For me, the rise of molecular gastronomy was both intriguing and all-too-familiar at the same time. You see, my previous career was in medical research where the magical gadgets brandished in molecular gastronomy kitchens were commonplace every day tools that provided no glitz, glamour, wonder, excitement and definitely no tasty morsels (not without serious health repercussions anyway). Any piece of equipment that did evoke a raised eyebrow and an impressed low whistle I dare say would not feature in Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal or Grant Achatz’s kitchens as it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, invariably involve calibrated lasers, names with the words “gene” or “cell” and real time digital displays of pretty dots, scans or other funky things far too complicated for transforming a foodstuff.
Still, I find the marriage of kitchen to lab bench interesting. Aside from odd disturbing occasion back in uni when I watched in horror as the Co-pilot would remove something typically noxious and used for growing bacterial cells from the lab microwave and in one swift motion replace it with his lunch box, there hasn’t been any notion that food has a place in science.
When I received an invitation to attend a showing of gadgets at Tomislav I was very interested to see what gadgets he would showcase. Having worked with the likes of the very accomplished Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck, Chef Tomislav Martinovic definitely has the impressive credentials for molecular gastronomy magic and has received equally impressive reviews since the opening of his restaurant earlier this year. Would I see a centrifuge in action to make a consomme? A waterbath used for sous-vide or vacuum sealed cooking? The ubiquitous liquid nitrogen to make freeze dried nibbles? I headed to Tomislav to find out.
I’m joined by a number of other food bloggers – all keen to learn the secrets of the kitchen lab. Chef Tomislav explains that he’ll be showcasing three of his most commonly used gadgets and without delay invites us all to the kitchen counter for a closer view of the kitchen magic.
The first gadget to be showcased is the siphon canister. This gadget was very popular in the 60’s and 70’s and was commonly used for whipping and aerating cream. It works with the aid of nitrous oxide (N2O), more commonly known as laughing gas. Cream or another liquid is placed in the canister and the lid fastened, a small capsule of nitrous oxide is fitted to the canister and injected into the cream inside the canister. The gas expands, and is shaken to aid mixing with the cream. When the canister is inverted and the lever depressed, the gas molecules attempt to escape with the cream resulting in a light, frothy airy mousse.
In sage tones, Tomislav stresses that it takes much practice to get the right consistency and I get an immediate sense that this man is a fastidious perfectionist. Our first tasting is his infamous rice cracker with sour cream and chive dip. He prepares rice crackers by dropping wafer thin rice paper rounds into hot oil, which instantly expand into delicate crispy discs. For the cream he carefully pours sour cream in the canister with double cream, oil and loads up the nitrous oxide capsule. He shakes it vigorously to infuse the mixture with the nitrous oxide gas and squirts out a dollop of glistening, light-as-air cream. It is topped with finely diced chives, and like an artist, the presentation fussed over and rice crisps delicately balanced and re-arranged this way and that before the dish is declared ready for tasting. As expected, the rice crisps are feather light and satisfyingly crispy. The creaminess of the dip is lifted by the aeration leaving the flavour of creaminess but not the heavy texture.
A vinegar spray is then produced consisting of a mixture of chardonnay vinegar and oil onto the crackers. Being a die-hard fan of salt and vinegar chips I liberally doused my cracker in the vinegar spray. Surprisingly, the cracker is resilient and doesn’t immediately destabilise into a soggy heap as prawn crackers are prone to doing and the vinegar has a pleasant sour tang. Personally I prefer the strength of my salt and vinegar chips to be on a face imploding scale, but then, I am known to regularly drink salad dressing..
Gadget number two is the Pacojet and from gushing tones with which Tomislav describes what he can create with this gadget, it’s easy to see that it’s the pride and joy in his kitchen. And for a cool $6500 for this piece of equipment, you’d sure want it to be worth the investment! The Pacojet essentially has a heavy duty precision blade that is powerful enough to convert frozen goods into powder – a process called “pacotizing” (clever of the marketers to coin their own verb). Tomislav adds that the blade ensures silky smooth textures and eliminates the graininess that you can sometimes get in ice creams and sorbets.
To demonstrate the power of the Pacojet, he whips out some lemon ice sorbet he has prepared earlier and scrapes out a heap of fine powder. It’s not lemon sorbet as I know it – it is much lighter and finer and should be more aptly named fresh lemon snowflakes!
For our second tasting, the Pacojet will be used to create parsley crumbs, an accompaniment to a tuna dish he has planned. He briefly blanches fresh continental parsley leaves then drops them in ice water to stop the cooking process. Excess water is squeezed out, then the parsley is hand torn and fed with cream and other ingredients into a Thermomix in preparation for “pacotizing” in the Pacojet. We sample some of the resulting pacotized parsley crumbs and my spoonful of vivid green powder melts instantly, leaving only a divine creamy, herby aftertaste. I’ve come to love the taste of parsley in it’s usual unadulterated state, especially straight from my Nonno’s garden, but in this enhanced sorbet form, I could eat buckets.
