In Madrid, Defending Molecular Gastronomy

By Grant Achatz
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Photo by SlickFilms/Flickr CC

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/03/in-madrid-defending-molecular-gastronomy/1522/