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Dr. Frankenstein, meet Julia Child

Marketplace Staff Jan 18, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Cooking good food is an art. But it’s becoming a science, too. In a trend that’s called molecular gastronomy.

Think of it as Dr. Frankenstein meets Julia Child. And as strange and unappetizing as it might sound, its given rise to some of the world’s most prestigious restaurants.

The Fusion Food Summit wraps up today in Madrid, Spain. And we sent Jerome Socolovsky to see what all the fuss is about.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: A young man with a baby face and freckles leans over a pan full of brown goo. He’s 32-year-old Grant Achatz, one of America’s top avant-garde chefs.

And he’s getting ready for his performance. He says he’s going to turn his goo into a perfumed dish called “The Aromatic Handle.” Get ready for it.

GRANT ACHATZ: We’re taking a pretty traditional caramel, forming it around a 10-inch-long cinnamon stick, and it has the addition of some preserved Meyer lemon. And then we tempura fry that. And then we slightly torch the end of the cinnamon. So it starts to smolder.

Ok, so it’s not apple pie. But Grant assures me it will taste great. He developed this recipe using “molecular gastronomy.” That means scientifically deconstructing the ingredients to create innovative flavors.

And people at Alinea, his restaurant in Chicago, are willing to pay for this kind of stuff. $195 for a 24-course menu, including things like mango duck on a pillow of juniper air. Or a piece of bacon wrapped in butterscotch dangling from a steel bow.

ACHATZ: Of course you charge for it. You know. And you’re not charging. . . in some cases you’re charging for ingredients and artisan products and all that stuff, but, you’re also charging for. . . the art of it. You’re charging for the creativity. You’re charging for, like, the experience that guests can have.

That machine you hear in the background is not a lathe or industrial saw. It’s a mixer. A fancy one. It can actually control the temperature of the contents it’s blending.

You need some pricey equipment to cook this high-tech food. A complete kitchen can easily cost around a million dollars. But that hasn’t stopped chefs from clamoring to get into the field.

Many universities have even started offering degrees in the subject. And at the signature annual gathering today, the number of star chefs has jumped 30 percent in just a few years.

At this year’s show, the rock star of molecular gastronomy is British chef Heston Blumenthal. He saunters into the convention center lounge in a vintage-look leather jacket, suntanned and fit. He’s the owner of the Fat Duck, outside London. It’s been rated the “Best Restaurant in the World” by Restaurant Magazine.

Blumenthal holds court and talks about his latest passion, the science of taste. For example, the human mouth has 21 different receptors for bitter. Some people — he calls them “supertasters”— can distinguish them all.

HESTON BLUMENTHAL: Research into that actually takes a lot of time and money. So what you gotta then do is look at being. . . keeping the business strong. You’ve got to find other ways of doing it. For me, the whole multisensory side of things is what I’m absolutely fascinated in.

But at the end of the day, molecular gastronomy is just another way of cooking, says Chicago chef Grant Achatz.

ACHATZ: You know, you can talk about manipulation. You can talk about, you know, deconstruction and all the techniques that revolve around this modern cuisine, this forward thinking cuisine. But at the end of the day, it’s food.

Even if it doesn’t always look like food.

In Madrid, I’m Jerome Socolovsky for Marketplace

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