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Molecular gastronomy is the fusion of food, art, and science. But how did we go from respectable culinary scientists to exuberant table-side pyrotechnics?

On today's episode, we're talking to author and historian Dr. Harold McGee about the fascinating history of molecular gastronomy. Was it an important part of food history, or an elitist misstep?

Food History is a show all about... well, the history of food. Join host Justin Dodd as he brings you the stories of how your favorite meals ended up on your plate. Today, we're talking molecular gastronomy.

Special thanks to Dr. Harold McGee (author of On Food And Cooking: The Science And Lore Of The Kitchen) for chatting with us for this episode.

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The most iconic dish Spanish chef Ferran Adrià  made at his restaurant El Bulli in Catalonia was deceptively simple: a morsel resembling a  green olive, served on a spoon.

When guests put that sphere in their mouths, it melted into a  liquid explosion of concentrated olive flavor. The dish was a trick of chemistry: Adria added  olive juice—which contains calcium—to alginate.

The substance, typically found in seaweeds, can  rearrange its structure to form strong chains in the presence of certain chemicals. And  when substances containing calcium are submerged in a sodium alginate solution,  a water insoluble, gel-like membrane forms, and the substance maintains a round,  droplet shape in a process known as reverse spherification. When Adria dropped his olive  puree into sodium alginate for a few minutes, what came out were perfect, olive-shaped—and  intensely olive-flavored—quasi-liquid olives.

El Bulli closed in 2011, but the shockwaves  this edible science experiment sent through the food world are still, in some ways, being  felt today. Was molecular gastronomy a necessary culinary breakthrough or an elitist misstep? What  does "molecular gastronomy" even mean?

Isn't all gastronomy made up of, ya know...molecules? Break  out your agar-agar and polish off your centrifuge, because today we're looking at the controversial  beginnings of molecular gastronomy, and even speaking to Dr. Harold McGee about  its surprisingly storied history.

Let’s get started. Hi, I’m Justin Dodd. Welcome to Food History.

Molecular gastronomy is synonymous with modernist cuisine today, but its origins date back  centuries. According to food historian Gilly Lehmann, medieval and renaissance chefs were  scientists, of a sort. They often incorporated contemporary medical beliefs into their dishes and  were known to use the new science around them to contribute to their culinary pyrotechnics.

I’m  not using that last word figuratively. The 15th century manuscript The Vivendier has a well-nigh  unmake-able and almost certainly deadly recipe to, quote, “Make that Chicken Sing when it is dead  and roasted.” It involves stuffing the chicken with sulfur and mercury, heating it, and  then further manipulating the bird so that air escapes and somehow mimics the sound of  a chicken. Ya know, like every diner wants.

In the 17th century French physicist Denis  Papin created what was termed a digester. A diner from the Royal Society, who had gone  to check out the invention, wrote that it made   “the hardest bones of beef itself, and mutton  . . . as soft as cheese.” Papin had invented the ancestor of the modern pressure cooker. In the 1700s, exciting new discoveries from the field of chemistry were applied to the  culinary arts.

French chemist Antoine Baumé invented a method to measure the specific  gravity of liquids now known as the Baumé scale. Specific gravity is also called relative density,  which is a good indication of its meaning: it compares the density of substances to a  reference material—which, when measuring liquids, is usually water. For years, Baumé’s method was an  important tool in many areas of food production, from brewing beer to winemaking.

It’s since been  largely supplanted by the simplified Brix scale, but even today there are vintners who will use  a Baumé measurement to estimate the level of dissolved solids in their grape juice. That gives  them a good idea of the sugar content in the juice and, by extension, the potential alcohol levels in  their finished wine. If we think of winemaking as half art and half science, Baumé helped push  the science part of the equation forward.

Baume is also the namesake for the Baumé egg,  which can be made by submerging a whole egg in alcohol for about a month. Over time, the  ethanol seeps through the pores of the shell and coagulates the egg inside, effectively  cooking it with no heat required. Whether this single egg will get you properly  buzzed, well that’s for you to find out.

