Features What’s in a Name? The Story Behind Food’s Most Problematic Title: Molecular Gastronomy
Whatís in a Name? The Story Behind Foodís Most Problematic Title: Molecular Gastronomy
February 2009

Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adrià, and Andoni Luis Aduriz share a playful, creative approach to cuisine. At two culinary conferences this year, they’ve presented dishes inspired by everything from the Christmas story and Japanese cuisine to herbal soap. They’ve made these dishes using liquid nitrogen, agar agar, xantham gum, and air bubblers.

They share another thing, too: no one seems to know what to call their food. Chefs, journalists—and anyone who cares about cuisine—like to have a convenient phrase to describe a particular approach to food, cooking, and dining. But the chefs who purportedly practice it (and many journalists) agree: “Molecular Gastronomy” is a misnomer. In fact, it may even be doing more harm than good. So, now what?

This misnomer was the subject of one of a highly anticipated segment of this year’s Madrid Fusion. The aforementioned big guns (Blumenthal, Adrià, and Aduriz) gathered on stage, along with Harold McGee (of On Food and Cooking fame) and Italian scientist Davide Cassi, for a discussion about whether “molecular gastronomy” exists.

The conversation began with the obligatory—and redundant—defense of science in the kitchen. Blumenthal delivered a well-practiced speech about how silly it is that people are happy to put a carrot through a juicer, but balk at the suggestion of distilling that carrot’s juice in a rotavap. Adrià jumped out of his chair and waved around a piece of chocolate, exclaiming “If there’s one product where science participates, it’s chocolate. Chocolate is science food!”

Then came the creation story: In 1992, Harold McGee and French chemist Hervé This organized a meeting of scientists in Italy that they planned to call “Science and Gastronomy.” The director of the venue where the gathering was to be held wanted a fancier title—it was a meeting area that was accustomed to conferences with impressive titles, and “Science and Gastronomy” just wasn’t cutting it. So “molecular” was thrown into the ring, and the term was born. At the time, it fit. It referred specifically to the way in which these scientists were looking at what happens to food on a microscopic level when cooked.

One key point: There were no chefs involved in these initial meetings. McGee and Cassi, who were also present in the early Italian days, stressed the scientific aspect of the gatherings. Prior to 2001, the scientists were looking backwards. They were focused on traditional preparations, and were using science to take a critical look at old recipes and techniques (roasting, braising, emulsifying) with the goal of making them better. They were, on occasion, looking at molecules.

Then in 2001, Blumenthal came to the conference and, as McGee tells it, blew their scientific minds: “Heston came and said ‘I’ve been doing some crazy things—maybe they’re stupid…’ and they blew our minds. It took a chef coming to a meeting of scientists to show us that something new could be done.” Blumenthal came to Italy with questions and ideas about food that only science could answer. With his arrival, the focus of the meetings changed—they were no longer only looking at the past, but at how the past (i.e. the fundamentals of cooking) could be manipulated in the future.

At the same time, Adrià was starting to develop the first elements of his particular style. He had met Hervé This in 1995; this “planted the seed,” but the fusion of science and cooking still felt very far away. In 1998, Adrià began using agar agar, which he had heard was common in Japanese cuisine (his first visit to Japan came four years later). Wanting to know more about how agar worked, and what else was out there, he began reaching out to scientists. “[The scientists] came to us with strange names—sodium alginate, calcium chloride… [they] sounded like Martians. But little by little, we began preparing our gastronomic lexicon.” (Adrià’s first serious scientific collaboration didn’t happen until 2003, but while on stage in Madrid he was adamant about establishing 2000 as the year that science started to find its way into food. The more we define the history of the genre, he reasoned, the better we’ll be able to document it.)

And so the foundation of what we continue to call “molecular gastronomy” was set. Blumenthal, Adrià, Aduriz, and others were finding themselves drawn to the world outside the boundaries of a traditional kitchen. And in the realm of science they found an inquisitive nature and penchant for evolution of thought that they saw mirrored in themselves.

Today the genre—which is part philosophical approach, part technical repertoire—is spreading, and is enabling creativity in the kitchen to reach new heights. It is a significant evolution of our culinary lexicon. But still, what do we call the damn thing? Says Blumenthal, “The word molecular is too restrictive. Molecules are almost irrelevant in the kitchen because they’re too fine a level of detail. The word was added as a way of making the subject sound impressive enough for this particular institution. It really doesn’t describe what is useful about science when it comes to thinking about food.”

“Modern” or “hyper-modern” gastronomy is vague and has boundary issues (e.g. “California cuisine” is “modern American,” too). The Spaniards have settled on a few terms, like “vanguardista” and “tecnoemocional.” But their English translations, “vanguardist” and “techno-emotional,” haven’t made much of a splash. Adrià suggested “scientific gastronomy,” but it didn’t seem to stick with the group. McGee suggested that because “gastronomy” means “the art and science of food preparation,” perhaps that was enough?

The group ran out of time without reaching a consensus about the name. They agreed that “molecular gastronomy” sounds too scientific and cold, and doesn’t do justice to the artistic elements of the cuisine. They also agreed that they are at the crossroads of many disciplines—science, art, psychology, and, of course, cooking—and that the future will hold the continued collaboration of science and food.

Perhaps that future will hold a name that sticks, too. After all, with the exception of political and cultural separatist groups, aren’t most movements named after viewed through the clarity of hindsight? It would be convenient to have a group name, but it’s hard to describe a philosophy that manifests itself differently in each practitioner’s hands.

Aduriz ended the conversation by noting that each important revolution in history has been accompanied by a change in language. There was tolerance in his voice as he spoke of a future in which the relationship between gastronomy and science is agreed upon and understood. Between the lines, he seemed to say: “Patience, my children. It will come.”