Different styles on `Top Chef'

BURNING QUESTIONS

February 21, 2007|By Erica Marcus | Erica Marcus,Newsday

What did you make of Bravo's Top Chef, and what is this thing called "molecular gastronomy" that everyone kept talking about?

I think that the final showdown between Ilan Hall and Marcel Vigneron was a great proxy fight, a stark portrayal of two divergent approaches to restaurant cooking.

Hall (whom I know slightly) cooks in a culinary style that is increasingly rare in New York: that of the national (or regional) traditionalist. The trend among American chefs is to fuse cuisines, to plate in inventive ways, to use food to make a statement. Hall is a bit of an oddball in his desire to hew closely to one cuisine (Spanish).

Those who criticized Hall for staying within his Spanish comfort zone missed the point that Vigneron was also cooking in a comparably narrow idiom, that of molecular gastronomy.

That term was coined by two scientists, Frenchman Herve This and Hungarian Nicholas Kurti. During the 1980s, they pioneered a scientific approach to cooking.

Thanks, in part, to Vigneron, the most widely known hook in molecular gastronomy is "foam," in which an emulsifier such as soy lecithin is added to a liquid, which then can be successfully whipped. Because no cream or egg whites are involved, the resulting foam tastes only of the main ingredient.

In his last supper, Vigneron also made use of spherification, in which calcium chloride is used to turn a liquid (in this case, Kona coffee) into soft-skinned, liquid-filled globules whose mouth feel resembles that of caviar.

Erica Marcus writes for Newsday. E-mail your queries to burning questions@newsday.com or send them to Erica Marcus, Food/Part 2, Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Road, Melville, NY 11747-4250.

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