In Madrid, Defending Molecular Gastronomy

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I returned to Spain once again this past January. At this year's Madrid Fusion, the one slot everyone was looking forward to was a panel discussion between five food heavyweights. The subject they were trying to tackle had personal meaning to me, because I am invested in the genre they were trying to define: label and defend. It was supposed to be an effort to determine what Molecular Gastronomy was, if it really exists, and if so why are people afraid of it. I was certainly intrigued. Finally, the leading practitioners have a platform to define the style, defend it, and give it meaning and purpose while explaining why it exists.

There was one problem: very little was said about any of those things. Ferran Adria used the example of cocoa production. Holding up a candy bar, he explained that without science, the common chocolate bar would be impossible, Heston Blumenthal used a similar analogy for refined table sugar. I did find Harold McGee's explanation of how the term Molecular Gastronomy was originally coined interesting, and the history of the first meeting based on the subject in Italy circa 1992 was a good nugget of information to have.

It seems difficult for us to move past the basic defense of science in cooking and onto the meatier subject of what this style of cuisine is all about.

I am certainly not blaming the panel members for my own disappointment. It is very difficult to articulate clear and definitive thoughts when the dynamic involves five people speaking three different languages. But strangely, it also seems difficult for us to move past the basic defense of science in cooking, and onto the meatier subject of what this style of cuisine is all about.

I've gotten mired in this conversation before. A few months ago, I participated in a panel discussion with a magazine editor and a recreational food scientist. We were supposed to talk about the future of food -- but we got stuck talking about the natural relationship between science and cooking instead.

After it was over I wondered why they were talking about this anyway. Does it really matter? When I told an industry friend about the discussion he said, "They are still talking about that?" It made me realize this horse has been beaten down...and down, and down. Science is an integral part of cooking. What we (the so-called "molecular gastronomists") are doing is about far more than science; it's about crafting an experience, about creativity, and about change.

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Grant Achatz is chef and owner of Chicago's Alinea. He grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with restaurateurs as parents and grandparents. More

Born in Michigan in 1974, Grant Achatz grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with his parents and grandparents being restaurateurs. Naturally curious and always driven, he could be found in the kitchen by his twelfth birthday and over the coming years spent most of his free time there, learning and developing the very skills that would allow him to become one of the foremost innovators in the field. Early on he realized he wanted to become a chef, and upon graduating from high school, he immediately enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. Excelling at the CIA, Achatz graduated and ascended the culinary ladder at several prestigious restaurants, including the acclaimed French Laundry in Napa Valley. Achatz worked closely with owner Thomas Keller, and thrived in his highly creative, dedicated environment. After two years, he became Keller's Sous Chef. In a decisive move to broaden his knowledge and experience, Achatz accepted a position as Assistant Winemaker at La Jota Vineyards after four years at The French Laundry. Then in 2001, he returned to the Midwest when he accepted the Executive Chef position at the four-star Trio in Evanston, Illinois. Achatz flourished at Trio, garnering accolades including being named the James Beard Foundation's 2003 Rising Star Chef in America and one of ten "Best New Chefs in America" by Food & Wine in 2002. Under Achatz's lead, Trio received four stars from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine and was honored with five stars from the celebrated Mobil Travel Guide in 2004. Known worldwide in culinary circles as one of the leaders in progressive cuisine, Achatz realized a lifelong dream by opening Alinea in Chicago in May 2005. From day one, Achatz and Alinea received extraordinary attention and unprecedented accolades. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine both awarded the restaurant four stars within months of opening, and the James Beard Foundation nominated Alinea as the Best New Restaurant in America within a year. In September 2005, The New York Times identified Achatz as the "next great American chef." In October a year later, Alinea received the coveted Five Diamond Award from AAA, and Ruth Reichl of Gourmet magazine declared Alinea the "Best Restaurant in America," an honor bestowed only once every five years. Under Achatz's leadership, Alinea continues to receive worldwide attention for its hypermodern, emotional approach to dining. In both 2007 and 2008, Alinea was named one of "The S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants" published by Restaurant magazine, and Achatz himself received the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef in America award, the culinary equivalent of an Oscar, in 2008. Achatz has appeared on the Today show, CBS Sunday Morning, the Food Network, the Discovery Channel, and PBS, and has been featured in dozens of periodicals across the US and the globe including countries as far away as Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, the Philippines, and France.
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