Food Republic — an eclectic site for people who enjoy dining — interviewed the British restaurant critic A A Gill in May 2015.

Gill is someone one either respects or loathes in equal measure.

I quite enjoy his reviews, especially his acerbic wit.

Absence of French classics

He told Food Republic something with which I can deeply empathise (emphases mine):

I sometimes just take stock and think, what is it that I’m missing? Because I eat everything, and I eat everywhere. And what is it that I haven’t had for a bit, that I’m missing. And the thing that I miss most now is classic French restaurant food. Bourgeois food, haute cuisine. And nobody’s making it in France, or very few people …

I really miss the French food that most of those of my generation who grew up loving food and being interested in food — that was where we started. And it’s very difficult to find … now.

Hear, hear.

Gill is around my age. When we were growing up, the big middle class family restaurant experience was eating classic French food. It didn’t happen often, at least in my family, and was reserved for once-in-a-lifetime occasions. Dad saved up and Mum chose the restaurant.

I don’t recall the ‘heavy sauces’ that so many complain about. I doubt if those people ever set foot in a French restaurant. That’s just another cliché spouted by those who know no better.

Gill is right to say that few restaurants in France feature elegant classics of Escoffier’s era.

French food has gone global. They even have food trucks now. Recently, they had national — wait for it — burger week! Whatever next?

World’s ‘best’ restaurants?

What compounds the problem, especially for French classics, are notional global best restaurant designations.

The most recent appeared on June 1, 2015: The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards. The Telegraph reported:

The avant-garde Spanish restaurant El Celler de Can Roca has won back the World’s Best Restaurant crown.

The restaurant in Girona is owned by three brothers – Joan, Josep and Jordi – and is famed for cutting-edge, playful dishes that still pay homage to classic Catalan cooking.

Hmm. I’ve eaten Catalan cooking in Barcelona. Classic Catalan cuisine is succulent roast kid, suckling pig and beautifully grilled prawns.

Have a look at the photograph accompanying The Telegraph article. It’s clearly some sort of molecular cuisine.

A gushing review in the paper from October 2014 proves it — and has accompanying photographs:

After more than a dozen courses, and almost as many glasses of wine, my tasting notes had become somewhat perfunctory. “Pig – delicious” was all I could manage for what was perhaps my favourite dish; “all the prawn” was the enigmatic description of another; while some had vanished from the record books altogether. With pork disguised as fish, ceviche hidden beneath the frozen face of tiger, and puddings that pulsate, it’s easy to get lost in the moment at a place like El Celler de Can Roca.

There’s more. After pre-prandials and amuse-bouches:

An “autumn vegetable stock” came next, cooked with the sort of precision you expect from the disciples of molecular gastronomy (“80 degrees for three hours”). It was crystal clear, with an unusual, almost gelatinous consistency, and bursting with 10 or more individually distinguishable flavours.

To follow was perhaps the most eye-catching dish – Leche de Tigre, a lobster ceviche topped with a disc of frozen lime branded with the image of a growling tiger. It, like many of the dishes, pushed the boundaries in terms of texture, but – thankfully – was less quirky when it came to flavour, with the sharpness of a classic ceviche.

The photo of Leche de Tigre — Tiger’s Milk — makes it look positively revolting. See for yourself. I would be unable to eat that. It is evident that some sort of chemical has to go in it in order to produce a semi-coagulated result.

And there are other similar restaurants on this world’s best list.

French food then takes a hit. The French media ask, ‘Why is our food so bad?’

But that’s not the question nor the conclusion to draw.

Classic French food is excellent. As A A Gill says, we see too little of it.

The problem is that most award-winning restaurants are those that favour molecular cuisine — or, if you prefer, molecular gastronomy.

All the rage

I spoke with someone a few weeks ago who makes a living by charting culinary trends for restaurants and cafés.

He told me, ‘That’s what people want.’ I countered that we are persuaded to think we want it. It isn’t our choice.

The media message is, ‘If you want to be hip and cool, you’ll seek molecular gastronomy.’

People pay hundreds of dollars/pounds/euros for a multi-course tasting menu. After that, I’d be in search of a McDonald’s, and I haven’t had one of those for, erm, 20 years.

For me — and countless others — restaurant food should offer a) a recognisable, goodly portion of protein, b) a satisfying yet creative sauce and c) easily identifiable vegetables.

Remember the interests behind the push for molecular cuisine: big business, always big business. There are companies which make the necessary chemicals for this type of dining experience. They can branch out from commercially processed food to top restaurants. The result is that consumers see chemicals as good, interesting and elegant.

A further result is that we will be able to buy them for use at home. We’ll also have accompanying cookbooks to match.

This means more money for the manufacturers of said chemicals and additives. Ker-ching!

Bucking the trend

French food critic Périco Légasse, who also writes for the newsweekly Marianne, had something to say about the 2014 World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards.

After the list appeared, he said that the Danish winner Noma — also known for molecular cuisine — was responsible for 63 diners becoming ill from badly-done ‘chemical combinations’.

