Thursday, June 4, 2009

Taking food to the edge

Put two words together and you’ve grabbed my attention instantly: emotion and food. Followers of KRConnect will know that I am a passionate collector of great dining experiences. Over the years some of these have taken place in acclaimed restaurants, many in the homes of friends, and a fair few in simple eateries that I have chanced upon in my travels. Such diversity is fantastic because the top-end trendsetters often go on to influence and shape the food experiences and tastes of generations.

Now Washington might not leap out as a seedbed of innovative cuisine, but The Hartman Group is based there and they have recently published a trend study that makes fascinating connections between some of the most innovative cuisine of the past decade and the experiences they inspire. Hartman use the term "technoemotional" instead of the more common “molecular gastronomy” (one of the worst descriptors ever devised). Whatever you call it, we’re talking cuisine that uses sophisticated science to push the boundaries of what you can do with food.

The start point is obvious. One of the great changes in human history occurred over the past century or so when many technologies where invented to make food more palatable, consistent, easily distributed, and easier to prepare. Every food company had an army of food technologists inventing extraordinary products to attract consumers. In all this ferment, much of the restaurant industry stuck with traditional standards and techniques – there was certainly creativity but there was not a lot of innovation. Why weren’t these amazing technologies ever used by chefs to make their food more exciting? Why did food science always have to be in service of food simplicity? What superb combinations and effects lay untapped in the kitchen? Who were the chefs who would be confident enough to let science in the door of their kitchens and unleash new emotion?

Well, you’ll have already met some of them on television, in magazines and bookstores, and on this blog. When I posted my top restaurant reviews, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck was at the top of the list. Often jokingly called Professor Blumenthal, he has always understood that science and emotion are perfect partners in the kitchen. I have had meals at the Fat Duck that have stood my taste buds on end. Take last week for instance, where a 'Sounds of the Sea' theme brought together iPods, sand, sea birds (their calls, not their taste!), and fresh seafood. This was followed by the mystery of the forest involving a Lord Of The Rings-like sensory experience that engaged all five senses. Blumenthal's cookbook, which one could says is more suited to a laboratory than a kitchen, carries a steep price-tag. But if you want to go to the edge and beyond with your cooking, or simply your appreciation of cooking, it is a fantastic inspiration.