Chef Michael Cutney of The Twisted Oak.
Do you remember the height of molecular gastronomy in the first years of the millennium? If you had money—and were any type of self-respecting foodie—you campaigned for a slot at El Bulli in Spain. Then you made your pricey pilgrimage, perhaps stopping at Arzak and Restaurante Martín Berasategui. But, if your funds were more limited, you ducked into Manhattan’s wd-50 for a tasting menu by Chef Wylie Dufresne. There, sipping an odd progression of Madeira, sake, and stout, you’d marvel at course after course of conceptual cuisine that featured fried mayonnaise cubes and dehydrated “soils.” Juices were “spherified” into tiny, caviar-like bubbles, while waiters squirted bouncy, slurp-able noodles into broth from a medicine dropper. The point of the meal was not to enjoy visceral, sensual food that your body might crave upon the mere memory. Instead, it was about having a trippy, mind-bending experience that challenged your notions of cookery and food.
It was fun while it lasted, but the restaurant world is faddish. Once lesser restaurants dipped into the world of molecular gastronomy, there was a backlash at the top. Nowadays, restaurants are far more interested in engaging your soul (or your libido) than your mind, but those heady years of hi-tech potions and powders did not all go to waste. Chef Michael Cutney, owner of The Twisted Oak in Tarrytown, notes that, “nowadays, we’re reverting to old-school techniques, but we’re including some of the tools of molecular gastronomy where it makes sense. In precision cooking, for instance—things like Cryovac machines, pressure cookers, and immersion circulators mean that we can execute a dish perfectly every time, no matter who is cooking it.”
People don’t realize, he says, “that brining the drier meats—say, pork or chicken—creates sort of an illusion of juiciness. The moisture in brined meat isn’t coming from the meat; it’s coming from the brine. In reality, the only way to keep a piece of meat perfectly moist is to cook it with absolute precision. That’s where a Cryovac machine and an immersion circulator step in. Plus, with a Cryovac machine, we can infuse flavors into foods very quickly. There’s sous-vide cooking [in which a Cryovaced package of food is cooked in an immersion circulator in a thermostatically controlled water bath], but the Cryovac machine also works all by itself. Using a Cryovac machine, you can make pickles within an hour rather than within a day.”
The Cryovac machine.
While Cryovac machines and immersion circulators are now standard-issue in kitchens, for the most part, chefs have stepped away, at least in public, from the lab chemicals that marked molecular cuisine. In his own restaurants, Chef Peter Kelly explored the techniques of molecular cuisine and has emerged, in 2014, feeling that “those tools are best used in traditional recipes. For instance, we use an Anti-Griddle [a machine that freeze-dries food on a flattop] to make lollipops with crème anglaise. And I can put a dab of caramel in the center and make a little pop. But the idea of taking the chemicals behind the creation of Twinkies—that we all want to get away from, anyway—and putting them into haute cuisine just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t like putting something into a recipe that’s not found in the natural world.”
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Kelly continues, “That said, we do a porcini foam and we use a little bit of lecithin in it. And it means that I can have the pure flavor of the porcini to put in the dish. Or we’ll do Parmesan foam—it’s not a creamy foam, it’s light and dissipates quickly, but the flavor is very intense. We can use a pinch of lecithin and create a delicate foam with a very pure flavor.” Chef Cutney’s experience with chemicals is similarly selective. “You can make a brown-butter powder that is soft and interesting as opposed to greasy or palate-covering. Or we will use xanthan gum to thicken sauces and soups because the texture that it creates is better and cleaner than that made by a cornstarch slurry or a roux.” Traditional starch-based thickeners—roux, cornstarch, and beurre manie—are all based on the gelling capacity contained in individual grains of starch. These can result in grainy-textured, floury-tasting liquids. In contrast, Cutney says that xanthan gum, a product from the fermentation of sugars, is “a cleaner thickener that doesn’t sacrifice the integrity of the dish.” He concludes that molecular gastronomy’s legacy of innovations “aid precision, help to lower food cost, and speed up production. But, basically, they’re a great way to reintroduce thousand-year-old flavors.”