In search of culinary perfection

‘Molecular gastronomy’ has been dismissed as a high-end fad, but a new generation of chefs, restaurateurs and culinary writers are popularising the science of cooking

Chef Heston Blumenthal called his television series – in which he scientifically broke down classic recipes to cook an impeccable egg, steak or spaghetti bolognese – In Search Of Perfection. Ferran Adrià, whose elBulli restaurant was for years regarded as the best in the world, also suggests that working with white asparagus is a genuinely scientific process.

Meanwhile, American food writer J Kenji López-Alt has called his new cookery book The Food Lab, and describes himself as a culinary nerd. In 2015, it’s not outlandish to suggest today’s most exciting chefs are using methods more akin to a chemistry class than a kitchen. 

This new breed of writers, chefs and restaurateurs have embraced and democratised such attention to detail in their cooking for a few years now. As long ago as 2006 Blumenthal and Adrià were concerned that those who derided their methods as unrealistic ‘molecular gastronomy’ were actually missing the innovation, excellence and even tradition in their work.

“Even the most straightforward traditional preparation can be strengthened by an understanding of its ingredients and methods, and chemists have been helping cooks for hundreds of years,” they said in an open letter to The Times

Nearly 10 years on, the difference is that this scientific approach is no longer the preserve of high-end restaurants. The subtitle to Lopez-Alt's new book is “better home cooking through science”: the Californian has indeed sat in a lab and worked out the flavour profiles and melting points of cheese so that you don’t have to. His ‘how-to’ for the perfect boiled egg has quickly become legendary (see boxout). 

Blumenthal’s ‘perfect’ runny eggs, however, come off the heat as soon as the water has reached boiling point. When he published his formula in 2014, he was unapologetic. “People say science takes the emotion out of cooking, but if you understand how ingredients work, you have greater control over them,” he wrote. 

Of course, perfection to Blumenthal and Kenji-Lopez is different – and will also vary for those who attempt their recipes. Not everyone wants their boiled eggs runny, or their steak rare. But Blumethal’s assertion that it’s important to understand the properties of ingredients makes sense: do that, and the cook – both amateur and professional – can tailor techniques to meet their own tastes.

These celebrity chefs, indeed, perform the valuable function of popularising the scientific work discussed at events such as this year’s International Conference on Food Science, Nutrition and Technology in Dubai. The conference is academic (and returns to Dubai in 2017). But it does act as a talking shop for innovation and practical challenges in the food science and technology field, which end up being adopted in the commercial sector. 

Whether the conference delegates were treated to the perfect eggs at breakfast is a moot point. But the work of Blumenthal, Kenji-López and Adrià makes it more likely that they did.