Preparing a Baume egg feels closer to modern  molecular gastronomy than simply frying one in a pan, but it's a little bit hard to articulate  why. After all, the change an egg goes through when exposed to heat is a molecular one,  too. For that matter, so is curing meat, fermenting vegetables, and almost  every other form of food preparation humans have been practicing for millennia.

This  makes molecular gastronomy tricky to define. Hervé This is a scientist and magazine editor and  one of the pioneers of the field, as we’ll discuss later in this video. This distinguishes between  molecular cookery and molecular gastronomy.

In his understanding, molecular cookery  involves using new techniques and science to make better food and should be considered an  art, rather than a science. Molecular gastronomy, on the other hand, is the scientific discipline of  understanding cooking. Even This admits, though, that there isn’t any one universally  accepted definition of the term.

When people think of molecular gastronomy, today,  they’re usually thinking of the intersection of food, science, and even theater that was  exemplified at restaurants like El Bulli. And that has its own antecedents in culinary history. French chef and cookbook author Marie-Antoine Carême became famous for experimenting with a  presentation-forward cooking style in the early 19th century.

It didn't feature the chemical  wizardry that's essential to modern molecular gastronomy today, but it did bring together art  and science in the form of edible architecture. Creations he’s credited with, like the choux  pastry puff tower known as croquembouche, were meant to be a feast for  the eyes as well as the palate. Careme constructed other centerpiece  desserts to resemble ancient structures like temples and pyramids.

He summed up his  attitude in one of his cookbooks, writing,   “I want order and taste. A well-displayed meal  is enhanced one hundred percent in my eyes." The haute cuisine pioneered by Carême was  a hit in the dining rooms of the wealthy, but he didn’t intend for his style of cooking  to be exclusive. In the several cookbooks he authored in his lifetime, he shared instructions  for pulling off complicated cooking techniques in a home kitchen.

According to Eater, his  were the first cookbooks to use the phrase   "you can try this for yourself at home.” Carême may have inadvertently laid the groundwork for one strand of what would become molecular  gastronomy, but it would take a long time for the term itself to arise. In 1988, cooking  school instructor Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas and physics professor Ugo Valdrè met in Italy  and agreed on the potential value of a workshop focused on the science of food. At that time,  new scientific advancements in the culinary arts were generally the domain of industrial food  manufacturers; they weren’t viewed as tools for home or restaurant chefs.

The idea sparked  by Cawdry Thomas eventually became the Erice Workshops, which began in Sicily in 1992. This is where the term molecular gastronomy first appeared publicly, according to Dr. Harold  McGee, who eventually became one of the workshop's co-organizers.

The original posters publicizing  the event advertised an “International Workshop on Molecular and Physical Gastronomy,” but the  blend of science and cooking discussed at these conferences was different from the theatrical,  innovative style of fine dining that rose to prominence in the coming years. The purpose was really to understand traditional cooking. The science of foods that have been traditionally prepared in restaurants, and were considered the height of the art of cooking.

As for why the word 'molecular' was chosen in the first place, it was all about timing; molecular biology  was a trendy field in the early 1990s—even people outside the scientific  community were hearing about it. Cawdry Thomas recruited Oxford physicist  Nicholas Kurti to be the workshop’s director. Hervé This also signed on.

Cawdry Thomas’s  contributions didn’t stop at the conception stage. Once the event was up-and-running she led several  workshops, including a blind tasting of tomatoes with various kinds of salts and another blind  tasting comparing foods prepared in a microwave versus conventional cooking methods. Though she  was integral to the endeavor, her role has often been overlooked, with media highlighting  This’s and Kurti’s contributions instead.

We asked Dr. McGee to reflect on why that is. There was the professional hierarchy.

