Oxford Professor of Physics, Nicholas Kurti, and French physical chemist and magazine editor, Hervé This, coined the term molecular gastronomy to describe a scientific approach to cooking. American food science writer Harold McGee and English cookery teacher Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas were also involved in conducting early workshops for chefs on the physics and chemistry of cooking. Foams, gels, dirts and ‘caviars’ resulted.
According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, “Molecular gastronomy seeks to generate new knowledge on the basis of the chemistry and physics behind culinary processes—for example, why mayonnaise becomes firm or why a soufflé swells—and to develop new ways of cooking rooted in science.”
Kurti and This saw molecular gastronomy as an academic discipline rather than simply a way of cooking. Pursuing the academic approach to food, research teams were established at universities in several countries, including France, the Netherlands, Ireland, Denmark, Italy, Spain, and the United States. Catalan chef Ferran Adrià even lectured at Harvard.
In drawing a distinction between the academic study of scientific food preparation and the actual expression of it in restaurants, the term ‘molecular cooking’ was coined. Some chefs adopted the term ‘modernist’ rather than molecular.
Famous proponents of molecular gastronomy methods included Adrià in Catalonia and Heston Blumenthal in Britain. The adoption of the new style of cooking saw what was previously thought of as laboratory equipment arrive in the kitchen. There were flasks and filters, syphons and test tubes, flash freezing and spherification.
Molecular gastronomy – or perhaps, more accurately, molecular cooking – enraged some critics. One wrote: “…many young cooks are attempting to jump over the basics and go straight to methylcellulose, sodium alginate, various polysaccharides, gums, and even transglutaminase, which can make some very interesting sausage when properly applied. But ask them to sauté a mushroom or bake a meringue and many turn up their noses or simply lose interest.” Britannica cites Germany’s most-famous restaurant critic, Wolfram Siebeck, who called Blumenthal’s mustard ice “a fart of nothingness”.
But Blumenthal himself has subsequently declared that “Molecular gastronomy is dead”. He asserted that while the term may have been useful initially to alert people to new food experiences it has now run its course. “It’s all just cooking,” he says.