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Molecular Gastronomy is just a long four-letter word

June 1st, 2009 · 32 Comments · Insane

Posted by Dave Arnold

“Molecular Gastronomy” is a term promoted far and wide by a French guy named Hervé This.  He is, to say the least, a controversial figure in the world where science meets cooking.  The press has latched onto the term, and it is currently in wide usage. People mainly use the term because it is easy.

Herve This (pronounced "Thees" not "this")

Hervé This (pronounced "Teess" not "this")

For a level-headed history of the term, and Hervé This’ brilliant marketing of it, see the timeline at the end of my June 2006 Food Arts Review of his book, Molecular Gastronomy. I think it will surprise most readers.

Here’s my disclaimer: a lot of my colleagues use and like the term Molecular Gastronomy – I don’t mean any disrespect to these people, especially my fellow bloggers.  I do, however, have a request regarding usage of the term: Stop. Please, stop. If you are referring to Hervé This and his ilk – fine, use it.  If you are referring to anyone who makes a living in the food industry, erase it from your vocabulary.  I hope the following reasoning will persuade you:

  1. It sounds repulsive. Why would you describe anything you are going to eat as molecular gastronomy?  Either word alone is bad – together, horror. Mr. This may think MG sounds good in French, but his ear for English may be biased – I’ve actually heard him say that he thinks the word “food” sounds bad. Don’t use gross terms to describe food. It’s bad salesmanship.
  2. It is either inaccurate or tautological. Either chefs are always “manipulating molecules,” or they hardly ever are. Chefs are usually just cooking.  Most of what is described as Molecular Gastronomy is actually just the use of new ingredients  or new pieces of equipment.
  3. The cooks and writers labeled as practitioners of Molecular Gastronomy almost universally detest the term: Ferran Adria, Wylie Dufresne, Grant Achatz, Heston Blumenthal, and Harold McGee, just to name a few.
  4. The chefs described as doing MG are, in fact, doing very different things.  Does anyone think WD-50’s food is similar to Alinea’s?  Wylie and Grant have two totally different approaches to food and the dining experience in general.
  5. The label is unnecessary and capriciously applied. Johnny Iuzzini at Jean Georges uses all the techniques that the MG crowd does, but no one finds it necessary to paste the MG label on him.  Truth is, all the four-star restaurants here in New York use many of the techniques that usually get slapped with the MG label. Actually, it seems the style of experience you get at a restaurant is what determines the label.  Dishes that are out-of-the-ordinary, super-creative, or push the boundaries of taste and texture often get the MG label, but many of those dishes can be done using traditional techniques.

Technology in the kitchen should be used in the advancement of deliciousness. Using a label like Molecular Gastronomy is a short-term marketing win, because reporters will write about it, but a long-term lose, because it makes technology seem like a fad.  It also sounds gross.  Call it something else.  Hell, use a random word, like techlicious (that’s a joke).

Really, we should use two terms.  People who do cutting-edge cooking, or avant-garde cooking, should be labeled as such, regardless of the technology they use.  People who use new culinary technologies should be labeled that way, no matter how traditional the dishes.

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32 Comments so far ↓

  • Frodnesor

    “Molecular gastronomy” seems to have gained some traction among mainstream media even as those who are its supposed proponents express their dissatisfaction with the term. I’ve also kicked around the nomenclature issue, without much resolution:

    http://www.foodforthoughtmiami.com/search/label/modern%20gastronomy?max-results=20

    You suggest two terms, but that assumes there is a rigid dividing line – I’m not quite sure what divides them, nor whether such lines can consistently be drawn any more. If it’s not technique or equipment, then what is it? Unorthodox ingredient combinations? Plating presentations? How unorthodox must they be? And even if you could draw that line, what two terms shall we use?

    The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced there’s “good cooking” and “bad cooking”.

    • Dave A

      I think you are correct. The proof is in the eating. The problem is, whenever I speak to people, they say, “well if I can’t call it Molecular Gastronomy, what can I call it?” I always say, without fail, that I’m aiming for delicious. Why don’t you call it delicious food?

