The tools of molecular gastronomy
Call it what you will – techno-emotional cuisine, molecular gastronomy, culinary deconstructionism, or any of the other terms it goes by – but the new wave of cuisine that has spread around the world from Paris, Catalonia, and the Basque regions of Spain has become a force to be reckoned with. One company that has been at the forefront providing the coveted tools for this new cuisine is based in Barcelona: ICC, or International Cooking Concepts. Its founder, Marc Calabuig, worked for his father's Spanish firm, importing and distributing supplies for the confectionary trade throughout Europe.
In 1996 Calabuig had a customer in Croatia that was using far more cream than expected, especially given that it was a small country recovering from a brutal war. He decided to visit the Croatian shop to determine what was driving these phenomenal sales, only to discover the customer was also selling an Austrian-made siphon (nitrogen-charged whipped-cream dispenser) that produced a whipped-cream texture loved by the Croatian public. Since the Austrian manufacturer had no Spanish distributor, Calabuig returned home with a distribution contract for the siphons.
Customers began telling Calabuig of a chef in Roses, Spain, just north of Barcelona, who was doing amazing things with siphons. It was Ferran Adrià at the restaurant El Bulli who had been making provocative foams out of everything, from meats, seafood, sauces, and vegetables to smoke. After several months, Calabuig decided a meeting was in order, and the two got along so well that a deal was struck to produce the first recipe book of foams, a proposition that served them both. Adrià and El Bulli got publicity, while Calabuig increased siphon sales.
With the success of the book and Adrià's reputation, sales of the Austrian siphons went through the roof, so much so that Calabuig saw the potential to start his own company in 1998: International Cooking Concepts (www.cookingconcepts.com/ENG). For a while ICC sold only the siphon and the Swiss-made Pacojet sorbetière, but ICC was gaining a reputation among New Wave chefs as being the company that sold weird kitchen machines and tools for very specific kitchen tasks.
Avant-garde chefs began to approach Calabuig with requests for function-specific utensils and small machines with exacting specifications. The Roner was their first collaboration. Chef Joan Roca wanted a bain-marie that could hold a precise temperature because the cooking water was constantly in circulation. This allowed the chef to cook pristine ingredients at exacting low temperatures to maintain their quality.
ICC gradually developed and manufactured several new machines, each in partnership with famous chefs, industrial laboratories, and even universities. The Fakircook Grill is a small flattop griddle on stubby legs, which is lined with stainless "nails." Once heated, meat or fish is placed on top of the nails, and it cooks in seconds, from the inside out, with no loss of juices or flavor. It is then browned with a handheld torch. Another breakthrough was the Gastrovac, which creates an artificial oxygen-free, heated vacuum that allows items to be cooked at lower heat and creates a "sponge" effect when it is turned off so that surrounding liquids are forced back into the item.
Another example is the Clarimax, developed in collaboration with chef Ángel León and the University of Cádiz. Resembling a small espresso machine, it forces liquids of any temperature through a disposable compressed disc of algae, instantly clarifying the broth while removing all fats and much of the cholesterol. No more chilling stocks or broths to get the fat to congeal on the surface so that it can be removed or swirling endlessly in circles with a ladle to remove fat from the top of a hot stock.
Calabuig's design process involves initial input from a chef or chefs who want a machine or tool for a very specific purpose. The ICC group then brainstorms about how that goal can best be accomplished and comes up with an industrial design for the product. Mock-ups are produced, changes are made, and then the prototypes are produced and sent out to a select group of chefs all around the globe for evaluation over an extended period of time. During this time, they come up with alternate uses or modifications that could improve the product. Once changes are incorporated, the new product can be sent to be manufactured. The whole process can take as long as three years from start to finish.
ICC now makes some 25 different tools and machines for the technologically conscious chef, including the Freshlife Sprouter, a totally cool automated hydroponic sprouter for producing any kind of sprouts, and the ThermoWhip, an insulated siphon that will hold hot or cold liquids ready to foam for three hours. In their Premium Food and Beverages category, they have additives which aid spherification (a controlled jellification method to produce edible spheres or pillows from foods), emulsifiers, texturizers, and Xantana, a new thickener which doesn't dilute taste. They even produce Fever-Tree Old World tonic, bitter lemon, and ginger ale.
ICC also holds workshops where batteries of chefs are brought in from all over the world to receive training on the use of the tools and machines. Last year they brought some 2,500 chefs into their labs for demos, not counting their outreach programs abroad. There are plans in the near future to launch Hobbychef, a company to sell cooking utensils, tools, and machines to individuals, and to organize classes for both professional and amateur chefs.
The way Calabuig looks at it, this new cuisine is merely another way to produce food, and his tools and machines are no different from a high-quality chef's knife or a well-designed chef's jacket. Molecular chefs are still seeking out the freshest and best local ingredients and are just as concerned with making food taste delicious, although there is more concern with playfulness and interaction with the diner. The big difference is in how that food is produced, and that's where ICC really shines.
One quality of the molecular chef is to creatively explore existing tools and machines that might have applicable uses in the kitchen. An example is Ferran Adrià's use of the cotton-candy machine to produce a multitude of different flavors of spun foods. Critics have raved about the El Bulli piña colada topped with sweet coconut silk, for example. It would be enough to make any sideshow carny proud. A casual glance through the pages of High Times magazine will reveal ads for vaporizing infusers, which were adopted from science to extract smoke-free psychoactive vapor from bits of high-end sinsemilla buds but are now also used to inject spice-scented air into dishes. Industrial food additives are being re-examined, including tapioca maltodextrin and carrageenan, modified food starches that thicken and stabilize fatty compounds, or sodium alginate, used to encapsulate foods to make spheres.
One company that has manufactured chemical laboratory heating and cooling equipment since 1963, PolyScience, is now discovering the value of the new avant-garde kitchen as lab. They have a fairly new division called Cuisine Technology (www.cuisinetechnology.com) that deals primarily with sous vide and low temperature cooking applications; their Antigriddle can take foods to 30 degrees below in seconds, for example. Their Smoking Gun is an innovative handheld smoke infuser with countless uses. Something tells me that there will be many more culinary innovations coming from PolyScience in the near future.