He also accused sponsors Nestlé and San Pellegrino of an ‘anti-French campaign’:

There is a political will to denigrate French cuisine.

Couldn’t agree more.

In another article, this one for Marianne, he reported on what Olivier Roellinger, chef of the three-Michelin Cancale, and equally esteemed Joël Robuchon of Fleury-Michon thought.

Roellinger said:

Molecular cuisine is a lure for people who don’t really know that much about food to begin with. It’s really [like] selling wind. And who’s financing this lobbying? A syndicate of industrial flavouring companies … It’s absolutely abominable.

Robuchon, even though he admires Spain’s award-winning Ferran Adria, went further:

Additives aren’t good. I’ve done everything to avoid using them at Fleury-Michon. In today’s molecular cuisine we find additives which aren’t even allowed in industrial food processing. I am 200% against molecular cuisine, for the good reason that I work with health and industrial services encouraging the elimination of acidifiers, colourings and additives, some of which have secondary effects.

In 2010, the Italian government banned the use of certain chemical additives and liquid nitrogen in molecular cuisine. The current status is unknown as the 2010 law was only in force for one year. It is unclear whether a new law has replaced it.

Cook and Food Network presenter Alton Brown, an American, had this to say in 2011 (emphases in the original):

Every generation develops tools. And the tools are a wonderful way to explore the possibilities of the world and of creation. I use some emulisifiers. Yes, there’s xantham gum in my kitchen. Why? Because I’m tired of shaking up a salad dressing. You know, it’s practical things. Is it really cool to be able to make corn flakes out of peanut butter? Sure, it’s a great trick. But it’s a novelty, by and large.

My worry about molecular gastronomy, especially with young cooks, is that they will try use it replace knowing how to cook. Food. Show me you can cook a chicken breast, properly. Show me you can cook a carrot, properly. Now do it a hundred times in row. Then we can play around with white powders.

It’s an interesting skill set, it’s an interesting bunch of tools. You can’t live on it. It’s not food.

He later clarified his position:

Just to set record straight: molecular gastronomy is not bad…but without sound, basic culinary technique, it is useless.

Natural or harmful?

To be fair, a number of additives with odd sounding names are perfectly natural — some come from seaweed — and have been used in mass-produced food for years.

Science Fare has a lengthy list with explanations of each popular molecular gastronomy ingredient.

India’s Mid-day has an interesting interview from May 2015 with chef and food stylist Michael Swamy who explains that just because something is natural does not automatically mean it is healthful to eat.

It all rather depends. Swamy discussed the freshwater basa fish, a new trendy yet inexpensive protein in India. He warned:

The fish is highly toxic and has a high amount of lead.

Swamy had this to say about molecular gastronomy (emphases mine):

One meal is equivalent to your one year’s quota of toxins as you only consume chemicals. The other day, someone told me that they had something called a bubble kulfi, which had dry ice. Everyone knows that dry ice is very poisonous but it is still added to cocktails and so on.

Swamy is correct. Laboratory assistants who work with liquid nitrogen — dry ice — in a clinical or scientific context wear gloves when handling the tanks. It can burn.

In 2012, Time magazine reported on a young Englishwoman who had to have her stomach removed after drinking a cocktail with dry ice. The then-teen suffered the horrendous consequences:

after drinking a Jagermeister cocktail made with liquid nitrogen at a bar in northern England.

The article goes on to explain the uses of liquid nitrogen in a medical setting — freezing warts, removing cancerous cells — as well as in a culinary one — ice-cream making.

The issue is knowing how to handle it for human consumption:

The main point is that liquid nitrogen must be fully evaporated from the meal or drink before serving, said Peter Barham of the University of Bristol’s School of Physics. It can safely be used in food or drink preparation, but it should not be ingested.

Barham and another scientist told the BBC:

Professor Barham adds that just as no-one would drink boiling water or oil, or pour it over themselves, no-one should ingest liquid nitrogen

Science writer and fellow at the Royal Society of Chemistry John Emsley says if more than a “trivial” amount of liquid nitrogen is swallowed, the result can be horrendous. “If you drank more than a few drops of liquid nitrogen, certainly a teaspoon, it would freeze, and become solid and brittle like glass. Imagine if that happened in the alimentary canal or the stomach.

The liquid also quickly picks up heat, boils and becomes a gas, which could cause damage such as perforations or cause a stomach to burst,” he says.

Conclusion

Imagine.

A large number of molecular gastronomy fans are probably people who enjoy working out at the gym and regular detoxes.

Little do they know what they are ingesting and what the long term effects of those substances are.

What struck me were the following points:

– Joel Robuchon saying that some of these ingredients aren’t even legal in industrial food production;

– Michael Swamy’s warning that one of these dinners can give you a year’s worth of toxins in just one evening;

– The possibly fatal dangers of liquid nitrogen in the hands of someone who does not understand what he is doing when preparing a new kind of cocktail.

Caveat emptor! Consumer be warned!

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