      In my opinion, most of the best uses of technology are completely transparent to the customer. They shouldn’t need to know your technique to like the food.

      I was also interested in your post: You Must Remember This. I have a couple of comments. I have seen This speak on three or four occasions. He always makes a big deal about the difference between science, technology and craft. I have never understood why he cares so much about a semantic point like that, but he does. It is this separation (cooking as craft as opposed to MG as science) that allows This to say that chefs should not be labeled as doing MG. I and everyone else around me always agree that his protestations are disingenuous. He loves the association.

      It’s not that “more chefs are turning away from the word,” as you paraphrase This. Almost all the chefs and writers I know have ALWAYS hated the term –the media is just now catching on.

  • fabian

    I don’t mean any disrespect to these people, especially my fellow bloggers. I do, however, have a request regarding usage of the term: Stop. hahahaha i like that

  • Moody

    Well spoken, you hit the nail right on the head!

  • Seth Caro

    When I hear “Molecular Gastronomy”, I equate it to ambition. Inarguably there are better defined and more easily accessed paths to mastering “traditional” cooking. Never-mind for the moment that there are several “traditional” techniques that should by all means fall under then blanket of “molecular gastronomy” more accurately than many newer techniques that currently do.
    I think what most chefs who have have been slapped with the MG label share in common is a drive for improvement. A commitment to exploring their curiosities.
    Having worked with both “traditional” and “modern” chef’s, I can tell you with some regularity which one gets more sleep. There are not many chefs who have tested their braise in a sous vide environment at several different temperatures and times who had not previously executed a traditional braise ad nauseam (although this looks as though it may change in a couple generations, if the current FCI curriculum is to be taken as indication).
    I am chiefly concerned with my own education and edification, and to that end the the label of “molecular gastronomy” is extremely useful: it lets me know what I need to pay close attention to and what I don’t.
    Never let someone tell you that your personal ambition is pretentious.

    • Dave A

      The FCI curriculum still advocates learning the traditional braise “ad nauseam,” and will continue to do so. The career program has a small section on low temperature and sous-vide cooking because it is so important in kitchens these days, but the curriculum is overwhelmingly classic in focus (in terms of techniques). Our advanced studies courses are, of course, another matter entirely!

  • Eelco

    Don’t use the term for cooking: isn’t this just what This says nowadays?

  • Keith

    If you do a news search on LexisNexis, or similar, you get about 8 hits for ‘Molecular Gastronomy’ before Heston Blumenthal latched on to the term. And thereafter it goes into the thousands.

    It seems pretty strange that Blumenthal who basically hijacked Thís and MacGee’s work for his own self-promotion, now claims not to like the term and to be doing something quite different.

  • Mats

    You need to call chefs who today use spherification, sous-vide, pacojet, nitrogen, etc. something. Just like nouvelle cuisine was used some decades ago for a certain approach. Then time passes and some of the techniques/approaches survive and morph and the label disappears. Personally, I don’t see why we can’t call it MG at the moment even if it isn’t totally accurate for some reason. I haven’t heard a better suggestion. It’s just a word, or am I missing something?

  • chad

    I am not aware of anyone out there who’s job title reads as ‘molecular gastronomist’… sounds about as funny as ‘grand lord master of all creation’ or something equally silly.
    Maybe we should also look past the need for labeling and look into the shear fascination with these acts of showmanship (smoky LN2 oozing from a steel bowl, glass vases towering with bubbles fed by air pumps, feats of seemingly impossible gastronomic inventiveness and gimmickry, lasers… freakin’ lasers for Christ’s sake… where does that fit in?). Perhaps they are fed by the restaurant guest’s love for pageantry and display (ooo’s and aaah’s) longed for since the days of haute cuisine?
    What a great day it will be when these silly tricks become as comical as the sizzling fajita platter or desserts with sparklers jammed into their canned whipped topping. Then we can just use these amazing new ideas and techniques to make food better in the truly transparent and noble manner they deserve.