There are professors of physics and then there are cooking school teachers. And the hierarchy back then, and still now I'm sure, was pretty clear. And then also the world of cooking back then, and the world of science back then, were still dominated by men.

There were, to my recollection, no women cooks, no women chefs invited to this meeting. Elizabeth was always there to make things happen. To introduce people to each other.

Just a wonderfully warm, welcoming presence. I think, actually, probably felt more comfortable behind the scenes than on the stage. But that doesn't excuse the fact that all along her contribution was really neglected.

I don't think the workshop would have taken place without her. The goal of that initial workshop was to bring together chefs, writers, and scientists to discuss four areas of interest: what was already understood about the science of = cooking; how a better understanding of science could improve existing cooking methods; the benefits of developing new kinds of cooking techniques and ingredients; and whether approaches used in industrial food processing could be adapted to smaller kitchens. Though these summits are sometimes thought of as the birthplace of modern molecular gastronomy, they weren’t a forum for chefs to brainstorm whimsical dishes for $300 tasting menus.

Rather, the participants were more concerned with the practical applications of science on the broader culinary scene. Around the same time as the Erice workshops, Ferran Adrià was pioneering the foam and eye-dropper style of cooking that’s more commonly thought of as molecular gastronomy today. What we were doing in the Erice meetings was along the same lines, part of the zeitgeist in the culinary world.

Classic French cooking that became standard international hotel cooking. You just followed a book. The Escofie playbook.

In the 1960s in France, along with the Nuveoa Romande, the new novel, the new movies, there was also a movement for the new cooking. Nouveau Cuisine. I see what happened in Spain as kind of the explosive outgrowth of something that really began in the 60s in France.

And in particular with this one guy Ferran Adria who was just, he was the Gaudi of cooking. He just had a completely new way of thinking about things. An approach that would, in the end, really benefit from a scientific understanding of food and cooking.

Which is, I think, why the science of food and cooking, or one of the reasons that the science of food and cooking, became such a general interest. What he had done, was to take an ingredient and completely transform them physically. And that just changes the experience of eating, because you look at a leaf of lettuce, and you know what it's going to taste like, but you look at a green blob, you have no idea until you put it in your mouth.

Those flavored foams—made with whipped cream canisters—were so sensational that they  led to a spate of knockoffs, often perceived to be covering up for sub-par cooking. In  a piece by Jeremy Repanich for Robb Report, the chef Alex Stupak likened the use of  once-daring techniques by lesser chefs to the “ … pyrotechnics at a Kiss concert. Take that  away, take your face paint away and you suck.” Wow.

Shots absolutely fired at Kiss, and at my  high-concept restaurant, Detroit Rock Sous Vide. After taking over El Bulli as head chef,  Adrià launched his own series of culinary workshops centered around developing new menus. The restaurant was open for six months out of the year, and for the other six months, he led his  team of chefs in experimenting with new cooking techniques and translating them into finished  dishes.

This combination of meticulous, empirical experimentation and total artistic freedom  may be at the heart of molecular gastronomy, and it led to El Bulli being named Best  Restaurant in the World by Restaurant Magazine five times throughout the 2000s. At the same time, a new class of chefs were expounding the bounds of cooking in their  own restaurants. At the Fat Duck in Bray, England, British chef Heston Blumenthal—who  actually attended the last two Erice workshops— put a mad scientist spin on haute cuisine.

One of  his influential trademarks was the use of liquid nitrogen in cooking. With a boiling point of -321  degrees Fahrenheit, the substance allows chefs to bring ingredients to freezing cold temperatures  in seconds. One reason frozen food gets a bad rap is the propensity for ice crystals to form and  disrupt an item’s cellular structure.

The bigger the crystals are, the more the texture of the  food changes. But when food freezes quickly, these crystals are smaller and the structure of  the ingredients remain intact. Blumenthal used this principle when developing Nitro-Poached  Green Tea and Lime Mousse, a palate cleanser served at the Fat Duck, flash-frozen tableside.

