The molecular gastronomy

What is molecular gastronomy? Who are its main proponents? Is it simply a fad or new culinary movement

The molecular gastronomy term appeared in 1988 presented by a scientist Hungarian physicist Professor Nicholas Kurti and French physical chemist Hervé This. Molecular gastronomy embraces science about food.

It is a scientific investigation on food with new technological equipment and use of natural gums and hydrocolloids. The chefs use modern thickeners, sugar substitutes, enzymes, liquid nitrogen; cooking methods such as sous vide, gastrovac (a vacuum chamber), dehydration; a hold-o-mat (an accurate low-temperature oven) and cryogenics; tools as centrifuges, desiccators.

There is no general definition what molecular gastronomy means. Let’s have a look at few definitions:

  • The application of scientific principles to the understanding and improvement of domestic and gastronomic food preparation. (Peter Barham)
  • The art and science of choosing, preparing and eating good food. (Thorvald Pedersen)
  • The scientific study of deliciousness. (Harold McGee)

Herve This stated that the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ is misinterpreted and misused by media. The top three chefs by the British magazine Restaurant: Ferran Adria from El Bulli in Rosas; Spain, Heston Blumenthal from the Fat Duck in Bray, UK; and Pierre Gagnaire from restaurant in Paris, France, are usually associated with molecular gastronomy. Especially Ferran Adria is considered a father of it. However, these chefs are not very keen on this term and they made a general statement:

“We embrace innovation: new ingredients, appliances, information, techniques and ideas; whatever can make a real contribution to our cooking. But we do not pursue novelty for its own sake. It is, after all, just cooking.” (Heston Blumenthal, 2006).

They think that molecular gastronomy is a new approach to cooking. And Heston Blumenthal is concerned that “the danger is that technology overtakes the value of the dish”. He worried that ‘someone’s going to do something really stupid and then everyone will point’ to him and say that it’s all his fault.

A science about food helps to understand how to cook healthy and nutritious food, how to make it more attractive. The cooking tools remained the same through the many centuries but educational programmes cannot rely on traditional recipes because cooking products, ingredients and methods changed over time. If cooking would be explored scientifically, the educational health programmes would benefit from it.

The scientific exploration of cooking helps chefs to create a new dishes and inventions. All sciences: chemistry, physics, biology, history and sociology are important in cooking. To surprise and delight his customers with exciting, tasty and healthy food is the main objective for all chefs. According to Herve This (2006), ‘a dish can be cooked perfectly, but if it is not presented in an appealing way, all the art and science will mean little to the customer or guest’. The science about food could help to feed the world’s population creating and developing genetically modified food.

Nevertheless, some chefs think that molecular gastronomy is ridiculous. Catalan chef, Santi Santamaría, thinks that those using chemicals to experiment with food are just “playing with food.” Jun Tanaka, a British Japanese chef, thinks molecular gastronomy has acquired a poor reputation. “To do it properly, you have to understand the science behind the food.”

For example, Ferran Adria has been attacked by critics who claim his food is pretentious, elitist and even poisonous in its use of colourants, gelling agents and emulsifiers. Nevertheless, this form of cookery is very expensive, demands high quality ingredients and intensive manpower. The diners raise ethical questions about how the food is produced.

Many chefs think that molecular gastronomy term will die in future or will be changed into avant garde cuisine as it is only a fancy name and doesn’t describe their cooking. Chefs cook and do not analyse molecules or their movement. Some dishes that are creative, push boundaries of texture, or out-of-the ordinary get the label of molecular gastronomy. For example, fake caviar made from sodium alginate and calcium, burning sherbets, spaghetti made from vegetables.

It is a question of time when molecular gastronomy term will disappear. Many chefs think that molecular gastronomy is just a fancy name which was created to attract investors and it doesn’t describe their cooking. Chefs cook and don’t analyse molecules and their movement.

‘Molecular cuisine’ does not exist, the term means nothing. I have been explaining this for the past five years but the media continues to insist, Adria said in the interview. Ferran Adria is going to close his ElBulli restaurant next year and open a non-profit foundation from 2014. The private foundation will grant between 20 -25 scholarships annually for chefs and other industry professionals who will be interested in food science or ‘contemporary cuisine’.

Is it ethical to experiment with food using chemicals ingredients having in mind that the poorest countries suffer from malnutrition?

Do chefs need food science knowledge about food if their want to be excellent in their cooking?

Bibliography

  1. AFP (2010) World’s top restaurant to become a foundation [online] Available at: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5h-DCnRuKjNnpEejrHh6Dicn9L10w Accessed on 22/02/2010
  2. Arnold, D. (2009) Molecular Gastronomy is just a long four – letter word [online] Available at: http://cookingissues.wordpress.com/2009/06/01/molecular-gastronomy-is-just-a-long-four-letter-word/ Accessed at 21/02/2010
  3. Callaway, E. (2009) Science is vital ingredient at world’s best restaurant [online] Available at: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16811-why-science-is-elbullis-vital-ingredient.html?full=true# Accessed on 22/02/2010
  4. Caterer and hotelkeeper (2010) Molecular gastronomy and beyond [online] Available at: http://www.caterersearch.com/Articles/2010/02/12/332183/molecular-gastronomy-and-beyond.html Accessed on 16/02/2010
  5. Cousins, J. & O’Gorman, K. & Stierand, M (2009) Molecular gastronomy: cuisine innovation or modern day alchemy? [online] Available at: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/Insight/viewPDF.jsp?contentType=Article&Filename=html/Output/Published/EmeraldFullTextArticle/Pdf/ijchm-feb-2009-0010_rtc_cl_final.pdf Accessed on 24/02/2010
  6. Edgecumbe, L. (2010) Turning point: El Bulli’s closure not the end of molecular gastronomy [online] Available at: http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100131/LIFE/701309986/1196 Accessed on 16/02/2010
  7. Espinoza, J, (2010) The state of molecular Gastronomy [online] Available at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB126532946414240915.html?mod=WSJ_World_MIDDLENews Accessed on 16/02/2010
  8. Herve This (2006) Food for tomorrow? How the scientific discipline of molecular gastronomy could change the way we eat [online] Available at: http://www.nature.com/embor/journal/v7/n11/full/7400850.html Accessed on 16/02/2010
  9. Highfield, R. (2009) An adventure in molecular gastronomy [online] Available at: http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2009/03/an-adventure-into-molecular-ga.html Accessed on 22/02/2010
  10. Pierce, J.(2008) Food careers, glorious food careers [online] Available at: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19826582.000-food-glorious-food.html Accessed on 22/02/2010
  11. The Observer (2010) ‘Molecular Gastronomy is dead’. Heston speaks out [online] Available at: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/foodmonthly/futureoffood/story/0,,1969722,00.html Accessed on 16/02/2010

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