  • Frodnesor

    Herve This’ protestations always remind me of Bones from Star Trek – “Dammit Jim, I’m a scientist, not a chef!” I assume you saw, incidentally, that This himself is now declaring “molecular gastronomy” dead in favor of Cuisine Rénovée? Somehow I don’t think that helps.

    Incidentally, I agree that most chefs tagged with “MG” label never associated themselves with the term. It’s only that lately the media has come to do so.

  • John Sconzo

    A term that has received some favor in Spain and was formally presented last year at Madrid Fusión, is Technoemotional Cooking coined by the Catalan food critic, Pau Arenos. It has not caught on so far on this side of the Atlantic and seems to have stalled on the other side as well. At this year’s MF, Ferran, Heston, Andoni, Harold and others made a very strong argument against the term. While no real alternative was offered in that talk, ferran later told me that he still likes Arenos’ Technoemotional (it sounds better in Spanish).

    • Dave A

      Yeah. Doesn’t sound so good in English. Its also way too long. My acid test is this: does it sound like someting I want to go eat? Hey honey, lets go out for Morrocan, or maybe some Barbeque? Lets go to a fancy 4 star. All sound good. Wanna go out for some Technoemotional food? I’ll pass.

  • Juan Castillo

    I’m completely agree with you. It is the first time that I read some article relationated with the bad employement of the MG word.

  • Joe MacBu

    Someone better take Dave Arnold’s name off the wikipedia MG page.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molecular_gastronomy

  • Patricio Wise

    I agree on the term not being used to describe modern equipment and techniques being used to enhance delicousness (McGee), and with several other comments regarding the labeling during the time in which everything is considered “relatively” new… but also as someone said… what is the fine line to divide the two labels you propose?

    • Seth Caro

      I mean, as was said above there is not a 4 star restaurant in NY that doesn’t have a shelf full of food gums and hcolloids. So its not even modern cooking anymore; its current cooking. Or just “cooking”, if you will.
      I would call restaurants like WD-50 “avante garde” if anything, more for the philosophy and style than the techniques employed (if drawing a comparison to the visual art world is of any use). Of course to the average diner that would sound no more appealing than MG, but that’s sort of what it is.
      In better restaurant economies I think its ok to not appeal to absolutely everybody under the sun. I’m sure even in NYC once the ship rights it self there will be a happy place for MG and avante garde cooking again, and chefs won’t have to worry so much about the implications of words.

  • JohnTheBastard

    I have all of the same complaints against the term “molecular mixology.”

    • Dave A

      Me too only more so. At least molecular gastronomy was invented to “sound scientific” so that a series of workshops could be held at an austere science venue in Erice, Sicily. What’s the excuse with molecular mixology?

  • Vidiot

    Point taken. Banished!

  • joesan

    I don’t like the way the tides go in and out everyday either – let’s stop that too…

    The point being language usage is a natural phenomena and people will call it whatever they want to call it. If the majority of people want to call it MG that’s what it’s de facto called. Doesn’t matter if a few souls wish it wasn’t referred to as that.

    The name doesn’t change the deliciousness or the art of it so I say don’t worry about it.

    Keep Calm and Carry On Cooking…

    • Dave A

      I don’t think so. Language is a natural phenomenon, but the only way it changes is by getting people to change their usage. That’s how it changes. If the very people who are being described find it derogatory, doesn’t that mean something? There are many terms that were once “popular” to describe someone’s race that are now so offensive that I won’t even type them. Language changes because people, one at a time, start changing their usage of it.

      The reason I worry about using this term is that it is ACTUALLY DAMAGING. The word is used as a hook by some, attention-hungry critics to pan a whole group of cooks for the excesses of a few. I met a critic once who introduced me to a group he was with as “the science guy” at the school (even though I’m no scientist).