American chef Wylie Dufresne is considered another pioneer of molecular gastronomy. At his New  York restaurant wd~50, which closed in 2014, one of the signature dishes was a deconstructed  eggs Benedict. It consisted of sous-vide egg yolks, Canadian bacon wisps, and fried  hollandaise.

That last component was apparently the trickiest to perfect. Dufresne and his team  pulled it off by adding gelatin to the sauce so it could be cut into portions and adding starch  to protect the egg yolks in the hollandaise from high heat, thus preventing them from scrambling. Today, Dufresne's passion for tinkering has taken him in a seemingly different direction, running  his own doughnut shop and pop-up pizzeria here in New York City.

But these humble foods are, in  the end, no less the products of food science than noodles made with methylcellulose—or, indeed,  "pizza pebbles," a deconstructed dish that was once on the menu of wd~50. Dufresne even gave  a lecture at Harvard in 2021 about his quest for pizza dough perfection, touching on  topics like gluten levels, cold fermentation, and manipulating carbon dioxide. Man,  these chefs are so much smarter than I am.

Perhaps the other American chef most commonly  associated with molecular cuisine is Grant Achatz. It’s not hard to see the influence of chemistry  in the menu of his Chicago restaurant Alinea. The famous translucent pumpkin pie is made  by setting concentrated pumpkin pie stock in clear gelatin.

And perhaps even more so  than some of his peers, Achatz celebrates the artistic side of molecular cooking as  well. Like Careme two centuries before him, he prioritizes serving a "well-displayed meal"  that takes heavy inspiration from the art world. A famous dessert course at Alinea is literally  painted onto the table to resemble an abstract art piece.

A different dessert features edible invert  sugar balloons filled with actual helium guests are encouraged to inhale—calling to mind Careme’s  whimsical pastry towers, but cranked up to 11. In a 2021 article for InsideHook, Achatz explains  the emotional part of molecular gastronomy that balances out the cold science,  writing, “I like to say that this style of cooking uses emotions as seasoning:  intimidation, confusion, intrigue, happiness, magic and nostalgia are layered over delicious  food by using newly developed techniques, ideas and equipment to manipulate  the food in unexpected ways.” These chefs are credited with shaping molecular  gastronomy, but they haven’t all embraced the label. Some of them have outright rejected it.

When discussing the phrase, Heston Blumenthal told The Guardian, “Molecular makes it sound  complicated...and gastronomy makes it sound elitist.” Ferran Adrià has expressed similar  sentiments, and instead refers to his style of cooking as “deconstructivist.” Achatz prefers  “progressive American.” Other names that have been tossed around to describe a science-based  approach to fine dining include avant-garde, modernist, and experimental cuisine. I suggested  “funky yummy time” but this was rejected. None of these terms have succeeded in replacing  molecular gastronomy in the cultural lexicon.

Sure, the phrase originated with a workshop  that had nothing to do with liquid olives or sugar balloons, and maybe the word molecular is  both too broad and too specific to describe the cuisine it’s associated with. But it’s apt in its  own way. The futuristic name points to the crucial role science plays in creating deliciousness, and  to the possibilities unlocked by experimentation.

Ingredients are physical and chemical materials, and when we cook we transform them from one state into another. And those transformations are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry. So anytime you cook an egg, you're doing physics and chemistry both.

And the more we understand about what it is we are doing when we cook in the kitchen, the better we can control those processes and come up with the results we want. The label may be a little over-the-top,  but in a fun and sometimes frustrating way, that was the case with much of the food served  at the most innovative restaurants of the 2000s. Thanks for watching Food History, and a  special thanks to Dr.

Harold McGee—getting the chance to hear his thoughts  on this moment in culinary history is one of the coolest things we’ve gotten  to do while making this series so far. If you have an idea for a future episode of  the series, or a bucket list-level food world luminary we should talk to, drop us a suggestion  in the comments below. Thanks for watching!