Support us with Kachingle!
August 9, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Nine-year-old Dennis Clay is worried his grandmother will notice the missing pinches of bread from the fresh loaf she sent him to fetch.
It’s late afternoon in the town of Limeshain-Hainchen near Altenstadt, Germany, and Dennis is running errands before supper. He positions the uneaten end of the loaf so it peeks above the wrapper and hopes no one will notice.
A breakdown of four of molecular gastronomy’s most popular processes.
Spherification: A flavored liquid is shaped into spheres with a thin gel membrane. The spheres visually and texturally resemble caviar.
Flash freezing: Liquid nitrogen is used to give cold items, such as ice- cream, an ultra-smooth texture.
Foam creation: Foams are made by adding carbon dioxide to cream- like foods, such as whipped cream, meringue and mousse, to create a light-as-air texture.
Meat gluing: Transglutaminases, a family of enzymes, can be used as a bonding agent to improve the texture of protein-rich foods, such as imitation crab meat, surimi (fish balls) or ham.
Twenty-six years later, the fond memories of his grandmother’s kitchen still drive Dennis’ passion for culinary creation. Today, though, the consultant chef at Sake Japanese Bistro uses more than traditional skills. He also uses molecular gastronomy to push the boundaries of the forms food takes.
The artistic license Dennis experiences at Sake allows him to explore alternative cooking approaches that are relatively new to the culinary world. “Once you’ve experimented with different flavors and food combinations, the next stop is finding different textures,” Dennis says.
Molecular gastronomy relies on the manipulation of unseen chemicals in food and experimenting with unknown combinations. Because texture influences how someone experiences food, Dennis says playing with it is the next logical step.
He first learned of a series of specialized techniques after reading food blogs and seeing it again on Bravo’s Top Chef. The show featured a contestant using molecular gastronomy. Fascinated by the idea, Dennis tried to get his hands on as many books as possible to research the subject. What he found was inspiration for new dishes and an added passion for his work.
In 2010, Dennis entered a cooking competition with his younger brother, Ben, and used molecular gastronomy to create a complex dish of scallop mousseline with fennel foam, gnocco fritto (fried dough), salmon roe and “lobster popcorn.” The popcorn was done with dough consisting of tapioca starch and reduced lobster stock, then rolled into a thin sheet, sandwiched between a plastic film and placed into a dehydrator.
Today, Dennis experiments with a postmodern twist on scientific techniques to accentuate his dishes. For him, molecular gastronomy is a play on both texture and taste, but the art is still met with skepticism from clientele and the culinary community. Dennis thinks this is especially true in noncoastal regions of the U.S., such as Columbia.
“Practices in big cities like Los Angeles and New York have a way of making it over here eventually,” Dennis says. “But in the meantime, chefs are wary about molecular gastronomy. It has a stigma of being a trick, of being all smoke and mirrors.”
Dennis says some chefs are hesitant to add dishes that incorporate the science to their menus because they might then be labeled scientists.
“It’s not my cup of tea,” says Ben, who is also a chef. “Dennis has more of a knack for it than I do. I agree that it has its place, but it gets abused.”
But Ben says his brother is not one of the chefs who misapply the art. “Dennis makes sure when he uses it, it’s done right and it serves its purpose.”
Dennis is careful about how his food is received by the community and understands the balance between creativity and repeat business can be fragile. Because Sake has been undergoing staff and managerial changes for the past year, Dennis’ science-inspired dishes are still waiting to be officially added to the menu.
“I’ll continue to experiment in my own time,” Dennis says. “I’m going to push my boundaries as a chef — to try new things, understand new things, and continue to let that shine through in my work.”