a little too close to the original. And it's quite all right to do a cover of Joel Robuchon’s famous mashed potato. A recipe that he, I’m sure, developed from a former classic. He took that classic and applied a modern tool, a tamis sieve, to make an ethereal purée.

Today, you might cook his recipe sous vide to control the starchiness of the potato and then whip them in an iSi cream whipper charged with nitrous oxide to create an even more ethereal "pommes Robuchon."

You make something neat when you blend tradition, like an old song, and cut it up on two turntables, looping it a few different ways on a four-track mixer.

Molecular gastronomy, or molecular cuisine as you have it, is certainly one part applied science. But it's also one part hip-hop. And that's the part that will never fade.

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