      Immediately, he slapped the MG label on me and asked in a caustic and sarcastic tone if I was going to sous-vide and dehydrate some squid and make ice cream out of it. This is the kind of crap cooks have to deal with. When people write about food and make it sound sterile, cold, lab-like, gross, or silly, it has an impact. How many times have you heard, “yeah, molecular cooking… that was big like three years ago, but now it’s passé.” I hear it a lot. How crazy is that? I don’t want anyone shying away from new techniques and technologies because of the effects of nonsensical label.

      • joesan

        Dave – you make valid points and I can understand your personal frustration but I think it will be a hard slog to turn the mass media around on this one.

        Even among aficionados there’s a problem because if I want to collectively refer lovingly to the oeuvre of Adria, Blumenthal etc. which phrase do I use? There’s only really one and that’s MG. Technoemotional sounds as contrived to me as MG and is just not sticking in the way that MG is. It’s like when people started calling this decade the “Noughties” loads of people hated it, it stuck and now it doesn’t sound so bad – one gets used to these things.

        I assume that you don’t mind the word Gastronomy so it’s probably the Molecular part that annoys you. But all cooking is molecular so what’s the big deal? If you don’t like the scientific associations it doesn’t help that your latest posting shows the brilliant usage of a technical centrifuge directly obtained from a laboratory.

        But obviously the problem is one of perception here – an uneducated public hear the phrase Molecular Gastronomy and think science, additives , sous vide and lab equipment. All of which is part of this thing that is currently called MG. But there is so much more to it than that. We know that but how to tell the public? I think that education is more important here than mere terminology.

        My argument is that it might be pretty hard just to forbid others from calling it that because the majority have shown they already have a pre-disposition to doing so. If we really want it to happen we’d also pretty much have an alternative that all the main players agree on.

        Personally for me the amazing work that has been created by the proponents of what we currently call MG is so much more important than any issues of nomenclature.

        • Dave A

          Joesan-
          I agree that the work is more important than the nomenclature. I also agree technoemotional is hokey (really hokey). I’m not that fond of “gastronomy” –as a pursuit, great; to describe my dinner, not so much.

          Your point: “Even among aficionados there’s a problem because if I want to collectively refer lovingly to the oeuvre of Adria, Blumenthal etc. which phrase do I use?” is valid. There is a group of people who have been using MG some time, like it, and like the food. On the other hand, look at the term from the outside. Look at how it is used by other people. Look how it marginalizes. As someone who sometimes talks to rooms full of skeptics, the term, and what it implies in people’s minds, does real damage. I end up spending the majority of my time explaining that the use of new techniques isn’t the same as the creation of avant-garde dishes. I can use circulators, a vacuum machine, a homogenizer, etc and just make a better hamburger. People don’t get that. They hear MG and they think of a plate of brightly colored gels with some smoke wafting around.

          As you say, the most important goal is to educate JQ Public about the benefits of new techniques; but why do it with an inaccurate, cold, gross term? MG is great salesmanship for news stories, terrible for actually selling food (and that’s what we are really trying to do, sell food to people).

          I don’t think anyone should try and force people to stop using MG. My point is: if you think this word shouldn’t be used to describe your food (because it sounds gross); and if the term allows you to be portrayed as part of a “current fad” instead of just a cook in the pursuit of deliciousness; and if you think the term is doing long-term damage, just take the time to not use it and to tell others (especially reporters) why you don’t like it. I talk to students, chefs, media people, etc all the time and I never, ever, use the term MG. The only time I use it is in discussions like this where I’m trying to convince people to stop using it.

          I’ll tell you this: I think we are slowly steering the ship away from the term. Three years ago, a reporter would assume I liked MG. Most of them now at least know that the term is controversial.

