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David Lissner
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Is Chicago the capital of ‘molecular gastronomy’?


Chefs Homaru Cantu and Ben Roche’s new TV show, “Future Food” premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Planet Green. The show highlights the “extreme cuisine” the chefs’ West Loop restaurant, Moto, is known for: paper sushi, cooking in liquid nitrogen, meat “glue,” smoking guns, instant freezing and other techniques on the culinary fringe.

The launch of the show, together with the closing of Ferran Adria’s groundbreaking El Bulli restaurant in Spain, positions Chicago as the world capital of “molecular gastronomy.”

That phrase is almost universally reviled by the chefs who are creating cutting-edge cuisine, but I like it. It sounds like cuisine at an entirely new level — which it is.

The title of a book by French chemist Hervé This, “molecular gastronomy” was coined in 1988 by This’ colleague Nicholas Kurti, a Hungarian-born Oxford physicist, to describe the science of flavor and the investigation and creation of culinary techniques from a scientific perspective. I first encountered the concepts soon afterward in a Scientific American article, in which This and Kurti described making ice cream with liquid nitrogen and using a microwave oven to create an inside-out baked Alaska — hot jam inside a frozen meringue — they called a “frozen Florida.” As a cook as well as a dedicated reader of science fiction (a genre that only very rarely delves into culinary arts), I was fascinated by the melding of the two, and I became a devotee of the works of This and Kurti and more approachable culinary science writers such as Harold McGee and Shirley O. Corriher.

Adria, at El Bulli, was the first chef to really put dramatic science-fictional cooking techniques to work in a restaurant. And while other restaurateurs in London, New York and elsewhere have followed suit, it’s here in Chicago where we really see it at its broadest range.

I remain excited to watch these techniques put to use in varying levels at local restaurants such as Moto, Alinea and L2O in Lincoln Park, Avenues and Lockwood in the Loop, Tru in Streeterville, Schwa in Wicker Park and others. These are places that have really put Chicago on the international culinary map, who have reshaped the city’s meat-and-potatoes image. While molecular cooking isn’t everyone’s taste, I believe these offbeat techniques and ingredients will have a lasting impact on world restaurant cuisine. They exemplify what restaurant cooking should be about: Food that you can’t make at home.

As Alinea’s Chef Grant Achatz recently wrote, “People often ask me if the style of cooking [Adria] pioneered is a trend, fad or flash in the pan. My belief is that every 15 to 20 years, with an obvious bell curve of energy, most professions change. Technology, fine arts, design and yes, cooking, follow the same predictable pattern. A visionary creates the framework for a new genre, others follow and execute, and the residual effects remain, embedded in the cloth of the craft.”