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Molecularly Speaking: Do food and science bond well?

As any European chef would attest, perfecting raviolis, re-testing savory chicken jus and fine-tuning embellishments like flaky parmesan shavings and olive-oil vinaigrettes would seem like a worthy accomplishment.

Not for the world’s most celebrated chef, Ferrán Adrià, who has come up with worthier alternatives: think savory foams, liquid ravioli, parmesan snow and caviar made out of olive-oil.

The Catalonian chef, 47, has pioneered this culinary movement known as molecular gastronomy (loosely defined as a combination of cooking with scientific laboratory techniques) since opening of his restaurant, “El Bulli” in 1983. Not only does it hold three Michelin stars, but it also is number one in the world, a title determined by prestigious London-based “Restaurant Magazine.”

So when Adrià announced in February that his restaurant will permanently close in 2012, culinary enthusiasts, food writers and young chefs now question the longevity of molecular gastronomy. But the popular culinary movement, spearheaded by chemist-chef Nicholas Kurti, has not yet lost all of its footing. Now, molecular gastronomy has spread to other cities in the U.S. Traditionally a conservative culinary capital, Dallas will see its fair share of nouveau creations by the end of this year. Top Chef runner-up Bryan Voltaggio served truffle-oil popcorn and rock shrimp ceviche with green foam during a charity dinner for ballpark masses in Baltimore last Tuesday, and molecular gastronomist cum chef Jason Santos will compete for the Hell’s Kitchen title in next month’s final episode.

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El Bulli receives over a million reservation requests every year and offers waitlists of up to 2500, asserting to its popularity. Individual diners pay $320 to sample Adrià’s 35-course innovative degustation menu, which includes specials such as “tapioca” of Iberian ham, razor-shell clam sushi with ginger spray, consommé of tagliatelle carbonara and “frozen air” of parmesano with muesli.

Adrià’s  decision to close, however, was financial: his expensive laboratory equipment, some costing upwards of $25,000 and the experiment he conducts in-house during his 6 month sabbatical has caused the restaurant to incur annual losses of over half a million dollars since 2000.

Another reason behind the closure was Adria’s frequent encounters with stress and emotional meltdowns.

“Throughout the history of El Bulli we’ve made seemingly drastic decisions in order to maintain our level of creativity,’’ said Adrià, in an interview with the New York Times. “[And] at that bestial pace, it would be impossible to continue.’’

Adrià’s current plans are to develop the El Bulli brand into a culinary academy from 2012 onwards “so the world’s most talented cooks can attend.”

For some, the news that the respected chef is developing a foundation to continue legacy is not such a bad thing. According to Tufts Culinary Society Co-President Manuel Guzman, the move could even be a blessing in disguise.

“It’s not good news for those who want to go [to El Bulli], but he’s creating a school and he’ll create more disciples for his type of cuisine,” Guzman said.

In his announcement, Adrià added that he also plans to teach a food science course at Harvard this fall after his lecturing stint at the university two years ago.

Although El Bulli’s lack of financial success might discourage chefs from leaning towards molecular gastronomy, Guzman is hopeful and confident that the trend is strong and will continue to be in the future.

“I’ve got this fascination about it,” Guzman said. “It’s something that’s already very popular and people are yearning to love this kind of food.”

Still, with its progressive and controversial impact on the dining scene, some diners – professional critics and chefs alike – have always been sceptical about molecular gastronomy. Fellow Catalonian chef Santi Santamaria, whose three-michelin starred restaurant is ranked in the top 50 by the same magazine, famously lashed out against Adrià and his culinary movement, citing its “Mcdonaldisation” of Michelin stars.

“A chef who uses chemical or synthetic products, made in a laboratory, is like an athlete who dopes,” Santamaria said in an open letter in 2008.

Adding that his cuisine was nothing but a “media spectacle,” Santamaria went on to proclaim that molecular gastronomy advocates the use of additives that are dangerous to one’s health.

“Eating more than six grams of methylcellulose can be harmful to the health,” he said.

Adrià was quick to deny this fact – recent studies do indicate harmful effects of additives, but to a minimal extent – but he was not successful in selling to concept to a few critics, who were not particularly into the whole concept altogether.

“Molecular gastronomy is more a curiosity than a mainstream culinary movement,” Boston Herald food critic Matt Schaffer wrote in an email interview. “While many chefs have been peripherally influenced – particularly when it comes to aesthetics and wanting to learn more about food chemistry – I think its technical specificities keep it out of the realm of most chefs.”

Schaffer did not dine at El Bulli, but has sampled similar styles of the cuisine at “Salts” in Cambridge and “Sensing” at the Fairmont Battery Wharf in Boston. Though he thought the food was intriguing, it was still not enough to draw him over.

“Most diners still prefer familiar foods familiarly prepared – even more so in tough economic times,” Schaffer said.

Molecular gastronomy is not as prevalent here in Boston compared to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, but some chefs like Jason Santos (“Gargoyles”), Ken Oringer (“Clio”) and Jiho Kim (“L’Espalier”) think that it makes their restaurants more exclusive.

Kim, who is head pastry-chef at the AAA Five Diamond award winning restaurant l’Espalier, said that his new style of preparing deserts – his specialities include “Financier and espresso curd with brown butter powder” and a curried apple creation with a white chocolate capsule and maple-syrup-whipped meringue foam – was the result of preparing “boring” deserts for over 15 years.

His new creations not only offer him a sense of accomplishment, but immense satisfaction from L’Espalier’s  diners.

Going forward, Kim hopes that he will continue to have the opportunities to hone his art.

“There are companies that manufacture and provide these chemicals; they do a lot by helping people and sponsoring our restaurant, so I’m still excited,” Kim said.

Whether the most desired way of having chicken noodle soup like how Mother used to make, or nitro-frozen, macerated into powder then snorted as air, there is no indication to suggest that molecular gastronomy is going away – at least in the near future.

– Jon Cheng

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