          I think the reason its so hard to come up with an alternative is because there cannot be a simple replacement term. MG is an inaccurate term applied to very different people doing a wealth of very different things. Any simple replacement would be equally misapplied. I tend to use words like “cutting edge,” which is merely OK, but gets the point across. Sometimes I use “avant garde” when talking about chefs who not only push technique, but also flavor, texture, serving ideas, etc. At the risk of sounding like a guy in a high-school band telling people, “don’t label my music, dude,” I don’t think we need a replacement at all. I think we can all continue to work without a label.

  • Jan Groenewold

    Interesting discussion. I don’t think one can hold Herve This responsible for the term MG being employed for a cooking style. Indeed as he has explained over and over again, it is a branch of food-science that focusses on small and medium scale food preparation. That is what you mean by “Herve This and his ilk”, I suppose.

    In my view, the current misuse of the term is entirely due to the succesful chefs that have initially embraced it and – indeed – the media.

    I say, now the term is there, stick to it and use it to explain that it is the field that combines science and cooking. This will be everlasting. Unfortunately at the MF no definitive alternative was given by the criticasters; this is really a missed chance ! All we can do now is wining about it. I always say that the ‘molecular’ chefs prefer to be called ‘avant-gardists’ … but that will not last either I expect.

    • Dave A

      This has a way of covering all his bases when he speaks. While he does say over and over that MG is not cooking, and that he is “only a lowly scientist,” the next minute he’ll immediately start publicizing a collaboration he is doing with Gagniere or launch into a discussion of newfangled applications (craft, in his terms), etc.

      This constantly says he invented (along with Dr. Kurti) a new branch of science, namely MG. Never mind that McGee’s seminal work was published in 1984, or that people have been worried about the same problems for hundred of years. This relegates them all to being “precursors to MG.” I actually heard him say once that, “Molecular Gastronomy did not exist prior to 1988, because that’s when I invented the term” – forget that MG doesn’t appear on any of the of the Erice organizers correspondence till 1991. This statement shows This’s strange fascination with semantics. He is basically claiming that the field didn’t exist because the current name that This tirelessly promotes hadn’t yet been coined. Maybe I should rename physics “Fusicks” and say I have invented a new branch of science.

      What’s also interesting is the idea of chefs liking the term initially, and then rebelling against it. I can only speak for the people I know, but a lot of chefs have always hated the term. I know some chefs originally did use it when, at the beginning, it merely meant you went to the workshops. Raymond Blanc, of Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, was, according to McGee, one of the very first chefs who embraced his book (prior to MG). He also attended the MG workshops. He is a firm believer in the application of science to cooking (I interviewed him in 2006 for a Food Arts article). Chef Blanc is actually interested in Molecular Gastronomy. He has had to distance himself from the term as it has become a mere marketing term that is applied to any cook doing cutting-edge work. No one would describe Blanc as a Molecular Gastronomy guy.

      To be blunt, you don’t need to know any science at all to make caviar balls out of alginate. You can just follow the recipe. Nowadays, that makes you a “molecular chef,” which is worse than meaningless; it tarnishes those chefs who are just trying to advance the cause of good food by using new techniques.

      The term is only here to stay because people keep using it.

      • Jan Groenewold

        I can see that for chefs this term is potentially damaging. I would too fight against it, if I were a chef. It would prove useful to come up with a good alternative term and a strategy to force the media to change their attitude towards it. I, for one, tirelessly, explain it to the local media.

        Since I am not a chef, I understand Herve’s point of view, to reserve MG for the science part. Gagnaire for instance doesn’t use the term either.

        The overall (negative) sentiment against Herve is a bit overdone in my opinion. OK, he is not extremely modest, but a great deal of chefs have just as big or even bigger ego’s. The top-guys are also much more known than him by the general public. In my view Herve is really doing some fantastic work. So is Harold McGee, so are you guys , ….

        PS Dave; I’ll be in NYC 13-18th june (this is quite exceptional). Would like to meet you in person. However, I cannot find any email adress anywhere so I try to get contact with you it via the blog. My adress: chemist@cookandchemist.com

  • Nate

    Many good points in this discussion, I’d like to offer one I don’t see made very often.