When combined with finely sliced melt-in-your-mouth tuna with a tenderness that widens my eyes in appreciation and has me going back for seconds and thirds, it is just utterly delicious.
The last gadget on show today is the waterbath. Unlike the other gadgets there is much less mystery with this piece of equipment. It is simply a basin of water carefully temperature controlled using a thermostat. Its use in molecular gastronomy kitchens is specifically reserved for “sous-vide” style cooking, which I believe, is just French for “vacuum sealed”. Foodstuffs are placed into bags, vacuum sealed by sucking out all the available air, then cooked at a consistent, undeviating temperature. In my opinion, the process of vacuum sealing contributes more than the temperature control as through vacuum sealing you eliminate the interference of oxygen, oxidation and the loss of nutrients, flavour and colour that you get in other cooking methods.
To demonstrate this gadget, Tomislav is preparing rhubarb. Fresh rhubarb, grenadine and fructose is added to a bag, vacuum sealed bag and cooked sous-vide in the waterbath for 1 hour at 70 degrees. The resulting rhubarb looks as fresh as it went in, it is as crisp as celery and a vibrant red from the grenadine. The flavour and texture is a little confusing for my senses as I’m experiencing crunchy celery that tastes like British boiled rhubarb sweets. The remaining rhubarb is pacotized into sorbet, a part of our third and final tasting and the sorbet itself tastes like creamy cold rhubarb, sweetened with raspberry flavours from the grenadine and fructose sugar.
The final tasting is a dessert that brings together all three gadgets showcased during the session. Accompanying the sous-vide rhubarb and pacotized rhubarb sorbet is a cheesecake mousse created using the siphon canister. Other parts of the dish include clever cubes of cheesecake jelly made using cheese, sugar and glycerin and a simple biscuit base made using digestives biscuits softened with beurre noisette (browned butter) for added nuttiness. In keeping with the science themes, I personally think the studded cheese cubes make the dessert look like an edible model of the flu virus! But thankfully, it’s much more pleasurable than a case of flu – the sweet fruity rhubarb flavours complements the light airy cheesecake mousse and the side of crumbled biscuit has the sugary chewiness of raw cookie dough. Tomislav was concerned that the overhead lights would melt his creation too quickly, but he needn’t have been concerned. The dessert wasn’t around long enough to allow melting.
Despite being told we had three tastings to sample, Chef Tomislav is on a roll and brings out more things to taste. All throughout the session, Tomislav has made countless references to the McDonalds soft serve. I hadn’t appreciated that it was the holy grail of ice cream texture, but it’s very clear that Tomislav is on a mission to re-create his own version of the soft serve. He unveils his clotted cream ice cream and proudly boasts it’s the closest thing to the McDonalds soft serve. He serves it with a raspberry jam smear and more of that delightfully chewy digestive biscuit crumble. It is indeed creamy, smooth and very indulgent. McDonalds soft serve never tasted this good!
But, of the 3 tools shown in today’s gadget showcase, only one is really used in a lab – the humble waterbath. What of the other neglected lab instruments I expected to see? I was almost disappointed not to see liquid nitrogen make an appearance.
Whenever the Co-pilot and I watch shows like Heston’s Feasts invariably there’ll be comments like “hey that’s interesting use of a distiller“; “that looks like a plasmid maxi prep centrifuge tube“; “I bet he used nitrous oxide” or “how much liquid nitrogen processed food can one ingest before it’s detrimental to health?”…
But the glitz, glamour and sparkling kitchens are a far cry from the real going ons of frequently under-funded labs. For a start, Tomislav’s waterbath was a good decade newer than anything I’d used! Where molecular gastronomy has taken science into the kitchen I thought it was worthwhile to arrange for a quick tour of my old lab where I spent almost 5 years doing research and show you, the foodblog reader, a view of the other side.
Going back to my old lab was a very surreal experience. I hadn’t set foot inside since I left almost 3 years ago and as scientific organisations tend to be training grounds for young scientists, many of the familiar faces had moved on. But as I navigated through the lab I found the layout was largely the same.
First up, it is a lab, so trade in your apron and granite kitchen bench for a lab coat and sanitised lab bench.
A far cry from Tomislav’s shiny new fang-dangled waterbath, the waterbaths used in real scientific organisations to deliver potentially ground breaking medical research are by comparison creaking, archaic contraptions with nary a digital display in sight. Of course, as seen in Tomislav’s kitchen lab, from a molecular gastronomy perspective these could be used to gently poach food whether using the sous-vide vacuum method or not. Although, no amount of money could convince me to eat food prepared using these bacterial soup baths!
