Cuisine embraces science, gadgetry

Nontraditional effort in food preparation can leave you hungry

August 22, 2007|By Brad Schleicher | Brad Schleicher,Sun reporter

After local chef Jerry Pellegrino dined at Minibar restaurant in Washington two years ago, he felt as if he had just been to a Broadway show.

There were no glitzy costumes or song-and-dance numbers. Instead, the executive chef of Corks restaurant in Federal Hill experienced a 34-course tasting menu that took hours to finish and cost more than $100.

But after the meal, the chef still wasn't satisfied. "I left feeling hungry," said Pellegrino. "I had to grab a chili dog down the street."

There's a reason Pellegrino felt this way. The food on tasting menus at many experimental restaurants (like Minibar) is nontraditional in the sense that it isn't supposed to be hearty or filling.

Instead, scientific principles, techniques and gadgetry are used to create cuisine that showcases new flavors, intriguing textures and surreal presentations. This culinary effort, sometimes called "molecular gastronomy," has been embraced in different ways by chefs who are, according to Bravo's Top Chef Season 2 runner-up Marcel Vigneron, "bored with making the same old Caesar salad."

On the other hand, when the term "molecular gastronomy" is used to describe the effort to redefine traditional food, some restaurant patrons are turned off. "Molecular gastronomy" has a tendency to intimidate and scare people before they even taste the food, some chefs say.

Vigneron, who shook up the competition by creating an array of flavored foams and caviars during his time on Top Chef, says that molecular gastronomy often is viewed negatively.

"People hear `molecular gastronomy' and think that some mad scientist is mixing hydrogen peroxide with bleach in a lab somewhere," says Vigneron. "It's not like that at all."

Some chefs call the food pretentious, part of a passing trend and unmarketable in certain cities. According to Michael Costa, executive chef at Pazo restauarant, Baltimore isn't exactly the ideal city to feature a 34-course tasting menu.

"Often, that kind of food is more weird than good," says Costa. "In Baltimore, people want something that's artsy and appetizing at the same time."

Some cities have been open to experimental cuisine. Restaurants such as Moto and Alinea in Chicago, WD-50 in New York City and Minibar in Washington all have received positive attention. These restaurants have served dishes such as bacon encrusted with dehydrated apple, pickled calf's tongue with fried mayonnaise and foie-gras cotton candy.

But in Baltimore, you generally won't find those kinds of dishes. Although some chefs like Kevin Miller of Ixia restaurant in Mount Vernon have attempted different scientific techniques in their kitchens, the food hasn't been served to customers. (Miller does offer a blind-tasting menu on Wednesdays.) So why are patrons in other cities so adventurous?

"You have to look into the city's history to understand why certain trends develop," says Grant Achatz, executive chef of Alinea Restaurant in Chicago. Achatz attributes the success of Alinea to Chicago's long history of cutting-edge dining.

Ben Simpkins, a chef instructor at Baltimore International College, says the concept of recognizing what you eat is important in Baltimore. "People want to know what they're eating," says Simpkins. In the new cutting-edge cuisine, he says, "some dishes involve the decontruction and reconstruction of ingredients to such a degree, the food takes on an entirely new form."

A lack of experience in science-based cooking also contributes to a lack of experimental restaurants and cuisine. According to Tim Preis, executive chef of Xanadu restaurant near the Inner Harbor, the pool of newer cooks coming out of many culinary schools typically has been taught only traditional techniques.

That may change soon. With the help of director of culinary instruction Tony Talucci, Simpkins will be starting a "molecular gastronomy club" this fall at Baltimore International College. The club will be available only to second-year students so that those new to cooking can learn the basic culinary techniques and processes.

In the club, Simpkins will demonstrate how to use gelatin and a nitrogen-charged whipping device to create light but flavorful foam garnishes.

He also plans to introduce the spherification process to students. This process allows a cook to create any flavor of caviar he chooses by mixing sodium alginate with a flavor mixture and using a syringe to drop the combination into a bath of calcium carbonate.

In the future, it's possible for Baltimore to be more accepting of experimental food and upscale restaurants. According to Lars Rusins, head of the dining group Baltimore Foodies, a few things must happen first.

"It would take a chef with a big name or a unique background to really make a molecular-gastronomy-based tasting menu popular," Rusins says.

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