    I hear and read many say that “Molecular Gastronomy” in essence gives their cuisine a bad name and indeed that may be the case to a certain degree. It may also be the case that the mere connection between food and science turns off another set of people and this is understandable, especially if they have little knowledge of the subject.

    Though it is possible that many people have less of a problem with the term “Molecular Gastronomy” and less people have a problem with science in cooking (especially in Alton Brown style terms) and that more people have a problem with the cuisine itself – by any name.

    To put it more simply, right or wrong, some people have a problem with deep fried fish skeletons wrapped in cotton candy, and if you call that Molecular Gastronomy – then they have a problem with Molecular Gastronomy, if you call that XYZ then they have a problem with XYZ.

    But if you demonstrate the affect of alkaline conditions in dough to explain how ramen noodles or Chinese hand pulled noodles are made and explain the science behind it and call that Molecular Gastronomy or XYZ then less people flinch.

    People flinch if you call salt “sodium chloride” until you explain to them that it is just a scientific name for salt – then they say “oh, ok”. But if sodium chloride was actually something strange, they would still flinch, the definition of strange being something they are unfamiliar with and perceive as potentially harmful or gross, regardless if it is harmful, gross or not.

    So while it is true that science in cooking turns some people off and that in some cases the term “Molecular Gastronomy” gives the cuisine a bad name, this does not take away the fact that in the eyes of some – it is the cuisine that gives the cuisine a bad name and in many cases – the cuisine gives both the science of food and “Molecular Gastronomy” a bad name.

    Is the name of the cuisine the problem in the mind of the people, or is the cuisine (particularly the more extreme examples) the problem?

  • slkinsey

    Usually the name that is assigned to any movement, aesthetic, philosophy or group is not assigned by the originators or central figures of that group. Praga and Boito didn’t wake up one day and say, “let’s call this thing we’re doing here ‘scapigliatura’ and we’ll call ourselves and others like us ‘scapigliati.'” Someone else came up with that idea. Inevitably, once a name is assigned two things will happen: (1) some members of the movement will decide that they don’t like the name and propose that they call it something else; and (2) some people so-classified will not want to be pigeon-holed or defined by the label, and will protest that their work doesn’t really belong together with the others in this group. It’s a regular as death and taxes.

    Yes, all cooking involves changing molecules and therefore involves chemistry. Yes, we have been using these industrial food chemicals and techniques for a very long time. Yes, people have been figuring out how to produce novel and interesting culinary effects for a long time. We get all this.

    But the fact remains that there exists a certain culinary practice that has come about in relatively recent times that says “we will use these chemicals and non-traditional/industrial cooking and food preparation techniques to produce effects that will surprise and amuse in unique and heretofore unknown and impossible ways that will, nevertheless, have a certain aesthetic coherence as a group.” This needs a name. Or, rather, whether or not it needs a name, it’s getting one. We can cry and complain about it as much as we want, but the fact is that using a rotavap to make non-spicy habanero vodka and then using a strong vacuum to infuse that liquor into cucumber so that one “eats the cocktail,” or turning out a White Russian in the form of breakfast sereal… these things have more in common with what Wylie Dufresne and Grant Achatz are doing from a basic aesthetic and philosophical standpoint than they do with what Audrey Saunders and Julie Reiner are doing.

    So you can’t say, “it’s all mixology” or “it’s all just cooking.” Because any person can tell that it isn’t. Taking all the hard fat and sinew out of a chuckeye roast, rebinding it together with activa, cooking it sous-vide and then incorporating it into a “regular” sort of dish? This is not “molecular gastronomy.” It’s the sort of thing they might do at Blue Hill. Clearly there is something more to what makes something MG than simply using certain equipment, techniques and ingredients.

    Ultimately it seems useless, futile and a little silly to argue over the name of the movement. History says that none of these people will be the ones to decide. Some people won’t like being placed under that rubric, and some will argue whether certain people belong or don’t belong. That’s the way it goes with these things.