This next piece of equipment is a centrifuge and by leveraging gravity and spinning mixtures at high speed you can compact the solids in the mixture to the bottom (known as a “pellet“) and leave a very clear liquid fraction on top (known as the “supernatant“). From a molecular gastronomy perspective, you can use the centrifuge to create an incredibly pure consomme. Or imagine making a seafood bisque where all the aromatics and even the crustacean heads are blended to give the soup more flavour intensity, then spun down to produce the clearest bisque imaginable! The same process of straining and clarifying liquids though muslin cloth can be reduced to a matter of minutes using this contraption. And because this centrifuge model is chilled, you can extend this to chilled soups or use the solid fraction if you had plans for that.
The oven like contraptions in the photo below are essentially just that, except they were humid ovens as they had a sloped bottom trays that held distilled water. These incubators were usually set to 37 degC to maintain cell growth, but for take on molecular gastronomy, these humid ovens could be set to higher temperatures for dishes that might benefit from low heat, gentle humid baking. A pseudo bain-marie perhaps? It could be done, but really, I don’t see the benefit of using such an expensive, specialised piece of equipment when an oven is suffice.
And then there are those iconic pieces of scientific equipment that will probably never find a place in the lab. Meet the microscope that I suspect contributed to my short sightedness, and possibly, through a number of failed experiments and many tedious hours craned in front of it, eventually my exit from science. I highly doubt there is a place in molecular gastronomy for this item. I can’t see any need anytime soon to have chefs or diners peering at their food from a microscopic level. Unless plankton becomes the next “in” ingredient of course…
But once upon a time, I would’ve thought the same thing about the place of liquid nitrogen in a kitchen. And how wrong I’ve been. Liquid nitrogen is as its name suggests, nitrogen in the liquid state. It has a boiling point of -196 degreesC and is commonly used in the lab as a coolant or for cryopreservation as the low temperatures reduce DNA degradation in tissue samples. Although I have seen a fellow colleague use it for cryotherapy by freezing a wart – oh, those crazy scientists. Personally, I find the use of liquid nitrogen in molecular gastronomy very gimmicky. Treating food with liquid nitrogen is thought to “freeze dry” it – a process scientifically known as “lyophilisation“, but proper freeze drying is a more involved dehydration process involving careful treatment of the food with low temperatures and pressures. Simply dunking food in liquid nitrogen is not the same as “freeze drying” it’s actually closer to cryotherapy – since on contact, cells within the food stuff (or human flesh for that matter) flash freeze, burst and are irreversibly destroyed! So whilst there might be nutritional value in freeze dried food, I’m dubious as to whether there is any nutritional value in food dunked in liquid nitrogen in molecular gastronomy labs. To create drama and intrigue with the clouds of nitrogen gas that are created from the evaporation of liquid nitrogen however, yes, I can see the appeal in that.
But as a little reminder that these readily embraced molecular gastronomy kitchen tools are actually primarily designed as scientific tools, a word of warning that liquid nitrogen is actually dangerous. When pressurised incorrectly it can explode and if spilled in an enclosed space can preferentially push all the oxygen out of the room and cause asphyxiation.
So there you have it, a compact tour of my old lab and an insight into the real backstage operations and uses of the tools of molecular gastronomy kitchens. From lab inspiration to the kitchen and back again – the same science tools innovating in kitchens and labs alike! But, since I’ve long discarded the lab coat, I’m now much more in favour of innovative breakthroughs in the kitchen, and spending hours photographing delicious food, not tissue sections.
Whether you think molecular gastronomy is a passing fad or not, it definitely deserves credit for injecting new vigour into the food scene (all puns intended). Certainly with so many high profile molecular gastronomy restaurants on the best restaurants lists, diners and critics alike think so.
The Gourmet Forager attended Tomislav Restaurant’s gadget showcase as a guest.
Level 2/13 Kirketon Road, Darlinghurst. Tel: (+612)9356-453; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Open for lunch Friday noon – 3pm; dinner from Tuesday – Saturday 6pm – 10pm
Foodie in the know:
For the Crave Sydney International Food Festival (SIFF) Chef Tomislav is teaming up with Chef Chris The to offer a special “Just Desserts” six course menu that features 4 desserts to start on the 19th and 20th of October for $125pp, or $175 with matched wines. Definitely one not to be missed by sweet tooths!
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And on another note, The Gourmet Forager will be live on 702AM ABC radio this Saturday – that’s tomorrow! There will be a Crave SIFF Allsorts Barbeque with Alvin Quah, a contestant on the 2010 Masterchef program, and 702AM ABC will be covering the event from 8:30am. Together with Helen of Grab Your Fork and Simon from Simon Food Favourites, we’ll be in Cabramatta in Sydney’s western suburbs, speaking to the program host, Simon Marnie, and Andrew Rose, the 702 Crave SIFF food blogger. We’ll also be introducing some of our favourite dishes in Cabramatta so tune in at 10.15am an 11am to hear the segment!by